In 2003, Aron Ralston went hiking in Utah. But while he was climbing down a narrow slot in Blue John Canyon, a boulder became dislodged, crushing his right forearm and pinning it against the wall. For five and a half days, Ralston struggled to get free, contemplating his own fate, until he was forced to do the unthinkable. One hundred and twenty seven hours into his ordeal, he amputated his arm. Now, British filmmaker Danny Boyle has chronicled the events that day in a new film. Here, Ralston tells WideWorld his incredible story of survival against the odds.
Out of the grave
I realised early on that I was going to have to cut my arm off to get free but there was also resistance: I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to do it. But by the second day I was already figuring out how I could do it, so in the film you see that progression: trying to cut into the arm like a saw – back and forth – then by the fourth day being able to stab into the arm, finding the tourniquet, then the realisation that the knife was too dull to get through the bone. That despair was followed by a kind of peace; a realisation that I was going to die there and there was nothing I could do. It was no longer up to me. All I could do was see it through to the end, and I resolved I would not kill myself.
Finally, there was this epiphany of how I could cut my arm off – and that came in the very final moments. I felt my bone bend and I realised I could use the boulder to break it. It was like fireworks going off – I was going to get out of there.
The boulder was crushing my wrist tightly and so everything towards the fingertips was numb. It’s called compartment syndrome – when the nerves and blood vessels are pinched, so that the tissue goes into necrosis and dies. And my hand was decomposing, so when the knife penetrated my thumb I heard this hissing. But the part where I eventually cut my arm – the point where the bones broke – were proximal to my elbow, so I could feel all of that. And in fact severing the nerve severed a direct line to my brain. The central nervous system is right there.
The scene where my character actually amputates his arm is graphic but I think it’s appropriate. You couldn’t show any less of it and still understand what I went though. Without having to belabour it, the actual amputation lasted over an hour. So I think three minutes on film is just right. And audiences have cheered and clapped. It was very euphoric for me. In the film, (the actor who plays me) James Franco laughs maniacally because he’s broken his bone and that’s how it was for me. I had this huge grin on my face as I picked up that knife to start this horrific thing. It was traumatic but it was a blessing to be able to get out of there.
It was both extremes of pain and absolute elation. I had to keep myself from passing out from that pain – that most incinerating, excruciating sensation of cutting the nerve. And that was the crux of it because as that sensation subsided, I was still there – and closer than I’d ever been to being free. The following moments, when I stepped out out of my grave where I’d been hidden for five and a half days, were amazing. I was able to get out of there and step back into my life again. The closest I’ve come to being able to describe it is as a rebirth because I’d already accepted I was going to die. So it was all the joys of love and connection and discovery and wonder and amazement compressed into one moment. You take all the joys of life and put them in that one moment – and that was that moment of getting free.
It nearly made me pass out. If I’d had to stand of my own two feet right then, I would have passed out. I was braced between the two walls of the canyon, my feet on one side, and I caught my breath and I calmed myself down, and started gathering my stuff to get out of there. And I took a picture of the rock and my severed hand as a kind of a ‘screw you – I’m outta here’. I never felt antipathy to the boulder – it was actually towards my hand. It was, after all, the boulder that eventually enabled me to get free because I used it to break my bones. So I didn’t project any anger or resentment to the rock. The boulder fell. My hand got in the way.
I have been back to the same canyon 10 times – with friends, with news crew and with the producers of the film. They even shot some of the film there and they built a replica of the actual spot on a sound stage. They took cast mouldings of the walls and surveyed the canyon with a laser so it looked exactly the same. They filmed in the actual canyon, though, for a week – the scenes in which I walk up to the spot where the accident happens were filmed there, then the actual accident – where the boulder tumbles – was shot on the sound stage, but from moment I am free they are back in the real canyon again. The rappelling scene is the actual place I rappelled, the pool I drink from is real pool and the hike out of there is the same hike.
The effort they went to bring all those details and that accuracy is incredible.
The first time I went back it hit me how real it was. I came down into canyon the same way I had that day, remembering – oh yeah, this is the spot where I was so happy, and this was where the boulder dropped. Then my mood got real heavy really fast. That day I emptied out the cremated remains of my hand into the canyon. Leaving the hand there a second time connected me back with the euphoria I felt when I got out, remembering the love of my family and friends that had kept me alive.
