Hopelessly pinned by a boulder that had rolled onto his arm, Aron Ralston says he finally took a dull pocketknife to his forearm after spending three days in a remote Utah canyon -- but he couldn't cut the skin.
In his first meeting with reporters, the 27-year-old Ralston calmly described his desperate attempts to free himself from the boulder and how he eventually did what for many would be unthinkable: cutting off his arm to save his life.
"I'm not sure how I handled it," the mechanical engineer-turned-adventurer said Thursday, the stump of his right arm in a sling. "I felt pain and I coped with it. I moved on."
Ralston, an avid outdoorsman who has climbed some of Colorado's highest peaks, spent five days trapped in the 0.9m-wide canyon. He said he felt alternately at peace as well as depressed at the prospect of dying, figuring his body might be washed away in a flash flood before anyone had a chance to find it.
He joked that he often thought of drinking a margarita as he took turns standing or sitting down in his climbing harness to rest.
On the fourth day, a day after his first attempt to cut his arm, Ralston went through the motions of applying a tourniquet, laid out bike shorts to absorb the blood and got his gear ready for a quick getaway. He worked out how to get through the bone with his "multi-tool"-type knife, made duller by futile attempts to chip away at the rock.
"Basically, I got my surgical table ready," he said.
On the fifth day, he summoned up all his technique and nerve:
"I was able to first snap the radius and then within another few minutes snap the ulna at the wrist and from there, I had the knife out and applied the tourniquet and went to task. It was a process that took about an hour," he said.
Slim and pale with short reddish-brown hair, Ralston made frequent references to prayer and spirituality during his news conference. He said he felt a surge of energy on the fifth day, which happened to be the National Day of Prayer.
"I may never fully understand the spiritual aspects of what I experienced, but I will try," he said. "The source of the power I felt was the thoughts and prayers of many people, most of whom I will never know."
Ralston's ordeal began April 26, during what was supposed to be a day trip near Canyonlands National Park, Ralston became pinned as he scrambled over three boulders wedged into a narrow canyon. One of the boulders, weighing an estimated 360kg, rolled as he climbed over it, trapping his right arm against a cliff face.
He tried chipping away with the knife at the boulder and the cliff, and tried to rig a way to lift the boulder off himself with climbing gear. He decided to sacrifice his arm to save his life after going through most of his three liters of water and his food -- two burritos and some crumbs clinging to candy bar wrappers.
Even after his excruciating operation, what Ralston had to do to survive required skills beyond the abilities of most. On May 1, he crawled through a narrow, winding canyon, rappelled down a 18m cliff and walked some 10km down the canyon.
By the time he encountered hikers and then rescuers, Ralston was just 3km from the nearest road. He was dehydrated and bloody, but OK.
For reasons he wouldn't explain, Ralston withheld some details of his story. A publicist told reporters there would be no follow-up interviews soon and no interviews whatsoever with the doctors who treated him.