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On April 26, 2003, the boulder fell. It was colossal, easily hundreds of pounds, impossible for a 160-pound man like Aron Ralston to lift off his crushed right hand. Reality quickly set in: The Aspen resident was trapped in Blue John Canyon, a remote slot canyon in Canyonlands National Park, and facing the greatest challenge of his adventure-packed life.
If you’re a longtime Coloradan, an outdoorsy human, or even just a James Franco fan, you’re probably familiar with the rest of the story: After six days, Ralston managed to break his own arm, hike for miles, get rescued by a helicopter, write a New York Times–bestselling memoir, and eventually see his improbable escape turned into the Academy Award–nominated movie 127 Hours.
So what exactly do you do after all of that? In the 15 years since his accident, Ralston has continued to triumph in the wilderness, becoming the first person to climb all 59 of Colorado’s fourteeners solo in winter, and has transformed what could have been a tragic experience into a lucrative public speaking career. This past Friday, for instance, Ralston headlined the last general session at the massive 2018 Magnet Conference at the Colorado Convention Center, regaling close to 10,000 nurses with his epic tale and the idea that everyone has “boulders” they need to conquer. Ralston sat down with 5280 after his riveting speech to learn more about his 127-hour ordeal, the lessons he’s learned, and how he’s grown in the decade and a half since his experience.
5280: What prompted you to start public speaking—or, on an even deeper level, to think that other people might be able to gain something from your experience?
AR: The prompting was really going all the way back to when it first happened, when I was getting cards in the hospital from strangers who had heard my story and wrote to tell me it had affected them. One that in the early days stuck out was a grandmother who wrote to tell me she had been contemplating suicide on the anniversary of her husband’s passing. She’d saved his sleeping pills and was going to overdose if she wasn’t over it and then read my story in People magazine. It was an inauspicious mechanism of salvation, but she wrote this card to say it had shone a light in the darkness for her, that she had flushed the sleeping pills. She figured that if I had something to live for, that she clearly had something to live for—her four grandchildren—and I’d reminded her of that.
So knowing things like that that people had shared with me, and saying, ‘OK, well I want this to be a legacy once that People magazine is off the shelves.’ There’s something still there for folks when they need it. We’re all experiencing the “boulders,” the traumas—a woman who lost her brother in Afghanistan, that phone call when you find out that your mom’s got brain cancer. We need that light to shine when it feels like it’s just too much and we can’t deal. Like I said in my speech, we’re a lot more capable than what we think of ourselves as being.
What was the biggest “boulder” for you when you were stuck in the canyon? Was it cutting off your own arm, or something else?
While I was there in those hours and days, it was mostly maintaining my motivation. I think the problem solving of how to cut my arm off—that was the issue that I was trying to resolve, but that was more a how-to kind of thing than a getting my gumption up. Once I figured out the puzzle, it was like, ‘That’s it, that’s it, get out of here.’ Before that, it was mostly keeping myself from using the knife to cut myself enough that I would bleed to death on purpose. I was thinking, ‘This is just going to keep getting worse. Why wait for it? I’m not going to get out of it here so why not just end it now?’ And yet that was where I also had to tap into something that said, ‘No, it’s worth every minute that I spend here, that I see this through to the very end and I don’t take action against myself; I don’t commit suicide in this moment.’ And that was hard.
I’ve had other times in my life when I’ve been in suicidal depression from ended relationships, other experiences—and I’ve lost friends to suicide, too—that it’s in the depth of that, then, to find something that’s worth the pain of life. While I was trapped, it was to turn on the camera and reconnect with my family. Depression in so many ways is a disconnection from love, so in the moments when I feel depression, I reconnect through love with the people who are important to me.
Getting back to the canyon—have you been studied by medical professionals? Because you shouldn’t have survived for that long.
I haven’t submitted myself to medical testing like, ‘Here’s my brain.’ [Chuckles.] We’ll see at the end of all this. There was a woman in the book signing line who said, ‘I wrote my psychology thesis on you.’ She’s talking about defense mechanisms and fight-or-flight response. The way I see it, though, is I’m not abnormal or superhuman or anything else other than a person who was put into an extraordinary set of circumstances for which I was particularly attuned to. You don’t get to be an experienced adventurer without going through a lot of misadventures along the way and fully learning through that.
