JOHANNESBURG — South African rescue workers recently performed surgery on the side of a cliff, amputating the leg of a man whose foot was jammed between rocks in a drama reminiscent of the ordeal of Aron Ralston, the American climber who cut off his own forearm to escape from a remote Utah canyon.
Ralston, whose 2003 story inspired the James Franco movie "127 Hours," had no way to contact rescuers and was trapped for nearly a week before using a dull blade to free himself from the boulder pinning his arm. The man in South Africa, Tsenolo Shadrack Rasello, called for help with a cellular telephone, setting off a complex rescue operation that included several helicopters and more than 100 people.
"The significant difference: Our fellow had the means to call for help," said mountaineer Rob Thomas, who led a rescue team to the Magaliesberg mountain range, a tourist destination near Johannesburg. Rasello's right leg was amputated below the knee there on Sunday after workers failed to free him by pulling on the leg, hacking at rock and pouring lubricant to try to get the limb to slip out.
"'Listen, if you have to take the leg off, take the leg off. But get me out of here,'" Thomas recalled the trapped man saying on Saturday, midway through the three-day drama.
After abseiling down the cliff Sunday, a medical team amputated the limb in the cave where Rasello languished. The team operated on its sedated patient in cramped conditions, initially improvising a tourniquet from climbing rope and moving carefully for fear of rockfalls.
"It was very, very unsteady terrain," said Frank Plani, a trauma surgeon from Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Johannesburg. Plani, who carried out the amputation with the help of an anesthetist and a paramedic, said the unemployed man in his 20s was in stable condition in intensive care Wednesday.
The decision to amputate came as concern mounted for Rasello, whose mountain ordeal lasted about 50 hours.
"He was in a harness that allowed his body to be moved up and down a bit to facilitate the operation," Plani said. The harness was attached to bolts that miners had drilled into the cavern roof, he said.
Rasello became trapped on Friday, when he was searching alone for "holy water" in the streams of the mountain range, deemed by some South Africans to have spiritual import, according to an account he gave to a rescue worker. He slid down the cliff after a snake startled him and his foot got stuck, he said.
Rasello phoned for help. A police helicopter honed in as the trapped man, partially obscured by rock, gave general directions over the telephone. Eventually, the crew spotted a reflective strip on his jacket.
Thomas and other members of the Mountain Club of South Africa climbed up the mountain late Friday. The next morning, they abseiled about 50 meters down the cliff, scrambling over the treacherous rockface.
"'Can I please, please, please have some water. I've had nothing to drink since yesterday morning,'" Thomas, who spent two hours with Rasello, quoted him as saying. When Thomas prepared to leave, he assured the injured man that someone would remain.
"I think he was terrified of being abandoned," said Thomas, recalling that Rasello said he couldn't feel his foot.
Paramedics stayed with Rasello for periods of six to eight hours, providing food, water and medication.
Thomas was elated that a life was saved. Yet he said: "There is the disappointment that this poor guy had to lose his leg in the process."