A conversation with Aron Ralston
In 2003 Aron Ralston was brash young man looking for adventure. But while exploring the slot canyons of the Utah desert he found himself trapped miles from home deep within a underground chasm his right arm crushed and pinned by a massive boulder. There he lay stranded with no hope of rescue for five days. Rolston’s story was portrayed in the 2010 film 127 Hours starting James Franko.
In order to escape from circumstance that would have meant certain death Ralston was forced to amputate his own arm. But he would go one to inspire millions through his incredible story of survival and perseverance through his bestselling book Between a Rock & a Hard Place. Ralstonwas the keynote speaker at the bi-annual meeting of the Conservation Alliance during 2012 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City Utah. Immediately following his presentation I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his ordeal and what inspired him to live to tell his story.
JTP: Many people have seen the film and have read the book. The film is called 127 Hours. And the book is called Between a Rock and a Hard Place and it tells your story of a very harrowing experience in the Utah desert. I’ll leave it to other people to get an idea as to what it is that, that story meant to them, but perhaps you can give me an idea. In the film, how accurate was James Franko’s portrayal of your story? What did they get right? What did they get wrong?
Ralston: Well I worked with the film team for seven years as it was to take it all the way from when I wrote my book to turn it into a script and then selecting a director and working with them to choose James as they did to depict me and my experience. And even working with James then to coach him through the actions. He’s admittedly not an outdoorsman and to get him familiar with the desert, to get him an understanding of my experience. Not that he was trying to impersonate me so much, but to take an audience through my entrapment, the psychological aspects of the ordeal that I endured and then the liberation, the release, the triumph of it all too. And I thought it was very accurately portrayed, both from the overarching emotional stories, the themes that they highlighted about love and family and also the very physical and factual aspects of it too, all wrapped up in this extraordinary film adaptation of my experience. I think that people who watch it they know what I went through. You feel it really as you watch the film. So I was extremely pleased with what they did. I was that the point where I’m watching it with my sister a couple of times and as she’s seeing it for the first time she’s like elbowing me and slapping me on the knee saying , “That’s so you! They totally nailed it!” Even with my family they saw how genuine it was and to do that and at the same time really make a film that moves people? That’s not an easy thing. You usually have to choose one or the other, but they got it both. They got this amazing film, I thought very powerful and inspiring and then also sometimes resonated with my experience that showed that genuine portrayal. Even with my faults, somethings I’m not necessarily proud of, mistakes and foibles as they are. I couldn’t have been happier.
JTP: Your experience was both physically and emotionally traumatic. Can you give me an idea, can your subscribe for me what was the greatest moment of despair for you?
Ralston: I think that the darkest point of the entrapment came after I had eliminated all my options of escape and was really left with still the idea that I could amputate my arm. It’s just that I wasn’t desperate enough yet and then as I became more desperate on the third day I tried to cut into my arm. I couldn’t even cut through the skin. I felt despair and thought I’d bottomed out at that point. But then later on the fourth day I had this kind of epiphany of sorts, that I could take the knife and hold it like a dagger and try to stab myself to get through the skin. And as I was successful in that, I had this moment of elation. But then just as equally, the turn around was then I touched the bone in my arm with the knife blade tip and I knew that I would never be able to cut through the bone that was there. I could probably have sooner carved through the rock itself with this knife, which I had tried and tried and tried and failed at. That was I think the lowest point was to know that, that there was nothing now that I could do. All options had been exhausted. No one was coming for me. No one knows where I am. I can’t move the rock. I can’t cut my arm off. And it just meant that I was going to die there. Absolutely, assuredly I was going to die there. And it wasn’t that I was procrastinating, to figure our how to cut my arm off. It was just that I’d tried and tried and tried and I couldn’t. Then a turn around on the fifth day was that I actually came to a place of acceptance of that. And so in a way it kind of got better as the time wore on. The fourth day was probably the darkest moment, but still I was able to turn on my video camera, talk to my family, my parents, my sister, my best friends, all of these loved ones in my life, and I felt comforted. And it buoyed me up. It should me I was getting along, I was surviving, not just on the physical elements, even of the absurd level of drinking my own urine, but it was reminding myself of the great memories of my life. To be able to say thank you, to feel the gratitude and the love that was there in my life. And if that’s all that I got to have, I’ve had it pretty good. That peace, that gratitude, that is what I felt then through what I know finally came what I knew would be the end, the final night, which was the final night not because I had perished but because I had another eureka experience and understood how I could get out even with a knife that’s too dull to cut through the bones.
JTP: What I find fascinating is that you went through the complete arch of despair to acceptance and at that point I have to assume that you came to peace with the choices that you made, with the life you had decided to lead. But through the course of your story you also experienced a vision in which you met in your imagination your future son, Leo. Can you tell me, how did that experience shape your ability to survive and live? And could it be that, that vision helped you to decide that you had a future?
