Within one hour of being trapped by a boulder in an isolated canyon miles from civilisation, Aron Ralston began to contemplate the unthinkable.
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At some point, he reasoned, he would have to cut off his own right arm in order to get free and have any chance of survival. It says an awful lot about this remarkable young man that not only did he do just that, but also that he can actually re-count his horrific, five-day ordeal with humour, honesty and insight.
“Within an hour of being trapped I thought ‘Aron, you are going to have to cut your arm off..’ And I was like, ‘dude, I don’t want to cut my arm off, are you crazy?’ But I knew right away that’s exactly what I would have to do.”
Ralston’s harrowing ordeal, and his extraordinary, inspiring desire to survive it no matter what it took, is vividly captured in Danny Boyle’s remarkable film, 127 Hours, with James Franco playing the young outdoor enthusiast who suffers a freak accident whilst out hiking in the remote Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
“James is so good that the first few times I watched it, it’s so real I didn’t even think he was acting,” says Ralston. “His response and his emotions are so realistic. I have to say that I think James does a phenomenal job with it and I’m really happy with what he does in the film.”
He also pays tribute to Boyle’s considerable powers of storytelling. Ralston was a frequent visitor to the set and worked closely with the Oscar winning director and his team to make sure that every little detail was as accurate as it could be.
“I was very honoured that Danny, as well as everybody working under him, wanted me to be involved,” he says. “Now that’s not to say that I had any control over what actually ended up being made, but they took my input and I felt very honoured to be a part of it.”
When Ralston set out for a weekend of hiking in the beautiful, lonely canyons of Utah on a Friday night back in April 2003 he made a classic mistake – he didn’t tell anyone where he was going.
The 27 year old adventurer was climbing a rock face when he slipped and fell deep into Blue John Canyon. A falling boulder tumbled down on top of him and wedged his right hand against the sandstone rock face. He was trapped and he knew that nobody would be coming to rescue him.
And even though the terrifying thought that he would have to amputate his own arm was always in the back of his mind, he tried every possible option to free himself.
“I went through all the options of trying to lift the boulder, chipping away at the rock with my pen knife to try and extricate my hand,” he recalls. “None of that worked.
“I thought about waiting for someone to come and rescue me and then understanding that nobody was coming because I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. And then it was like, ‘I’m going to die here..’ By the third day it was ‘screw it, I’m going to try to get out of here anyways I can.'”
When the accident happened Ralston had limited supplies – a bottle of water, some energy bars – and very little equipment to work with: a flashlight, a penknife (with a dull blade) and a rope. He also had a video camera on which he recorded poignant farewell messages to his loved ones. The video provided a vital link to the outside world, he says, and helped him feel connected to his family.
“There were basically two chains of thought,” he explains. “One was about how I was going to get free, and potentially rescue myself and survive the situation, so there was a lot of tactical and logistical kinds of issues. And then there was this emotional side of things that was about connecting with my family through the videotape – turning on the camcorder.
“You see that very accurately represented in the film where James is totally absorbed in these logistical operations – trying to lift the boulder almost comically juxtaposed with Lovely Day on the soundtrack.
“And then there are the poignant moments where he’s very still and he’s talking right into the camera and saying ‘Mom and Dad, I regret that I haven’t perhaps appreciated you as much as I could have in my heart..’ and that was lifted verbatim from the tape I made.”
After his water supply ran out, Ralston was forced to drink his own urine but was becoming more and more dehydrated and he was running a fever. He knew that time was running out and tried to pierce the skin of his trapped arm – but the blade on his knife was blunt. Then, he thought of another idea – he could use the rock that was keeping him captive as a lever to literally break his arm free. It was, he says, a moment of euphoria.
“I’d worked up the tourniquet and I tried cutting into my arm, sawing at it but the knife was too dull to break the skin,” he says. “And you see James go through this progression and it ratchets up in the movie, just as it did for me – this mounting desperation, this mounting willingness and the desire to actually want to do it.
