Blue John Canyon

Aron Ralston Accident Site

March 15 - 16, 2005

Dave Svilar, Jill Wolverton

 

 

I hate the "outdoor sports" section at Barnes and Noble.  In fact, I usually skip it for the magazine rack.  At some point I just became tired of seeing "epic survival" stories of another idiot on Mt Everest.  Or the type of person who takes only a power bar and a windbreaker to climb a 10,000' Himalyan face.  Finding a truly authentic survival story, such as Ernest Shakleton's aborted journey to the South Pole, are difficult to find.  What's adventure without cannibalism ("Alive") or at the very least dismemberment...

Yes, the first time I heard of Aron Ralston's predicament was a message received from my mother while the Redhead and I were on a climbing trip to the desert.  "Davey, are you okay?  It's Mom.  A man just cut off his own arm to save himself in the desert.  Please stay away from large, horrible rocks."  Ever since this frantic message from my mother I have had a curiosity to find out more about what happened to Aron Ralston in Blue John Canyon during April of 2003.

Ralston finally published a book, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" describing his traumatic experience of being trapped by a chockstone, and escaping after six days by amputating his own right hand.  For spring break Jill and I took a trip to the desert that, due to my severely sprained left ankle, became a retracing of Aron Ralston's epic experience.  For me, all great survival stories instill a desire to go and visit the location in which it occurred.  I've always wanted to retrace the steps of the two soccer players who hiked out of the Andes to find help in "Alive."  Indeed, the only thing that would interest me about Mt Everest would be the opportunity to pass frozen bodies.  We spent the first few days laying low in Arches while I found the pages Ralston's book turning with ease.  The book was extremely well written, and most importantly, I was keen to retrace his steps through Blue John, bad ankle or not.

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BURRRRR  Making use of my puffy coat Jill unloads the Toyota and enjoys a large bite of oatmeal for breakfast at the Burr Pass camp.

For anyone who has driven I-70 through Utah I would describe Green River as the "town in the middle of nowhere."  Large warning signs on the interstate caution about the last opportunity for gasoline.  From this remote town we pointed the Toyota south for over 50 miles on a dirt road to an area called the Robber's Roost.  Apparently this area received its named as a result of  famed outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who hid in this area in the 1800's.  Over 100 years later it probably doesn't look much different.  Beautiful rolling hills cris-crossed by narrow redrock canyons with the La Sal and Henry Mountains in the distance to provide directional reference.  In stark contrast to the zoo that is Moab, this area on the other side of Canyonlands is as remote an area as one could hope for in the lower-48.  It gives me comfort to think that if I were to commit an unfathomably terrible crime, there are still places to go and not be found.

Unfortunately, without bikes we weren't going to be able to retrace Aron's exact steps as we would have to hike almost 20 additional miles across the tabletop.  Therefore, the plan was to camp at Burr Pass (whatever that was), hike the road to a trail marked "cross country route" in Kelsey's guide, take the main fork of Blue John to the Big Drop, and then return to the Toyota via the West Fork of Blue John.  What we really cared about was the accident site.

After an instant oatmeal breakfast we hiked down the barren road admiring views of the Henry Mountains, and more than anything, simply enjoying the fact that we were so alone.  We took what appeared to be the cross country route, which turned out to be correct as it led us perfectly into the point where Blue John transforms from wash to canyon.  Upon entering the canyon we recognized the spot where Aron, accompanied by the two girls, slid on his heels and fell eight feet onto the sand.  By going to the right a few paces Jill and I were able to walk down into the canyon.

 
1. Sign marking a fork in the road  2. Intersection with Blue John

Almost immediately we were greeted by a slot that turned out to be harder than anticipated.  My ankle, which I had sprained bouldering the week before was still quite swollen and my toes were mostly purple (still hurts as I write this in late May).  I was hoping to keep any kind of scrambling and twisting of the ankle to a minimum, but that quickly proved impossible as we made several tricky downclimbs in the tight slot.  In less than the length of a football field the slot drops over 100 feet.  At one point we rigged a rappel for a tricky move over a chockstone.  The last bit of the technical slot required heinous flailing through a slot that was narrower than shoulder width.  A picture below shows Jill with here shoulders wedged in the slot and her feet dangling - a human chockstone.

1. Need a rope Jill?  2. Yes, that's better  3. Stemming maneuvers by Dave  4. Shoulder jam by Jill (human chockstone)

 

Dave and Jill admiring the towering walls of Blue John.

After spending too long on what was supposed to be an easy downclimb we enjoyed easy hiking through the narrow, but towering walls of Blue John.  Soon the scenic slot gave way to an open wash that made hiking more of a slog.  For the first time on our spring break trip we weren't cold, which made hiking in the sandy wash temporarily bearable.  After several miles of hiking, we rounded a corner and there appeared the s-log, which marked the entrance to the slot where Aron Ralston sat trapped for six days less than two years prior to our visit. 

Over the past few days I had become completely engrossed in Ralston's story, memorizing details so I could be sure and make note of them when Jill and I made our trip through the canyon.  During the course of the book I couldn't help but notice similarities between my life and Ralston's.  Both of us were of similar age, had quit well-paying jobs to move to a Colorado mountain town (Ralston to Aspen, me to Telluride), were avid outdoor enthusiasts, and had even done some of the same climbs (see North Face of Mt Shuksan).  Certainly I could relate to many aspects of his life, especially his tendency to leave on a trip to the outdoors without telling anyone else.  Blue John Canyon was well within Ralston's ability, and is a place I would have certainly ventured on my own without feeling the need to leave a note.  So, as Jill and I prepared to enter the canyon perhaps some of my butterflies were not only because the remote walls of this canyon observed an epic struggle for survival, but because that person could have easily have been me. 

