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A Brief History of Hikers Getting Trapped Under Boulders

by Staff

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I was packing up after a climbing session at the Big Bend boulders outside of Moab, Utah in 2011 when I told my friend that I was planning on going hiking by myself. The local newspaper I wrote for went to press on Monday, so I typically took a day off early in the week; with most of my friends busy at work, I thought I’d take a jaunt down a local canyon the tourists didn’t know about. My friend nodded.

“Just don’t Ralston yourself,” he said.

At this point, most people know the story of Aron Ralston, the 27-year-old adventurer who in 2003 cut his own arm off after a boulder shifted onto it in Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon, trapping him for five days. His experience captured the public imagination, first in the autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place, and later in the film 127 Hours starring James Franco. (He later tested a pocketknife that Outside gave away to subscribers in 2007, resulting in one of the darkest gear reviews of all time.) In the process, his story has become shorthand for the worst things that can happen to a person during a hike. Whenever another hiker has an unfortunate encounter with a big rock—like the person who spent seven hours trapped under a 3-ton boulder in California last week—commenters are quick to bring it up.

Interestingly enough, Ralston wasn’t the first hiker on record to self-amputate a limb after becoming pinned under a boulder. In October 1993, William S. Jeracki, a 38-year-old physician’s assistant, was hiking up Colorado’s St. Mary’s Glacier in search of new fishing spots when a truck-tire-sized rock rolled onto his lower left leg, pinning him in place. 

Unlike Ralston, Jeracki didn’t spend days trapped in place after no one responded to his cries for help: With the weather deteriorating, he applied a tourniquet to his limb and cut it off just hours later. But Jeracki’s ordeal wasn’t over. The Associated Press chronicled what happened next:

“Jeracki told rescuers he folded his pant leg back over the stump to protect it, then crawled half a mile to his truck. He drove another half-mile to the Alice-St. Mary’s settlement about 30 miles west of Denver.

‘It just defies the imagination,’ said paramedic Jack Russalesi, one of the first to help Jeracki. ‘He was in very obvious pain when I was with him.’

Searchers found the leg, but too much time had passed to reattach it.”

Calling Ralston and Jeracki “lucky” is a stretch, but some victims have fared worse. In August 1998, Mike Turner, a pastor, was hiking solo in Wyoming’s Fitzpatrick Wilderness when a boulder shifted under his weight, trapping both of his legs above the knee. In diaries scribbled in his notebooks, an instruction sheet for his stove, and in the margins of a pocket Bible, Turner chronicled his efforts to free himself, replenish his water, and, finally, his thoughts and hallucinations over the next 9 days as his body began to fail. While his dog miraculously found its own way home, another hiker discovered Turner’s remains a month later.

While it’s hard to say for sure how often hikers get trapped under boulders, it appears to be rare but not exceptionally so: News reports suggest that search and rescue crews extract a couple of stuck people in the United States every year. While some of those people end up losing limbs, most seem to go home with their arms and legs still attached, if often broken. 

A few recent stories illustrate how these incidents typically go: In 2017, the Golden, Colorado Fire Department rescued a hiker who became trapped under a 1,500-pound boulder on North Table Mountain, a popular peak near town; rescuers used high-pressure airbags and a hydraulic spreader to shift the rock and free the victim, who survived with “multiple fractures.” In 2020, fire crews in Phoenix used tools designed for rescuing car accident victims to move a 300-pound rock that had trapped a hiker on Camelback Mountain; the victim, who told rescuers that he had been leaning on the rock while he let another group pass, ended up in the hospital with “extensive lower limb injuries.” And in 2021, Maine game wardens and firefighters used a cordless “jaws of life” to move a large rock that had pinned a 30-year-old man’s arm on Mosquito Mountain. If there’s one thing these stories make clear, it’s that a person whose arm or leg is trapped under a massive rock is probably not getting out under their own power: In most of these incidents, rescuers needed power tools—or at least mechanical advantage and a lot of muscle—to free the victim.

Stories like these stick in our minds because they seem like the definition of a random accident: a hiker steps in the wrong place, a rock shifts, a crisis begins. Still, there are steps backpackers can take to reduce their chances of becoming fodder for a Danny Boyle film. Hiking with a partner who can summon help is an obvious one. So is staying on trails: The most serious incidents often happen when hikers veer off the beaten path, where they encounter loose rock and are less likely to be found by another hiker. Besides just being a good idea, carrying weather protection like extra layers and a space blanket, as well as food and water, will increase your chances of being able to survive long enough for rescuers to reach you.

If you do choose to hike solo, leaving your itinerary with someone you trust is a must. Carrying a satellite communicator like a Garmin inReach Mini or Spot device (yours truly is still rocking a Spot Gen3) can provide an extra layer of security, too. (Just keep it somewhere accessible and know its limits: Beacons require a clear line of sight to their satellites, and often have spotty or nonexistent service in narrow canyons.) Perhaps most important of all? Be careful where you step.

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