Under a bluebird sky out in the desert, I leave my truck where the trail begins for Horseshoe Canyon. My plan is to make a 30-mile circuit cycling up Horshoe Canyon, leaving the bike at the top and then coming down Blue John Canyon on foot.
The trip was a last-minute decision after some friends had called off a mountaineering trip. Usually I would leave a detailed schedule with my roommates, but since I left without knowing what I was going to do, the only word I gave was "Utah."
Though the Blue John circuit will be only a day trip, I'm carrying a 13 kilo pack, most of the weight taken up with climbing gear for descending the steep canyon system, food, and four litres of water.
By 2:30, I'm about seven miles into the canyon, at the midpoint of my descent, where the canyon is not more than 1 metre wide. To get down a steep drop I try to hang off the edge of a boulder* which is stuck between the walls of the canyon. Just before I let go of it I feel it move and I know this isn't good. As soon as I land on the floor of the canyon I hardly have time to look up before the boulder comes crashing down. In the narrow space I cannot avoid the boulder. Before I have time to realise what is happening it bounces against one wall and then smashes my right arm against the other wall and stops there.
The agony throws me into a panic. "F***!" I yank* my arm three times in a futile attempt to pull it out from under the rock. But I'm stuck. There is no way I can pull it out or move the boulder.
There is no feeling in my right hand at all and it is already turning grey.
My immediate worry is water. The average survival time in the desert without water is between two and three days. My next thought is escape. Eliminating ideas that are just too dumb (like breaking open my AA batteries on the boulder and hoping the acid* eats into the stone but not my arm), I decide to try to chip away the rock around my hand with my multitool knife. This proves to be a terribly slow process.
Even if I wanted to sleep, I couldn't. My hand is trapped too high up so I can't lie down, and as soon as my knees bend and my weight pulls on my wrist* the pain is agonizing. Using a rope and some of my climbing gear I manage to fix a kind of seat with my left hand. That helps me take the weight off my feet although I soon realise that the straps restrict the blood supply and I can't sit in it for more than 20 minutes.
boulder - a huge rock
yank - pull
futile - pointless, hopeless
acid - chemical with low pH; opp. of alkali
wrist - the joint that connects the hand to the rest of the arm
Stress turns into pessimism. Without enough water to wait for rescue, without a tool to crack the boulder, without a system to lift it, I have one course of action. I speak slowly out loud: "You're gonna have to cut your arm off."
I take my multitool and, without thinking, open the long blade*. I hold it with the blade against the upper part of my forearm. Surprising myself, I press on the blade and slowly draw it across my forearm. Nothing happens. Huh. I press harder. Still nothing. No cut, no blood, nothing. Back and forth, I vigorously saw at my arm, growing more frustrated with each attempt. Exasperated, I give up. Sh*t! The damn blade won't even break the skin. How the hell am I going to saw through two bones with a knife that won't even cut my skin?
Slowly, I become aware of the cold stare of the second shorter blade of my knife. Gathering my courage, I take the handle in my fist*, I pick a spot on the top of my forearm. I hesitate. Then I violently thrust the blade down, burying it in the meat of my forearm. "Holy crap, Aaron," I say out loud. "What did you just do?"
I am suddenly curious. There is barely any sensation of the blade below skin level. My nerves seem to be concentrated in the outer layers of my arm. I open an inch-wide hole and note that there is remarkably little blood; the capillaries* must have closed down for the time being. Fascinated, I poke at the wound* with the tool. Ouch.
I lean back in my harness* and slip into another trance*. Color bursts in my mind, and then I walk through the canyon wall, stepping into a living room. A blond-haired three-year-old boy in a red polo shirt comes running across a sunlit wooden floor in what I somehow know is my future home. The boy is my own. I bend to lift him up with my left arm, using my handless right arm to balance him, and we laugh together as I swing him up to my shoulder.
Then, with a shock, the vision disappears. I'm back in the canyon, although there are still echoes of his joyful sounds in my mind. Before this I had thought that I would die where I stood before help arrived, but now I believe I will live.
That belief, that boy, changes everything for me.
With five days of desert dust on my contact lenses, my eyes hurt at every blink, and I can no longer see properly. Sip* after sip of acidic urine has left my mouth sore. I can't hold my head upright; it leans against the canyon wall. I am a zombie. I am the undead.
Miserable, I watch another empty hour pass by. The boost I felt from my vision of the boy has vanished entirely. I have nothing whatsoever to do. I have no life. There is nothing that gives even a slight hint that this awful stillness will break. But I can make it break.
Out of curiosity, I poke my thumb with my knife blade twice. The second time the blade breaks the skin as if it were cutting into butter, and there is a hiss of gas escaping. The rot has advanced more quickly than I guessed. Though the smell is faint it is the unmistakeable smell of death.
I react in a fury, trying to pull my arm straight out from under the rock, never wanting more than I do right now to disconnect myself from this rotting limb.
I don't want it. It's not a part of me. It's garbage.
I thrash myself forward and back, side to side, up and down, down and up. I scream out in pure hate, shrieking as I hit my body against the canyon walls. And then I feel my arm bend unnaturally. This is when I suddenly see the light. Something like a holy intervention brings me to a halt.
If I bend my arm far enough, I can break my forearm bones. My God, Aaron, that's it, that's it. THAT'S F***ING IT!
There is no hesitation. I barely realize what I'm about to do. I put my left hand under the boulder and push hard, harder, HARDER! to put a maximum force on the bones above my wrist. As I slowly bend my arm down to the left there is a sudden snap like a distant gun shot.
Sweating and euphoric, I touch my right arm. Both bones have broken in the same place, just above my wrist.
I am overcome with excitement. Hurrying to get to work with the shorter and sharper blade, I place it between two blue veins and push it into my wrist.
The skin hurt quite a lot but the muscles don't hurt as much. As I cut them I have to be careful not to sever the arteries until I get the tourniquet* on my arm. A really tough part is the tendon because the knife just won't cut through it. There are no nerves in the tendon so I don't hesitate to put the blade away and take out the little set of pliers* on the multitool to grab and tear the tendon to pieces bit by bit. Then I come to the nerve, which I know is going to be the most painful part of it. Little do I know just how agonizing it is going to be. I try to cut through it as fast as possible and I suddenly feel as if my entire arm has been thrust into a tub* of boiling water - the sensation of burning shooting up my arm.
Now there are only a few more sections of muscle, a little bit of skin left. I stretch my body tight against that last piece of skin and chop it with the knife, and at last I am free. I have liberated myself. I drop back against the canyon wall and for the first time in six days my feet are in a different part of the canyon than where I had been trapped. And my body, all of a sudden, is evercome with euphoria. It is as if I am recalling all of the happiest moments of the past 27 years and tasting in them the promise of at least another 27 years of life. I am reborn. Having been standing in my grave, writing my will and scratching "Rest in peace" on the wall of the canyon, all of that is gone - I am alive again. It is undoubtedly the sweetest moment that I will ever experience.
blade - the sharp part of the knife used for cutting
fist - a closed hand
wound - cut in the skin
capillaries - the smallest blood vessels
harness - straps around the waist and thighs used by climbers to tie the rope to
trance - dreaming while you are awake
forearm - between the wrist and the elbow
tourniquet - device to stop an arm or leg bleeding
pliers - tool for pulling out nails or cutting wire