Preparing for backcountry medical emergencies

Don't forget to flick your Bic


— I did something May 10 that I've never done before.

I threw the skis and the dog in the back of the truck and went up on Rabbit Ears Pass to ski to Walton Peak in a snowstorm.

Actually, I've done that before.

What I hadn't done before was stow my backcountry self-amputation kit in my daypack. So, along with the usual heavy-duty space blanket, compass and rescue whistle, fire starting materials in a Zip-loc bag, slab of cheese, energy bar and Jolly Ranchers, I took along a length of surgical tubing and a pocketknife with a long blade.

Before I left, I made certain the knife blade was good and dull. If I had to cut off my right arm, I wanted to do it just the way Aron Ralston did.

Just kidding. But tell me the truth.

If you are a Routt County backpacker, backcountry skier, mountain biker, river rat or canyon explorer you've almost certainly, at some time in the last week contemplated what you would do in Ralston's predicament.

Ralston, in case you spent the last 10 days in a slot canyon, is the Aspen man who ventured alone into Bluejohn Canyon just outside Utah's Canyonlands National Park. He neglected to inform those closest to him of his plans.

His arm was pinned when an 800-pound boulder shifted unexpectedly.

After five days of singing every song he ever knew, Ralston reached the conclusion that he had no option but to bid his lower forearm adieu ... permanently.

It took untold grit for Ralston to sever his appendage, and it took additional grit from him to devise a tourniquet, rappel out of the canyon and begin hiking for help.

So don't deny it. More than once this week you've gingerly fingered your wrist joint and forearm, trying to imagine yourself smashing your own radius and ulna in order to rid yourself of your right hand.

Cutting chicken legs in two will never be the same for me, I can tell you that. How many times have I clumsily probed with the paring knife to find the joint between drumstick and thigh?

I must confess, when I first learned of Ralston's misadventure, I was prepared to dismiss him as an irresponsible young man who was prone to risk taking.

After all, the same Aron Ralston had to be rescued from an avalanche this winter. Certainly, he's used some bad judgment in 2003. But those thoughts entered my mind before I'd read about his mountain climbing successes, and before I saw him field questions in front of the television cameras.

Watching Ralston's interview, I was completely won over.

I thought I detected a rare gleam in his eyes, and there is no mistaking the fact that this is no ordinary kid. He may have the strength of 10 ordinary mortals. If Yoda could meet Aron, he would say, "Hum...rmmm, strong in this one, the Force is."

So I'm wondering, what's next for Mr. Ralston?

Can a lucrative deal to host a backcountry reality TV show be far off?

How about a backcountry splenectomy performed at the 13,000-foot level on Mount Elbert with a plastic spatula and a piece of fishing line?

Could it be possible to perform emergency lasik surgery during a Gates of Lodore river trip using nothing but a laser pointer purchased from Office Depot for $29.99?

I've never revealed this before, but I once had an experience not unlike Ralston's.

This is a true story -- when I was a freshman in college, I had to dig a small piece of broken beer bottle out of my heel with a Bic pen.

Here's how it happened. I went to a street dance in a parking lot. This was back before they invented Tevas, so I was dancing barefoot. Somehow, amidst all the revelry, I didn't feel the little piece of glass enter my heel. It was so small it was more like a rough little nugget than a shard of beer bottle.

Anyway, every time I stomped my right heel on the asphalt, that little piece of glass burrowed deeper into my heel.

I didn't notice the unwanted intruder until the next morning, and then I really noticed it.

My roommate banged on every dorm room door, but there wasn't a single tweezer to be found, and no volunteers to attempt the delicate operation known as the "Pabst Blue Ribbon fragment extraction."

I realized I would have to get through this crisis by myself.

And I can honestly say that I never contemplated cutting off my foot.

Instead, I probed with the business end of the Bic until I noticed a gritty sensation.

Then I pried the amber lump out of my throbbing heel.

So you see, Aron Ralston and I have a great deal in common, and I want our mutual suffering to serve a purpose.

Let this be a lesson to all of you. Never go on an outdoor adventure alone without writing down your itinerary, and e-mailing a copy to your mother.

Pray that if the time ever comes, you'll be able to find the courage of Aron Ralston.

And most importantly, never go into the backcountry without a ballpoint pen.


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