“And I felt euphoric when finally the solution presented itself. It was like ‘Aron, you don’t have to have the knife sharp enough to get through the bone, you can actually use the boulder and break your bone..’
“And when that occurred to me, it was like, ‘eureka! That’s it! That’s it! I can use the boulder!’ And I was screaming, I was shouting at myself, ‘that’s it, that’s it! Use the boulder, break your bones..’
“And just like you see in the film, there was an urgency to that and to me it’s still exhilarating just to think about it, because I was dead in that place – I’d made my will and testament, I’d written my epitaph on the wall and I had come to peace with dying.
“And then, finally, there’s this ‘eureka, I’m going to get out of here! If I’m going to die, at least I’m not going to die here.’ There was this desire for freedom, to just not be trapped, that was probably as strong as the desire to get back to my family.
“It was the desire to get out of that spot and I think that’s a very human emotion, probably almost as strong as the desire for love in our lives.”
Boyle graphically recreates those moments in his film and it’s not easy to watch. But Ralston believes that the audience will share that sense of euphoria he felt – that desperate desire to live and to be free from his canyon tomb.
“At the end I was smiling, the whole time. I broke my bones and I was cutting through my arm, but I was smiling. And audiences who have seen the film by that point they want James to get out of there and when he does, they clap and they cheer.
“And for me, that was the authentic experience that I want people to get from this. When they walk into the cinema it’s like ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to watch this, it’s about a guy who cuts his arm off.’ But that’s the triumph of the storytelling from my perspective – Danny takes us to a place where we want that guy to do just that, just as I did when I was there.”
It was, of course, a life changing experience for Ralston. His memoir, Between A Rock and A Hard Place, was published in 2004 and he is now a much sought after public speaker. He is also planning a second book and is married and the proud father of a baby boy. He hopes his story will be inspirational for others and believes that cheating death in that lonely canyon gave him a new lease of life.
“I will always and forever regard this as being a defining experience in my life. It will always be a watershed,” he says. “I also have my life in the present day which mostly revolves around my wife and our eight month old baby son, that you see in the very final images of the film.
“And so finding that balance of sharing this gift that was given to me, an incredible experience, a great blessing, perhaps one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me in my life, this story, and to share that with people, is part of what I think I’m here to do.”
We’re aware of this exception life-changing event in your life, first from the news stories, then from the book and now from Danny Boyle’s very vivid film. But could you give us some background on your life immediately before April 2003?
I was born in the Midwest, not in a place where outdoor sports were really a part of a day-to-day lifestyle, and when my family moved to Colorado, I started compensating for having been pushed out by a lot of my peers. I’d gone through school a lot younger than a lot of my classmates and I was smaller, too, and so I was bullied and ostracised quite frequently. I’d built up a whole lifetime of insecurities and I was seeking some sort of self-esteem. First I found it academically and then through working for Intel as an engineer. And that was kind of fulfilling superficially but not at my core, it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. And so I found myself living out West and identifying with these extreme sports and life or death encounters in the outdoors that was so worth it that I decided to quit my job. I basically retired from engineering at 25 years old – not that I retired wealthy! But I took my leave from that to follow my dreams.
And honestly, by the time I got trapped, I looked back on my life, and if there was one accomplishment that I was truly proud of, it was almost this anti-accomplishment of having quit my job, to live, to truly live for that year, between the time that I had left Intel and when I became trapped, when I thought it was going to die there. I walked into that canyon full of this zest for life, just feeling like this was my purpose, to enjoy myself, and yet (laughs) also I think with a good deal of the arrogance and cockiness and overall arrogance that you see James portraying in the film – a guy who is very quickly humbled by nature in this very shocking incident.
When the idea of the film came along, how comfortable were you at first with someone else telling your story and did you have to be persuaded?
I had to become comfortable with it because this is a story of a defining moment in my life. Initially there was a difference in the vision that I and John Smithson had. John produced Touching the Void and had contacted me in 2003 when I was still in the hospital (after the accident). I didn’t get back to him right away, but when I eventually did, I’d seen his film, knew that story, about the British climbers in Peru very well, and I felt that the way he told that story was how I wanted to have my story told. I wanted the legacy of the film to be an authentic one.