I used to do things in my 20s prior to my amputation, like voluntarily fasting for a week, just to see what my body would go through as it shifts. Your metabolism changes and starts to consume the muscle and fat resources, and knowing that, OK, that’s not going to be the big deal here. Yeah, I don’t have very much food, but the water? Rationing my water, figuring out how to use my rope bag to make a little hood. I would humidify that air inside of the rope bag ‘cuz it was like a Gore-Tex enclosure, and theoretically then I was recapturing some of the moisture inside of that space as opposed to just breathing moist air out into the dry desert for six days. Maybe some of that helped. Preserving my body heat, improvising clothing, all these little things I was able to do in that situation helped me. That I was very athletically fit, probably at the peak fitness of my life , being that my metabolism was already very efficient, again helped, but clearly I was consuming myself as I existed there.
So I think that there are other things; one of the miracles of the rescue was that I was able to hike for all that distance and make it to the place where the helicopter saw me. If I hadn’t made it that far at the exact time within minutes one way or the other, then I bleed to death. Had I figured out how to cut my arm off a day earlier or had a sharper knife and no rescue at that point, and I’m dead. There are miraculous aspects to it. It’s not all necessarily explainable in a sense, and the mere fact that I am still here is one of the most metaphysically astonishing things that I’ve experienced. The energies of the universe that we’re a part of, maybe we don’t tap into except in perhaps the most extraordinary moments.
Has your health been affected long-term?
In some ways, the confidence I gained from this probably only put my health more at risk, at least in the short- to mid-term, until I was able to learn what the real lessons of that were. I kept doing things that were even more challenging and dangerous along the five, six years afterward. Then I realized by 2008, 2009, ‘Oh, if I don’t really recalibrate my sense of risk tolerance, I’m just going to end up in another Blue John Canyon and this time I’m not going to get out of it ‘cuz it’s going to be even more extreme.’ That realization is kind of scary. Maybe there’s some lessons here that I need to start actually implementing, and not just say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to let it change me.’ It’s time to let it change you, Aron.
Sounds like you’ve reckoned with some of the decisions you made that put you in that precarious situation, like going out by yourself and not telling anyone where you were going.
I still on occasion go out on my own, but mostly when I have time to go into the wilderness, I’m going to go with my friends because that’s how we enjoy our time together. But I still am presently working on skiing the fourteeners, which is a very ambitious thing. I turn 43 tomorrow [October 27], and I’m not sure I’ll get all the way through this list. They only get harder from this point. (I’m about two-thirds of the way through.) I have to make sure that not only do I come back in one piece, but that I’m ready when I walk in the door to be a dad for my kids. And that means there’s different constraints than perhaps there used to be, especially before I had kids.
I think some of the lessons I also took from it were that yes, I made choices to go out by myself and not tell anyone, and OK, you can usually do one of those two things. But realizing that I made choices that created this—I even came to that while I was trapped by the rock and understood I must have wanted this to happen in some way and realizing a) I’m going to learn something about myself that I’ve always wanted to know, which is when it’s life or death, what are you going to do, Aron? It was kind of a subliminal question that I had asked myself from reading other stories like Into Thin Air way back in the ’90s. You wanted to find out—this is your chance. And b) that the power of making choices gives you the power of being accountable to your choices, which gives you the power to make new choices, to create a different future for yourself. You’ve retained that not to burden yourself with guilt and regret but rather to say it’s the empowerment of creating a new reality for myself going forward.
What was your recovery like?
I still have most of my right arm, but it ends where your wristwatch would be. I’m one-handed, definitely. A lot of times, it feels like there’s even more of a disability in a sense because I was right handed. It’d be different if I amputated my non-dominant hand. But we all know that feeling of you wish you had another hand to do something, and that happens more often for me probably than the average. [Laughs.]
