Called by the natural world
Survivor and activist Aron Ralston visits Durango

SideStory: Slideshow benefits Friends of Wolf Creek

Aron Ralston stands atop Mount Eolus, a 14,083 peak in the Needles Mountains, north of Durango, in March 2005. The peak is the last of 59 above 14,000 feet that Ralston climbed solo between the winters of 1997-2005, amking him the first-known person to do so. Ralston, who is famous for severing his own arm after becoming trapped in a remote Utah canyon, will be speaking in Durango on Thursday night./Photo courtesy of Aron Ralston.

by Amy Maestas

Even when Aron Ralston perches alone on a 14,000-foot summit, he’s not really alone.

First, he is accompanied by his inner voices. One of them – the oft-nagging voice of reason – urges him to embrace caution over triumph, to accept vincibility. The other voice is the motivator – the one that propels him to repeated pleasurable thrills of victory.

Second, Ralston’s solo acts – which many people incorrectly assume are original forays into the wilderness – blend into the shadows of other great naturalists who came before him. John Muir. Everett Ruess. Ed Abbey. So even as Ralston stands as a speck among a commanding Colorado couloir, and even though his backcountry japes are uniquely his own, they still are historically ordinary.

Third, there is his fame. Today when Ralston sets out on a wilderness journey, he does so under the watchful eye of a world full of worrywarts. After all, Ralston’s resurrection from a remote southern Utah slot canyon in April 2003 thrust him into a spotlight that dims when he’s playing armchair explorer but brightens almost blindingly when he leaves, alone, for any outdoor adventure.

It is, however, the solitude of nature and the idea of accomplishing a fete heretofore undone that takes Ralston on to his next quest. Even as he takes the voices, the history and the unyielding concern of the world with him, ultimately Ralston is physically alone.

His latest fete, not to be eclipsed by the fateful day in Blue John Canyon, is summiting all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot-plus peaks. In the winter. Alone. By official mountaineering counts, there are 54 in Colorado. But as Ralston explains, that number is debatable. The Colorado Mountaineering Club classifies Fourteeners as those whose summits rise 300 feet above the saddle connecting it with a higher mountain. Yet the U. S. Geological Survey uses a different classification system and identifies 59 Fourteeners in Colorado.

So as not to be challenged – in the records or on foot – the overachieving Ralston went with the USGS list. And over the course of seven winters, one by one he placed tick marks next to the names of Colorado’s peaks and became the first person to do so during the winter.

‘A calling’

Ralston began his Fourteeners project in 1997. Each winter his working window was a short three months. To qualify for winter-climbing status, he could hike only between Dec. 21 and March 21.

That left enough obstacles, snow and biting-cold to adhere to his set of project rules. Each year he climbed 10 or 12 peaks.

When the 2003-04 winter rolled around, there was a new obstacle for Ralston: himself. By now, everyone knows Ralston as the proverbial survivor. He gained worldwide attention in April of that year after a solo hike in Utah nearly ended his life. Ralston left his home in Aspen and headed to the canyon, where he ditched his mountain bike and began wending his way through a red rock slot. Unexpectedly, a massive 800-pound boulder, which appeared securely wedged in a crevice, shifted and crushed his right hand against the wall. Ralston was trapped.

He was 8 miles from his truck. He had not shared his trip plans with anyone. He had packed only a day’s worth of food. And the route he took was secluded and seldom hiked. The possibility of rescue was shockingly low.

Six days passed. After exhausting ideas on how to free himself, Ralston eventually took a drastic measure. He pulled out his multi-tool and slowly, deliberately, cut off his own arm.

And as dreadful as this was, it provided the impetus for him to complete another task in his life, as well.

“That incident drove me to finish my (Fourteeners) project,” Ralston explained earlier this week during a telephone interview from Aspen.

Upon returning from Blue John Canyon, Ralston faced mixed reactions – many celebrated his survival, but equally as many criticized his lack of safety. For an avid outdoorsman, people questioned his sanity, especially after he began cementing his plans for completing his Fourteeners project. Though some outdoor enthusiasts might second-guess their aspirations, Ralston trudges on.

“There was no way I could abandon the project after that,” he said. “I look at it as a calling, a passion. The better part of my spirituality was grounded in these experiences.”

A citizen’s mandate

Ralston says he was a canyoneering neophyte when he started the project in 1997. He had little experience as a solo peak bagger. In writing recently about his first winter Fourteener ascent – Quandary Peak – Ralston recounts his attempt to navigate his two-wheel-drive, mini-SUV along a snow-packed forest road to begin his hike. He was dressed in layers of cotton clothing, which once drenched with sweat clung icily to his body.

“To say I was underqualified at the outset would be euphemistic; I was an overambitious kid, with far more enthusiasm than talent or skill,” he explains.

To boot, Ralston had relatively little medical emergency training to ensure his safety. Today, he emphasizes to his new audience the importance of experience and education.

“I was really into risks … and to testing myself and my mettle.”

In fact, he still is. It’s part of the reason he worked diligently during his physical rehabilitation. He is driven, he says, by the “miracles of the natural world” and his unwavering love affair with winter wilderness.

But now, as an experienced mountaineer, he is coupling his messages of safety and risk-taking with wilderness conservation. Ralston says in the past few years he has looked to his mentor, Colorado’s celebrated nature photographer John Fielder, for guidance in becoming environmentally active. He knows that the many admirers, and even critics, are listening to and watching him intently, so Ralston is finding forums to teach about the fragility of the natural world and looming threats to it.

He is now working with nonprofit conservation groups whose focuses are preserving open space and minimizing the impacts of an expanding world. Most important, Ralston says, is that these organizations and their supporters be proactive in their visions.

“It is our citizens’ mandate to hold government agencies (responsible for wilderness conservation) accountable.”

Ralston said the pressing needs for conservation were underscored while trying to access some of the Fourteeners. Often, he found public land blocked by private property or decades-old access agreements between people and government that still had sour-apples sentiments behind them. Since completing his project, Ralston has been lending his stories to organizations that allow him and the scores of other wilderness users to pursue their limits.

“I think everyone can understand, even in the abstract, the need for conservation,” Ralston said.

That’s another idea that keeps Ralston, standing at 14,000 feet, from being there alone. •