I hoped that this story, just in its factual essence, would be enough to inspire and touch people in the way that I felt that it had been given to me to do. So when Danny approached John Smithson and I, and we had our first meeting in 2006 over in Holland, there was definitely a gap between this vision and Danny’s.
In what way?
Danny wanted to do a drama and John and I were somewhat in this mind meld that we were stuck thinking that a docu-drama was the only authentic way to tell the story, and we had to then build trust over the following years so that I could give this story to Danny, so that we had a common vision of it. I wanted it to inspire audiences, I wanted people to go see it, lots of people hopefully, and that it would be something that would be uplifting in the end. Danny has now told the story as a drama but it’s about as close to being a documentary as possible. And I’m very grateful for that, but it was certainly a trust building experience, over several years. He’s an incredibly respectful human being as is everyone that works with him, and because of that, it actually made it very reassuring and in the end, a pretty easy decision to work with him.
Have your family and friends seen the film and if so what was their reaction to seeing what you went through?
My mom watched the film for the second time last night and she was really living it. She’s seen the original videotapes and that was a very overwhelming experience for us when we watched those together. She’s come to hear me speak a dozen times about it over the years, but to see it as a film, it takes us back to that place. And by the end of the movie we were holding hands, and crying together, just as we did in the hospital when we first reunited afterwards. There’s that feeling of being so grateful to have each other in our lives and to never want to let go of each other. Even for someone who is so intimately familiar with what happened to me, as my Mom is, watching the film is a very powerful experience.
My sister said ’15 minutes into the film I was no longer watching James, I was watching you.’ Several of my friends have commented about how when they saw certain instances of James doing something in particular, like falling over the handlebars of his bike or taking his self portrait, they were like, ‘that’s so you Aron!’ There are dozens of instances like that through the film that I think it really gets my persona and my personality as well as the actual essence of the entrapment too. I feel that Danny and his team have created something special for an audience but it’s also a gift for my family and my friends. Because most of my friends and my family are not canyoneers, they have not gone out into this country and they have never seen this landscape first hand – at most, they might have seen it through the windshield of a vehicle driving through Archer’s National Park or something. So, for them, you actually go there, and that I think brings the story home for them, as it does for me. It’s emotional for me to watch it and by the end, it’s the uplift, especially seeing that little boy who appears in the canyon. I’ve had that vision and that little boy, my son, ultimately came into my life just this year with my wife. My experience in the canyon taught me that relationships are really what are important in life.
When you were trapped what point, did you first think about amputating your arm? And did you then push that completely out of your mind and cling on to the hope that you would be rescued?
Within an hour of being trapped I thought ‘Aron, you are going to have to cut your arm off..’ And I was like, ‘dude, I don’t want to cut my arm off, are you crazy?’ And then it was, ‘you are going to have to cut your arm off…’ I actually said that out loud to myself.
I went through all the options of trying to lift the boulder, chipping away at the rock with my penknife to try and extricate my hand. None of that worked. I thought about waiting for someone to come and rescue me and then understanding that nobody was coming because I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. And then it was like, ‘I’m going to die here..’ By the third day it was ‘screw it, I’m going to try to get out of here anyways I can’ (laughs).
And I’d worked up the tourniquet and I tried cutting into my arm, sawing at it but the knife was too dull to break the skin. And you see James go through this progression and it ratchets up in the movie, just as it did for me – this mounting desperation, this mounting willingness and the desire to actually want to do it. And I felt euphoric when finally the solution presented itself. It was like ‘Aron, you don’t have to have the knife sharp enough to get through the bone, you can actually use the boulder and break your bone..’ And when that occurred to me, it was like, ‘eureka! That’s it! That’s it! I can use the boulder!’ And I was screaming, I was shouting at myself, ‘that’s it, that’s it! Use the boulder to break your bones..’