But so much of what I do—rock climbing or playing piano or making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or peeling an orange—I’ve adapted. I’ve learned how to do all these things with one hand. Or using adaptive devices like my prosthetics that allow me to hold onto the oar handle of a raft and row through the Grand Canyon. There’s very little that I did prior to my amputation that I don’t do today. Probably the greatest disability I have is when I’m playing catch with my son, and he wants me to throw the football in these running patterns. Like I’m sorry—I’m going to throw it behind you about as much as I’m going to get it in front of you. I’m just not left-handed, sorry, buddy. Or shuffling cards. That’s where it’s like, ‘OK, now I feel like I have a disability. Where’s my placard?’
I imagine it was probably easier adapting to that having been able to get through the experience with the boulder.
In a healthy mindset, there’s that kind of perspective you can take where it’s like, ‘I got through that. I can handle this.’ But then there’s other times where the unhealthy response is, ‘Haven’t I gone through enough? Why do I have to endure this hardship, too?’ And that’s not as helpful. One of the big things I’ve learned with just the context of struggling to be one-handed or non-dominant handed is going slow to go fast. I can’t get in a mindset of rushing in order to make things go faster. I have to actually downshift so I’m going slower in order to be more efficient and get through. It’s like the antidote of anxiety is to take a breath instead of getting ramped up.
Have you felt called to be an advocate in the disability space?
I’ve done some work in that realm with Paradox Sports, a group that started in Boulder and now has programmatic reach across the country. The paradox is that people with disabilities are doing things like rock climbing, stand-up paddleboarding, ice climbing—stuff that 99 percent of the average full-bodied people in this country aren’t doing. I was an ambassador with them for the better part of a decade, but I’m less involved with them today. I mostly work in environmental conservation programs in Utah and Colorado. I’ve been trying to use awareness of my experience to say, ‘Yes, whatever we have all taken from this story that I get to share, it came from a place.’ If it weren’t for a place—a wild place where you could be for six days without somebody coming across you—we wouldn’t have this, any of it. So I feel indebted to wild spaces and try to do what I can to bring some balance.
What are your thoughts about the adventure-related deaths we’ve had in Colorado recently, i.e., five folks who died on Capitol Peak last year?
Having volunteered with Mountain Rescue Aspen for almost a decade when I lived up there, I was out on a lot of those kind of recovery missions. Thankfully, we were able to bring a lot of people back to their families in one form or another. The shift I think that’s mostly been happening in recent years has been the influence of social media in a lot of cases, the ‘look-at-me’ phenomena. Which has always been there. I mean, I took selfies on summits before they were called selfies. But it can put us at more risk. ‘The mountains don’t care’ is something that we’ve long known. It’s not about conquering a place as much as it is to improve ourselves. That’s why we apply ourselves to this. I don’t know if it’s as much a reckoning about the experience and the adventures, but it’s a recalibration of what is it for, why are we doing this. Capitol Peak is not the first fourteener that you go out to climb. You start at a place where you can experience a non-fatal learning curve, as steep as you can make it and yet still come home.
I also have to be self-conscious about the fact that I’ve made my mistakes, and I’ve been very fortunate there were people who were there to bring me back. I can’t get too judgmental about it all. I do think that for anyone who’s going to go adventure and push themselves and explore, find out what they’re made of in these beautiful, remote, wild places that we have, that they do it with the sensibility of starting at a place that’s appropriate and building from a foundation that gets them back to their families at the end of every day.
Do you feel like you’ve become sort of a symbol for the state in that way?
It is funny in a sense about being known for this rather large misadventure I had. That means that I’ve heard, ‘Oh, you inspired me to climb my first fourteener,’ or for other people, ‘You inspired me to never go outside; I’m going to just sit on my couch from now on.’ But I know that folks have gone to Blue John Canyon ‘cuz they read my book and tried to use the little map in the front cover to find their way. That’s not what we’re doing, people. That’s a good way to go get stuck and lost for six days. But I also see that what I did reminds people of what any of us can be capable of when we’re put to the test, although that doesn’t have to be in the outdoors. It can come in so many other ways, too. As former search and rescue, I do want to encourage people to pay your dues and don’t get in over your head because that’s where, unfortunately, you don’t come home.