From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Climber's survival offers 'story of Christian hope'
Thu, 5 Jun 2003 14:47:20 -0500
June 5, 2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.
A UMNS Feature
By Marta W. Aldrich*
During five days with his right arm pinned under an 800-pound boulder, Aron
Ralston pondered options that included dying in a remote desert canyon in
Utah, his body perhaps one day washed away by a flash flood and his family
and friends never knowing his fate.
A former mechanical engineer for Intel, the extreme outdoorsman analyzed his
dilemma, took stock of resources and likely outcomes, and then made his
He chose life.
The 27-year-old from Aspen, Colo., began sawing off his crushed arm with a
dull pocketknife on the morning of April 29. Freed two days later, his arm
stump wrapped in a plastic bag and stuffed into a small canvas backpack, he
rappelled one-armed down a 60-foot rock face and hiked six miles until
encountering a search helicopter.
Recovering since at his parents' home in the Denver suburb of Centennial,
Ralston has been surrounded by family and friends, especially members of his
old high school youth group at Hope United Methodist Church in Greenwood
Village. His life has been filled with medical appointments, media requests,
physical pain and the reality of his new challenges of life with a
prosthesis. But it also has been filled with Christian fellowship, prayer,
study and the blessings of a life renewed.
"Aron's story is a story of Christian hope," says the Rev. Margaret Rush
Hankins, co-pastor of Hope Church. Ralston grew up, was confirmed and played
piano for youth-led worship services in the United Methodist congregation.
"If we are willing to work with the Spirit, there are options we don't see at
first; there are open doors that may not be visible at first glance."
Trapped in the serpentine crevasses of Bluejohn Canyon, knowing the odds of a
rescue were miniscule, Ralston could have given up or given way to despair,
Hankins says. But instead, "he really chose life. ... He decided he really
wanted to live."
That decision, made amid unexpected calamity, is the overwhelming faith
lesson that has inspired hundreds of people to write Ralston and describe how
his story has inspired them "to take a new look or consider a new approach"
to their own personal tragedies, according to Donna Ralston, Aron's mother.
The letters have been "very encouraging to him, and (it's) very rewarding to
hear people talk about the ways his ... drive to survive has helped other
people evaluate maybe an unfortunate situation in their own life that maybe
wasn't so bad after all," she says.
Mrs. Ralston describes her son's decision to sever his arm as "rational
"I'm not sure many of us would not have reacted in the same way if it was a
matter of life and death," she says. "Aron has said he was at peace with the
idea of dying. But on the other hand, he had a very strong will to live
because there were so many things he wanted to do he hadn't done yet."
Some may describe Ralston as a classic overachiever. As a child, "he always
wanted to be on the highest part of the monkey bars, the highest part of the
swing set, the fastest, the first one finished," his mother recalls.
As a youth, that drive didn't change. He was academically, athletically and
artistically gifted and became an accomplished pianist. "He's always been
incredibly strong, whether in high school in weight training or climbing a
14,000-foot peak. He's always been quicker, faster and stronger than
everybody else," says Jon Heinrich, who graduated with Ralston in 1993 from
Cherry Creek High School and remains one of his closest buddies.
Friends also describe Ralston as a person of great humor and spiritual depth,
building a loyal network of friends along the way, particularly from his
church youth group. "Aron's always been on a faith journey," says Annie Rigo,
a third-year seminary student. "He's always had that spiritual component,
whether playing piano in the church sanctuary when no one was around, or on a
camping trip and we'd start talking about God in our lives."
Ralston went on to become a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Carnegie Mellon
University in Pittsburgh, with bachelor's degrees in mechanical engineering
and French, plus a minor in music. He worked five years for Intel before
deciding to sell off most of his material possessions and pursue his passion
in life - mountaineering. Most recently, he worked at an outdoors shop and as
a mountaineering guide and nature photographer's apprentice. He loved to
attend concerts. And he devoted himself to hiking, climbing, canyoneering,
biking, rafting and other extreme sports. The ill-fated trip to Utah was
intended as training for a ski descent later this year of Denali, the highest
mountain in North America.
"He's probably the most driven person I've ever met," Heinrich says. "I think
that comes from his connection with his spiritual self."
Since his accident, Ralston has declined most interview requests,
concentrating instead on his own physical and emotional healing. He attended
his sister's college graduation and has undergone several medical procedures
in preparation for a prosthesis, for which he is expected to be fitted in
late June. He also has been visiting with his many friends.
"Aron is definitely a person who wants to move on. But he will be processing
this experience spiritually and emotionally for a long time," says Rigo, 24.
"His physical pain has been overwhelming, but that hasn't stopped him."
The Rev. Steve Miller, the other co-pastor of Hope, says being raised in the
church has given Ralston a good foundation. "He's a very clear-thinking man
of faith and not bashful about talking about the presences that were with him
in the canyon those days. He knew his friends were praying for him and
actively searching for him. He felt in touch with his mother. He felt tuned
in to the Spirit," Miller says.
As the hoopla dies down and reality sets in, Ralston has been overcome with
thankfulness, according to his mother. "He has had a very unusual opportunity
to evaluate his life, what he has accomplished and where he wants to go.
Friendships and developing relationships have become more important than
ever," she says.
Miller says gratitude was also an overwhelming emotion during Ralston's
entrapment. "He told me as he was hanging there with his arm caught, he was
remembering all the wonderful experiences he's had. He was thankful for his
friends, for the different hikes he's taken, the different concerts he's
attended, for his life. He began to think that life can be filled with more
of these blessings. I think that was where the real drive to live kicked in,"
Ralston talks about using his experience to help others. Heinrich envisions
his friend working someday as a spiritual counselor at an outdoors camp. Mrs.
Ralston says her son aims to become so adept at using a prosthetic device
that his lifestyle doesn't have to change.
Whatever path he chooses, Ralston has said it will include returning to the
mountains and canyons of the Rockies. In 1998, he set a personal goal of
climbing all 59 Colorado "fourteeners" - summits of 14,000 feet or higher -
solo in the winter months, without avalanche beacons, radio or shovel. To
date, he has climbed 45.
Ralston will definitely climb the other 14, Heinrich says. "He will most
certainly be back."
# # #
*Aldrich is a free-lance writer in Nashville, Tenn.
United Methodist News Service
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