And just like you see in the film, there was an urgency to that and to me it’s still exhilarating just to think about it, because I was dead in that place – I’d made my will and testament, I’d written my epitaph on the wall and I had come to peace with dying. And then, finally, there’s this ‘eureka, I’m going to get out of here! If I’m going to die, at least I’m not going to die here.’ There was this desire for freedom, to just not be trapped, that was probably as strong as the desire to get back to my family. It was the desire to get out of that spot and I think that’s a very human emotion, probably almost as strong as the desire for love in our lives.
At the end I was smiling, the whole time. I broke my bones and I was cutting through my arm, but I was smiling. And audiences who have seen the film by that point they want James to get out of there and when he does, they clap and they cheer. And for me, that was the authentic experience that I want people to get from this. When they walk into the cinema it’s like ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to watch this, it’s about a guy who cuts his arm off.’ But that’s the triumph of the storytelling from my perspective – Danny takes us to a place where we want that guy to do just that, just as I did when I was there.
How involved were you in the shooting of the film? Were you there all the time or did you just drop by occasionally?
I was there quite a bit. I was involved with all the screenwriting as well as the pre-production, all the heads of departments. I worked with James and his preparation, with the directors of photography, as they, especially needed to prepare the replication of the videos that I made. I worked with the production designer on the gear and the costumes. I was very honoured that Danny, as well as everybody working under him, wanted me to be involved. Now that’s not to say that I had any control over what actually ended up being made, but they took my input and I felt very honoured to be a part of it.
Are there moments when you are telling this incredible story that it feels a little bizarre, even now?
I will always and forever regard this as being a defining experience in my life. It will always be a watershed. I also have my life in the present day that mostly revolves around my wife and our eight-month-old baby son that you see in the very final images of the film. And so finding that balance of sharing this gift that was given to me, an incredible experience, a great blessing, perhaps one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me in my life, this story, and then to give that to other people, is part of what I think I’m here to do. I was called to get out of the canyon in the way that I did, that I think it’s much a part of that calling in order to share this, because people need it.
I’ve needed stories of inspiration and hope in my life, I’ve been inspired by them, motivated just to get out and explore the outdoors, to find an identity that felt like me, to do things. So I can relate to that, about how we need these things as human beings, we need other people’s stories. So I do try to share my story and I think that’s important, it’s almost like a duty but then I also set boundaries. For me, sharing this story is not a burden but I also have to be careful not to let it override what I’m doing with the rest of my life.
Just on the back of that question, can I ask whether or not you are a religious person? And did your experience in the canyon make you more spiritual?
I definitely feel that my cosmology was reinforced by my experience in the canyon. I believe there are energies that connect us all and that’s what saved me. When I connected with the energy through the video camera I was connecting with my family – they were there with me. And that energy, to me, is love. And when we are connected to it we have the strength and courage to do amazing things, every one of us.
Do you enjoying watch reality shows like Survivor?
I think we all recognize that reality shows are just about anything but reality, and so I don’t really spend much time with them (laughs). For me, reality is spending time with my friends and loved ones, sometimes in the outdoors. Reality is playing with my baby son and doing something that makes him laugh or giggle and the wonderful feeling that evokes. It’s a 100 times better than the feeling I get when I climb a mountain. And I know we need entertainment in life but I tend to look for my entertainment, mostly, in film and through stories – stories that have that capacity for me to touch me and see something bigger in life.
Every second you were trapped must have felt like an hour. How did you focus your mind to stop yourself from going insane?
Well, there were basically two chains of thought. One was about how I was going to get free, and potentially rescue myself and survive the situation, so there was a lot of tactical and logistical kinds of issues. And then there was this emotional side of things that was about connecting with my family through the videotape – turning on the camcorder.
You see that very accurately represented in the film where James is totally absorbed in these logistical operations – trying to lift the boulder almost comically juxtaposed with Lovely Day on the soundtrack. And then there are the poignant moments where he’s very still and he’s talking right into the camera and saying ‘Mom and Dad, I regret that I haven’t perhaps appreciated you as much as I could have in my heart..’ and that was lifted verbatim from the tape I made.
