Vickie Bane
January 25, 2010 12:00 PM

As he lay entangled, his wrist pinned under an 800-lb. boulder that had rolled onto his arm during a hiking expedition in a Utah canyon, Aron Ralston considered the worst. During his five-day ordeal in 2003 he etched his epitaph into the rock and contemplated suicide to avoid further pain. And then he had a glimpse of his life to come. It was an image of himself—with only one arm—walking into a room and scooping up a little boy. “I was looking at myself holding my future son,” recalls Ralston. The next morning he fashioned a tourniquet, sawed off his arm below the elbow with a pocketknife, then rappelled down a 65-ft. cliff and stepped into the role of certified legend. His vision, he says, “renewed my hope I was going to get out of there.”

That vision is soon to be realized. Ralston, 34, and his wife, Jessica, are expecting their first child, a boy, on Valentine’s Day. Nor is that the only blessing that he has known: Since becoming a worldwide hero, Ralston has established a profitable career as a motivational speaker and written the bestseller Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which he’s looking forward to seeing turned into a feature film, to be directed by Slumdog Millionaire Oscar winner Danny Boyle. Yet Jessica, 33, his bride of just five months, points out that having survived such a harrowing experience, he takes nothing for granted. “He lives,” says Jessica, who is getting a degree in art therapy, “with his heart wide open.”

It’s a trait that has helped Ralston adapt to life with just one arm. Around their Boulder, Colo., apartment and even in public, Ralston rarely wears a prosthesis. He taught himself to write with his left hand and, except for throwing a baseball, has little trouble with anything else. He gestures with his stump as he talks and saves the two specialty arms for the outdoor adventures that he has refused to give up. In 2005 he became the first person to scale all of Colorado’s 14,000-ft. peaks alone in the winter, and last year he was the first amputee to guide a white-water raft through the Grand Canyon. While he still uses the headlamp he took with him when he had what he calls “my accident,” the pocketknife remains in a drawer beside the bed in the Aspen condo he also owns. He hasn’t forgotten, but he doesn’t let his accident define him. “I have this optimism,” he explains. “The desire to see everything as a gift, including my experience.”

Still, he had to rebuild his confidence. He used money he earned from his story to finance new adventures and prove to himself that “I was still capable as a person.” That inward focus changed several years ago when, within six months, three of his close friends committed suicide. The deaths reinforced for him how “finite and fragile life is” and caused him to look beyond his own needs toward a greater goal: protecting the wilderness he and his friends loved. Now he uses funds from the 10 corporate speaking engagements he does each year—at $20,000 to $30,000 each—to lobby on behalf of wilderness issues. “The wilderness has always been something I’ve appreciated,” he says, but “there is a difference now because I go out with the intension of doing advocacy work.”

In his speeches he often uses the analogy that “our boulders can become our blessings.” It may be shocking to hear that he smiled as he amputated his own arm, but to him “the last cut was stepping out of the grave and into my life again”—a life that began with a vision and has led to what may be his greatest challenge yet. “The big challenge of my life,” he says, “is coming into this experience of being a husband and a father.”

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