The outdoor "moron’ inside each of us
His adventure in the Utah Canyonlands was remarkable. Scaling a pitch in a slot, he got his right hand pinned by a giant loose boulder. Eventually, he snapped both lower arm bones and gnawed the arm off with a dull utility knife, then rappelled down 60 feet and hiked nearly six miles out to his rescue five and a half days after he was trapped alone.
As a story, it’s irresistible. Who isn’t fascinated by it? Of course the news media came from far and wide to cover this. Some of the fawning nature of the fanfare is a bit much. For all the kid’s wit and luck escaping a tough fate, getting himself in trouble was pretty foolish.
Taking on the risks of canyoneering, including technical climbing, by himself without letting anyone know his travel plans has earned him criticism from folks in and out of the adventure game.
Since alighting in Aspen six months ago, the corporate refugee has gotten himself neck deep in an avalanche – at least he had friends with him or there wouldn’t have been a Canyonlands adventure – among some rather reckless acts in the wilds. Scott Willoughby lays it out in a fine column last Friday in The Vail Trail, with thumbnail anecdotes about Ralston getting fingers frostbitten on one trip, and risking being trapped in an avalanche-prone gully on another just to save a glove not long after having to be dug out of the snow.
Face it, the fellow shows little resembling this “elite” “expert” outdoorsman as some would portray him. Keystone climber sounds more like it.
Even the adulation about courage seems a bit off. Let’s see, lose your lower arm or, um, die. Your choice. You don’t think desperation had a hand in this?
And yet Ralston kept his head, worked logically in his attempts to free himself, bore his pain and survived. There is something here to admire, for sure.
I think there’s something else animating the reaction to his story, though. The head-shaking, I understand easily enough, and it comes from outdoorsy and even hardy mountain rescue folks as well as the armchair types.
But there’s also a rather romantic wonder at this maverick who eschews society’s cloistering safety net to live his passion, on his terms. I can understand that, too.
Alan Braunholtz explored this aspect in his column Saturday. So far, I think we’ve received four letters to the editor, split evenly between criticism and praise for the guy. My personal favorite reaction is a Tipsline call we’ll publish later in the week asserting Don Rogers is the moron, not Aron Ralston. Perhaps.
Braunholtz nudges at key questions: Who hasn’t taken risks that couldn’t be second-guessed as foolish later? At what point is venturing alone in the outdoors wrong? How much, exactly, do we let safety rule our lives?
Ouch. Mirror time: I have backpacked alone. Camped too close to the ocean, and was trapped in the tent by that rogue wave to ram the lesson home. Ran and hiked solo all the time. I used to sail a tippy sailing dinghy called a Laser alone well out past Oahu’s Diamond Head, the better to catch the wind and open-ocean swells on the return, and later sailed the same type of boat offshore Santa Barbara without telling anyone.
I routinely body surfed a quarter-mile out over a coral reef until my legs cramped, and board surfed alone, in at-times brutish surf. I’ve scrambled up and down rock faces I probably shouldn’t have. And I once came a step from eternity while thinking about fording a creek I thought was just a few feet deep. I learned later it was a good 12 to 15 feet, judging by the boulders I walked under during the dry season.
Do I regret the adventures? Nope. I learned from each one, as well as from the more organized affairs firefighting and sailboat racing in elements that don’t care whether you live or die getting in their path.
I do sense this climber carries it a mite far. I do see a recklessness that betrays an unbecoming lack of respect or perhaps lack of awareness of nature’s forces.
I hear my dad, a lifelong ocean man, and his admonishments about never turning your back on the sea, advice that applies to the mountains as well. And I understand his cheers when I washed out of smokejumping training with a blown knee, now that I have children of my own.
The undercurrent to Aron Ralston’s misadventure in the Canyonlands is deeper and murkier than our kneejerk reactions – including mine – to his story.
Dumb luck is a wild card. And for most of us, thankfully, we have the good fortune to ponder the unanswerable question of how we would handle the card that Mother Nature handed him.
Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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