And so it was a balance of this and there were moments of boredom, obviously, because I am a pretty restless person (laughs). And for several of my friends, after this, they’d told me, ‘you know, when I heard that you cut your arm off Aron, that didn’t really surprise me that much. That sounded like something you’d do…’ (laughs) I’m kind of like a shark, like stop moving and die, like, and that overwhelming desire for freedom built up and in the end, the pain didn’t matter.
And you know, the earphones for the CD player that I had got busted in the accident so as much as I would have loved to have been able to cue up a CD to distract myself and keep myself occupied for a while I wasn’t able to do that. So I was left with just this little snippets of other soundtracks and commercials and songs from movies, the Sesame Street song, like the counting song, (sings) 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12 (pauses) 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12, (laughs) and for four hours at one point that just went through my head. It’s like lying in bed at night with something going around in your head and you can’t shut it up. It’s almost torture in its own way.
In the film James, as you, says that you believe that the boulder had been waiting for you through the ages. Do you believe in fate?
I do think that life is an interplay between fate and freewill. I don’t think it’s all one or the other. I did think about that a lot in the canyon and I came to see that what that boulder was and again, that message, that conversation that James has in the video camera, it’s quite nearly lifted from my tape verbatim.
I think there was a part of me that wanted to know if it came to a life or death situation what I would do. And it was like, ‘now you know. And here’s your opportunity to find out..’ So I definitely thought about that, about how I’d been looking for this experience and what I would do. And it was tough, coming to terms with that, thinking ‘I’m going to die here..’ because I was questing and maybe I took it a little too far. Couldn’t I have learned these lessons some other way without it costing me my life?
Well in the end, it didn’t cost me my life, and I did learn some lessons, and as I mentioned, it’s an ongoing struggle to keep implementing those lessons, and not just get all wrapped up in the busyness of day to day life
You’ve seen the film with audiences. Do most people look away when it comes to the scene where James is cutting off his arm?
Well, I actually would dispute that most people look away. I do see a lot of people putting their hands up to their mouths, and they are like, ‘ohhh..’ They glance away but they come back, and they keep coming back to watch it. And it’s all building up to freedom and finally I think the audience feel gratitude that James had managed to get free. I watch it with a sense of gripped fascination. And especially the first few times I watched it, it was like ‘wow, that’s really well done..’ and I’m chewing on my popcorn. ‘Dang! That looks good!’ And James is so good that the first few times I watched it, it’s so real I didn’t even think he was acting. His response and his emotions are so realistic. I have to say that I think James does a phenomenal job with it and I’m really happy with what he does in the film.
You’ve been back to the canyon and the scene of your accident many times since it happened. What kind of emotions does that conjure up for you?
Each time it’s different but it’s always an intense experience to stand in that place. It’s also like a kind of check-up on myself. I find that I automatically take up the position that I had. The boulder is still there but after a few months the epitaph that I had etched on to the wall was scoured away by floods and after a year or so the bloodstains were gone, too. When I go there and touch that rock, well, it really is a touchstone for my life and I go back to that experience. It stripped away so much of the physical life and revealed the spiritual life underneath that surrounds us. It takes me back to that moment of joy, that moment when I finally cut my arm off and got free. I stepped out of my grave. It’s a chance to relive that time and it reminds me of how grateful I am to be alive.