S-LOG  Signature "chocklog" marking the entrance to the slot in which Ralston was trapped.

Able to recall obscure details from the book, I told Jill that the s-log, according to Ralston, was unreachable and we would have to jump the eight feet onto the sandy floor of the slot.  However, in the second instance in which we discovered Ralston making things more difficult for himself, we found that scrambling over to the s-log and then swinging into the slot was quite simple.  The slot began wider than my wingspan with walls no higher than two stories allowing copious amounts of light into the slot.  Things changed upon reaching the chockstone gauntlet, where an improbable amount of chockstones ranging in size from bulldozers to water coolers blocked the way forcing Jill and I to slide under and crawl over.  Following the chockstone guantlet the walls dramatically tightened and simultaneously rose so high that we were forced to turn on our headlamps to see in the pitch darkness.  After some minor scrambling and maneuvering we unexpectedly reached an abrupt end to the slot - the Big Drop.  Much like the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the tunnel ends at a cliff, the Blue John slot opens into a grotto 80 feet above the canyon floor.  Instead of rappelling over the Big Drop this would mark our turnaround point as we had to retrace our steps.  Peering over the side we could see the rancid pool below the drop in which Ralston drank after his amputation oblivious to the dead raven floating nearby.

BIG DROP  Abrupt ending of Blue John Canyon above an 80 foot cliff.  Ralston did the tricky rappel after being trapped for six days under a boulder with one candy bar, no warm clothing, drinking his own pee, and cutting off his hand. 

Our first reaction upon reaching the Big Drop was, "how did we miss the accident site?"  Even though we carefully looked for clues to where Ralston had been trapped we had unknowingly walked past.  I knew that Ralston had come back with Tom Brokaw (special Dateline T.V. show) and erased his initials that he had chipped on the wall while trapped - A.R. Oct 75 - APR 03  R.I.P (or something like that).  However, I thought that he had left "Geologic Time Happens Now" scribbled on the wall.  Moving back up the canyon we moved at a snail's pace searching for clues of "the spot."  Kicking myself for not bringing the book, I began to recall details that might help unearth the exact location.  I remember him being able to see the sky, which would eliminate the dark portion of the slot.  Not exactly Sherlock Holmes, I finally realized that the reason he was caught in the first place was a chockstone that had shifted onto his hand, meaning the only place it could be was the chockstone gauntlet.  Upon reaching the gauntlet I used the limited powers of my brain to recall the exact location from the pictures of the book.  It was the only place that fit the bill.

I was certain that we had found the boulder in which Ralston's hand had been trapped, so we searched every inch of the canyon walls, rocks on the canyon floor and even the boulder itself for artifacts of the struggle that had taken place in this spot less than two years previously.  We found nothing.  No eerie remnants of Ralston's battle with the rock and his own mortality.  Even though we knew this was the place there was absolutely no physical indication.  It seemed to be an anticlimactic end for our quest to the accident site.  After developing my slides I compared the pictures to those in Ralston's book and noticed that one of the chockstone's that he rigged his harness to was missing and that the fateful chockstone had been shifted (see photos below).  I imagine that the shifting was a result of the crew that came in to remove his hand from the chockstone.

Just a curious side note...  Slots change year to year and even flood to flood from the incredible forces created by a lot of water rushing through not very much space.  Even so, it seemed to us to be an odd place to have an accident.  In his book Ralston describes a 10 foot plus drop that required him to use the creaking chockstone that ended up falling on his hand to get down.  Our experience was that the drop was easily negotiated by simply hopping down from the other chockstone in which he rigged his harness.  Although I was not there that day in April 2003 the accident spot was not nearly as hard for Jill and I as he made it seem in his book. 

Jill negotiating the tight, dark slot.  Ralston had to do this just minutes after amputating his hand!
 

 

 

Right: Picture Ralston took of himself while trapped under the chockstone.  Photo stolen from "Between Rock/Hard Place"

Left: Chockstone in position Jill and I found it.  It has been rotated back and to the left.

 

 

Left: Ralston's hand before the amputation.  Notice marks from previous attempts to amputate the arm.

Right: He had the wherewithal to snap a photo after cutting his own hand off.  Photos stolen from "Between Rock/Hard Place"

 

It was all fun and games until the boulder shifted onto my arm...

 

Luckily Jill was there to rescue me.  Always travel with a partner!

Now that what we had come for was over, neither of us were looking forward to the trudge back to the car.  The one saving grace was that we would take a different branch of the canyon out, the West Fork of Blue John.  One would think that route-finding in a canyon would be easy, and for most it probably is.  Unfortunately, for me that is not the case.  The beauty of a slot canyon is that one has very limited chances of becoming lost.  We took what I thought was the branch for the West Fork and followed it.  The entire way I held my compass and thought it curious that we were traveling due south.  For some reason I didn't find this alarming, even though we should have been heading almost due west.  After miles had passed my heart sank when I realized we had been traveling down the main fork instead of the West Fork.  Not wanting to go back we began the unpleasant task of wiggling back up through the slot that had given us trouble earlier in the day. 

On the drive back to Moab Jill read excerpts from Ralston's experience in the canyon.  We felt satisfied with our quest to retrace the steps of arguably the greatest American survival story of the new century, although a bit disappointed to not find more conclusive evidence of the accident.  Unarguably the best part of my trip to Blue John was the company.  While sitting trapped under the chockstone in Blue John realizing he was going to die Ralston  thought back on the events of his life which included his project to become to the only person to solo all of Colorado's 14ers in winter.  At this point he realized that his favorite memories were those shared with friends and family.  So, as I stared out at the dark road leading back to Moab, I was quietly thankful for walking out of Blue John with my all my limbs, and more significantly the lovely Jill, with whom I have the good fortune to share these memories.

-written May 2005

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