A life of adventure
Since the accident I’ve finished climbing all 58 of Colorado’s mountains over 14,000 feet, solo in winter. I think I’m still the only person to have done this – it’s some of the deadliest snowpack in the world. And I don’t say that for self-aggrandisement but just to say that’s where I was at in my life when I walked into that canyon back in 2003. I was accustomed to being in far, far riskier environments and managing and mitigating that risk. So I thought going into that canyon was a walk in the park – there were no avalanches, it was a beautiful day and I was essentially just walking. There was a small technical aspect where I had to set up one rappel but I was double and triple checking everything. The irony is that I eventually made that same rappel successfully after amputating my arm and being deliriously deprived of sleep for five days.
I certainly realise I made a misjudgement not telling anyone where I was going: If you want someone to show up and help you if something bad happens, you’d better tell someone where you’re going. And of course I wanted someone to know – but I made a choice and it was a choice I was going to have to live with.
In the immediate aftermath and recovery from the accident I went through a process of reclaiming that self-reliance and independence which was incredibly important to my identity. It was how I was defining myself. So I really had this transformational epiphany that life isn’t just about what I do but it’s about who I am, how I relate to people, how I love. I knew I’d survived on love – it’s how it got me out of there. And then I went about ignoring that epiphany – I decided it was my goal for many years that I wouldn’t let what happened change me. I did the winter soloing project, developed prosthetics that enabled me to get back to those experiences, got into ultrarunning, extreme mountaineering and attained the highest level of whitewater rafting – all to prove to myself and others that I was a capable person. I had this enhanced sense of invincibility that if the accident in Utah hadn’t been enough to kill me, nothing could. And I realised somewhere along the way that I was just headed back to that same spot in the canyon where my life was on the line.
In 2006 I lost three friends to suicide and it was a wake-up call. I’d been given a second chance. I could be doing more with my non-profit work where I was taking disabled veterans climbing and helping empower at-risk youth, so I set about doing that as a new source of fulfilment, but it was still ego-driven in a way. I realised it was time to start settling down.
I’d fallen in love with a woman but she broke up with me and I was devastated. Six months later I went into a suicidal depression from the break-up of the relationship, but I resolved to not do what my friends had done. And so I reached out for help. If there’s any extreme juxtaposition of self-reliance it’s needing help. So I sought counselling, I did meditation, talked to friends and my mum – everything I could. I was feeling very vulnerable, exposed, wanting to change my life.
Then, in the early winter of 2007 I was at a pub in Aspen watching a friend’s band play and I met this woman, Jessica, who was also there to watch her friend who was in the same band. She bought me a beer, we started talking and the next day we went hiking. It was ironic as I only went into pubs about twice a year, so of all the places I’d expected to meet my wife – this wasn’t one. And she played a huge role in my healing. She had confidence in me so she threw down the gauntlet. She held me to a higher standard than I even held myself. And that’s where I’m finally at today – my life is about being with my family, being with Leo, our son. This is what’s important.
I wrote a book because I’d seen how this story was a legacy for other people and an inspiration. And it was very touching and I wanted to continue – and the film was the inevitable next step. It led me to realise that my life had to be more than about me.
At the end of the film you see my real family sitting on that couch – me, Jessica and Leo. And I believe that’s why I got out of that canyon, so that I could find them. The experience of seeing the film is something that has connected me with them. It’s very authentic and portrays what I went through incredibly accurately. It comes across very truthfully and therefore it has a profound impact on audience members, including my friends and family. My loved ones will never set foot in an actual canyon but they get to experience what I went through. I cry when I get to the end of it. But it feels like a gift to be able to have this and share it with my mum and sister and someday with my baby son who’s just nine months old right now.
That’s the thing I appreciate most about this film. Danny Boyle saw this as being a story that illuminates and demonstrates an aspect of the human spirit that is actually very common. We have these very fundamental desires for freedom, for love and for connection. And these things are so powerful.
On the poster for the film it says there is no force on earth more powerful than the will to live. I say – except for the will to love. And that’s really what got me out of there.