The last time I went, my son was three months old when I was out in the canyon and we were there on the anniversary of my entrapment, as part of the film making, and I took my camera out of my pocket, and was looking through my photographs of my baby son that I’d taken just before leaving, and then I turned the camera around and I was showing the rock, (laughs) like a little slideshow, saying look, ‘here he is…’ (laughs)
It’s almost like this boulder is part of my life and a part of the family in a way. I asked the production designer if I would be able to get a copy, one of the fake boulders they used in the film, to put in my back garden, just as a souvenir of the film. It’s a reminder of what happened to me and it reminds me of the euphoria I felt when I cut the last strand and I was overwhelmed with joy. I was breathing so hard I thought I was going to pass out. I was hyperventilating and this euphoria was pulsing up and down through my body. It was an incredible sense of being alive and if I can remember just a little bit of that it’s an extraordinarily powerful experience. And the closest I get to that is when I’m there in that place. I can’t wait to take my son there one day and stand with him at the rock and to be able to share that with him. That’s going to be really cool.
Did you realise when it was happening that if you survived, it would make an incredibly powerful story?
When I was cutting my arm the one meta thought I had was how this was going to make one hell of a story to tell my friends around a camp fire some day. It wasn’t like, wow, I’m going to become famous and go on CNN. When the media started to get interested I was asking the question ‘why do people care?’ And I think the answer is that we need these kinds of stories. We need them because we live lives that are removed from the kind of existential struggles that we faced generations ago. And it’s like the miners trapped in Chile for months, we connect with stories like that because we ask ourselves ‘what would I do if it was me? What am I capable of?
And then we also have our own struggles, we also have our own boulders, our own burdens and entrapments, and I think we need to be reminded that we are imminently capable of. When I was trapped I was not thinking ‘this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me..’ But as I was cutting my arm off I was smiling, I felt that smile on my face. And if it’s possible for me to smile as I’m doing the most painful thing that is ever going to happen to me in my life there’s potential for all kinds of shifts in the perspective of life. And I think that resonates with people.
And so that’s why I’ve come to accept that people care, and it’s not about me, but about this story that was channelled through me. And I am so grateful for Danny to have shared it in such an authentic way too.
How long did you spend in the hospital and what was the first thing you did when you came out?
I was actually in various hospitals for more than a month. I had five surgeries, a bout of infection, a bone infection in my arm – anti biotic treatment, narcotics, sleeping pills, all of this stuff that meant, yeah I was alive, but I was actually more free when I was in the canyon. After seven days in the hospital I was far worse off physically than when I was six days trapped in the canyon. And that’s not a commentary about the quality of care I was receiving, it’s just that’s what my experience was, being laid up on a bed for a week was much worse than being trapped in the canyon.
So ironically, it was a mental and emotional struggle. I’d gotten out of the canyon; I’d gone through this, for what? It felt like I got free in order to become more trapped, more confined. I couldn’t get to the bathroom without help and I struggled with that. There was also a self-esteem issue – I was a self-reliant independent person and there I was dependent and relying on others.
But, eventually, I was able to keep the long-term perspective that I would get back to my life and believe that I would wean myself off all the various medications and treatments. And thanks to all those treatments, and the support of my family and the health care practitioners that worked with, I was able to get back to my life. And you know, people writing to me in hospital helped, too. Some said ‘your story was light in the darkness and it saved me from suicide and I’m very grateful for that, thank you for your story..’ And that was the moment when I decided to write a book about what had happened to me and I knew that some day that book would be made into a film. I needed to do that to continue to reach people.
So what did you do when you were released from the hospital? Did you go grab a beer?
There were three things that I really wanted to do. The first one was to go home with my family, the second one was to take a walk outside with my friends, and the third one was to enjoy a big, cold, frosted margarita that I had been fantasizing about in the canyon (laughs). And I very quickly did all three of those things – I was able to go home with my family, my friends all came over, and we went for a walk, just down the street where I my parents live where I was recuperating. And a few weeks later after that I was off the medication and it was safe for me to have alcohol and I had that margarita, and it was damn good! (laughs)
So what’s next?
I’m heading back home to be with my family. Just being a parent and a husband, working on that.
What is your job now?
Partly public speaking, also writing, I’m going to write another book, an updated memoir about my transformations and journeys since the accident.
So how active are you now?
I still stay active, but it’s certainly different. My weight training is mostly in carrying my baby around. We go on hikes and I carry my son – and that’s wonderful. I’m a very proud dad.