Aron Ralston surely must be the symbol of our times. He's the ultimate survivor, a self-sufficient, super-rational adventurer prepared to adapt to any outrageous turn of fortune.

You've probably heard of this remarkable mountaineer by now. He's the Aspen, Colo., hiker who amputated his own right arm with a pocket knife after it was trapped by an 800-pound boulder during a solo canyoneering expedition in a remote Utah desert.

Pinned for five days and out of both water and ideas on how to lever himself out of the mess, the onetime Intel engineer fashioned a tourniquet with one hand, sawed through the limb without anesthetic, then rappelled down a cliff and hiked seven miles out of the ravine through a river before finding help. A few months before, he'd barely survived an avalanche while backcountry skiing.

Profiles in Courage

What could be more emblematic of the path taken by public companies in the past few years -- and particularly the smaller ones with fewer resources?

They've been harassed by a recession, a terror attack, a three-year bear market, two wars, angry regulators, crusading politicians and bitter shareholders. If they've come this far with their exchange listings intact and no executives under indictment, they must be tough as nails.

They've cut nonproductive assets, found ways to grow without adding more financial leverage, cleaned up their balance sheets, hired more reputable financial officers, improved their boards of directors, repaired relationships with lenders and changed their business plans.

At this point, they might not be worthy of an investment by a trust fund for orphans. But they may be worth a second look by speculators with an appreciation for the indomitable capitalist spirit -- so long as those willing to risk it keep one eye on the exit, in case these companies have only hidden their faults better than peers.

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