Ralston The vision absolute showed my that I was not going to die in the canyon. And it was powerful experience that came at a time when I knew that I was going to die that night. I was convinced of it. I’d even etched my epitaph into the canyon wall. And then date chanced and I didn’t even bother to change it because was knew that I was not going to see the dawn. It was just a matter of fact. I was going to cross over and it was only a matter of minutes. And then this experience, this out of body experience, this vision, this premonition of my interaction with what would be my future son, this little blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy. Even the details of the red collared shirt, the polo shirt playing with his truck on the living room floor and then scooping him up in my arms and him coming to me as though I had just come home from a trip. And that showed me, it rekindled the hope that I had given up. I had even at that point had given up hope that I would ever get out there. It showed me that I was going to see it through in a positive way and he gave me the courage. This little boy gave me the courage to make it through, and then as I figured out how to get free it was the most beautiful experience of my life, to escape that place, to be free, to be liberated and to have all the joy and happiness and delight of my life as a possibility again, to have him in my life today. He’s two-and-a-half and he’s such a beautiful experience that I get to have the honor and the privilege to have him and to be that little child from when I met him 9 and a half years ago, to have him from that vision 9 and half years ago to today is this experience. I know some day we’ll go out there and we’ll go see the canyon, take a look at that place where I met him for the first time and have something that we share in a kind of like a metaphysical way it could tell me that there’s so much more to this story, even as it is, but this life in general for all of us. Then really just what appears at the surface. There’s some very deep energies that we occasionally tape into, kind of lifting the vail of what’s underneath all of this. But it takes a lot of sometimes the extreme circumstances of life or death to get to that point of where all the day to day gets striped away and you get to that core that’s behind the mist. So yeah that aspect of the experience is probably the most profound and then also the most touching still. I get choked up because I know today that if I had to do it all over again, yeah I would cut my other hand off in order to try to get back to him.
JTP: This might be a slightly more difficult question: You’re probably familiar with Christopher McCandless, the character in the Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild. He had an experience that could be compared slightly to yours. Unfortunately he died. And I’m curious to know if you’ve given any thought to how your story might have been different should you have perished?
Ralston: Oh, undoubtedly different. And yet his story inspired me, even from beyond the grave in it being shared as Krakauer’s book was a story that I read and in the years far before my entrapment. It inspired me to get out there. Amongst several of Jon Krakauer’s other books included Into Thin Air and then other survival stories, adventure stories, misadventures. Most often the best stories are where something terribly wrong has happened. I think that’s just as inspiring to lead me out, to leave my job, I almost idolized Chris McCandless in a way, the supertramp, to get out and live that life that’s free of the societal chains, the strictures that felt like they were confining me. And it wasn’t my life. It felt like I was wearing a ill-fitted suit that just wasn’t for me and to cast that aside, and he was somebody who inspired me to do that to leave a career and even a lifestyle behind and to live to my dream to follow my passion. But he was also a cautionary tale. I told myself I’m going to be like him. But when I go out I’ll be better prepared. I’ll be better trained. I’ll have better gear and equipment. And so that was my path and still none of that is a guarantee. It doesn’t provide a cloak of protection around you. There’s still all those thousands of micro decisions that go into every outing and at some point one of those might go awry, as it did. And yet I was looking for that. My fascination with some of these stories was such that I created an experience for myself where I tested myself to find out what am I capable of, who am I? what metal was in me? And it was Chris McCandless, among others whose stories planted that question in me in the first place. For my experience to have ended differently, and it very easily could have, in so many ways. There’s all these little things that came together to create a miracle that I did get out. But maybe my story might have still inspired others, perhaps in a slightly different way. And obviously for me and my family it would have been much, much different. But we do make choices, even as there is a tragedy that might result in a loved ones passing, that we make choices about what are we going to do with that and for some families as they loose loved ones then they then go on to help others, to be there to enrich the lives of others as that’s part of our purpose. We find it no matter what circumstances delivers us some opportunity even if it comes in the form of a tragedy, but we choose then to make it into something that might be a blessing.
JTP: So now moving forward you’re working now to help raise awareness for the preservation of wilderness. How is your story inspiring people to get outside and preserve wild places? Or could it be that your cautionary tale might actually be discouraging people from being outside?
Ralston: Well I have heard from a few folks that, “I’ve heard your story and I’m never leaving the house again!” But far more have told me that they were never all that interested in the outdoors and they decided that they wanted to climb a mountain. But regardless there’s some inspiration, people have written to me letters that said it inspired them to plant a garden. Even folks who, not activity oriented at all, but who are in the midst of depression and who said that my story helped them to get through as in self-intervention in their own mind, to show them there’s something worth living for, to set aside even plans for suicide and to embrace the love that they have, maybe for their grandchildren. It helps and touches people in innumerable and unfathomable ways that I never could have imagined any of that. It’s something that’s given a gift to me that as a gift from the wilderness to be able to give back through conservation efforts, through trying to protect for example the great Canyonlands region, which includes Blue John where my entrapment to place in southern Utah, to maybe even have that protected as a national monument down the road to be protected as a wilderness, designated forever to keep it as it is, which is still pristine, but it’s under threat, from energy extraction, especially oil and gas drilling as it gets ever closer into the farther reaches of our backcounty. It won’t take more than a few more years of inaction and the relentless consumption of our natural resources in these pristine places and they will be forever changed if not gone. It’s I think my duty to that place that has given me so much as well as our collective responsibility to steward these lands that we are effectively borrowing in a sense from the future. I think it’s our obligation to see them through into the future. We’ve received them from the past in their state that’s taken, by and large 4 billion years for the earth to have gotten to this point and here even just in a generation we have the opportunity, as dangerous as it is to perhaps go after every last burp of gas or drop of oil and at the cost of at least in Utah 9 million acres of pristine landscape. I see it as as personal mission almost, a calling to be a part of the processes and the advocacy to try to keep a few of these very special places as they are. And also in Colorado where it’s my home the place where I first found myself in those first adventures to get out and test myself and to connect. I think the more that we get out there, maybe as my story inspires people, maybe young people, the more that people engage the outdoors that connect with it, they find an ownership in it and that ownership begets stewardship and hopefully the conservation of wild lands.
The book Between a Rock and Hard Place is published by Simon & Schuster and available in paper and audiobook. The film 127 Hours is out on DVD and Blueray. Aron Ralston is now a public speaker. He continues to climb and lives with his family in Aspen Colorado.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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