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Who is Aron Ralston? | The Man who Sacrificed his Arm to Save his Life

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Aron Lee Ralston is an American mechanical engineer, motivational speaker, mountaineer and author who is known for amputating his arm to save himself. Specialising in outdoor activities, Aron was already an experienced sportsman when his canyoning accident occurred. His fall into Blue John Canyon occurred on April 26, 2003 when he was only 27 years old. 

He was trapped in the canyon for almost 6 days, 127 hours to be accurate.

He turned his experience into a career as an author and motivational speaker to share his mistakes and triumphs with the general public. 

Aron Ralston was born on October 27, 1975 in Marion, Ohio. He grew up in Denver, Colorado and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1997 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and French. He then worked at Intel for 5 years, before resigning in 2002 to move to Aspen, Colorado.

During his 5 years at Intel, Aron acquired skills in mountaineering and outdoor activities in general. His position with Ute Mountaineering and his work as a rafting guide during the summers are testament to this. In his spare time, he had set himself the goal of climbing all fourteen Colorado mountains solo and in winter, which would be a world first. The fourteen are all the mountains above 4,267 metres  (≃14,000 feet) in Colorado, of which there are 58. 🏔 

Despite this attractive resume, Aron was still young when on Saturday, April 26, 2003, he made a basic mistake: not telling anyone where he was going. This overconfidence cost him 127 hours of nightmares and an arm...  

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Identity card

aron ralston portrait

Aron Ralston will speak at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, on Thursday, Sept. 22. Author : Penn State (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Name : Ralston

First Name : Aron

Sex :

Date of birth : 27 October 1975

Place of birth: Marion, Ohio,(USA)

Activity: Mechanical engineer, motivational speaker, mountain climber, author

Nationality: American 

📕Book: Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston (2004)

🎥Film: 127 Hours by Danny Boyle (2010)

The Man and the Rock

Aron Ralston's accident begins on Friday, April 25, 2003 at 11pm when our protagonist parked his truck west of Canyonlands National Park. The next day, he rode his mountain bike and then walked south of Maze-Robbers Roost Road to Blue John Canyon where he began to descend some particularly narrow and deep slots. 

The canyoning trip went well until he leaned on a large hanging rock to descend. He thought the rock was stable, but it wasn't, the boulder dislodged, smashing his left hand before getting stuck between his right hand and the canyon wall. Alone, in the middle of nowhere, without having warned anyone and without a mobile phone, Aron was on his own... 💩

aron ralston rock

Rock where Aron Ralson got stuck. Caboose. Author: John Fowler (CC BY-NC 2.0)

"I go from being out on a lark in a beautiful place and just being so happy and carefree to, like, oh shit. I fell a few feet, in slow motion, I look up and the boulder is coming and I put my hands up and try to push myself away and it collides and crushes my right hand." said Ralston in an interview 

Ralston described the pain of the boulder falling on his hand as 100 times more painful than getting his finger smashed in a door. Not surprising when you consider that the big rock weighed 360 kg (≃800 lbs). After trying to get himself unstuck by moving back and forth and insulting the boulder, Aron realised that he was really in trouble. 

He also had to force himself to stop drinking water, knowing that he would need it to survive. The 27-year-old engineer immediately ruled out suicide as a possibility, but immediately considered amputating his limbs, although he would test all other options before he got there. 

So Aron took an inventory of everything he had: 

  • 350 ml (≃12 oz) of water 💧
  • 2 burritos 🌯
  • a few pieces of chocolate 
  • headphones 
  • a video camera 📹
  • a CamelBak bag 
  • a cheap multi-tool knife 🔪
  • climbing gear (ropes, carabiners, etc.) 
  • a headlamp
  • watch
  • a paper guidebook
  • and clothes (for a hot day) 👕

After taking inventory, Aron started to think about his options, the most obvious of which was for someone to find him and call for help. But there was no signal, and anyway, this is an area with very little traffic so no one came by. The second option was to scrape the rock with his knife to try and make room for his arm to come out. He spent a lot of his time and energy with this strategy despite the fact that his time was limited and his energy precious... 

Scratch, Lift, Pull, Aron tried it all

After spending a night stuck in the canyon, Aron, more determined than ever, began trying various methods to remove his arm from the boulder. Using his climbing gear, the young engineer tried to create a pulley system to lift the rock. Moving it a few millimetres was enough to get his arm out but without success. 

On Monday morning, he tried again to move the rock with the ropes, then to scrape again, this time for 15 hours straight. The knife was really poorly made, it was a cheap version from Leatherman knives, plus it was less than 4 cm (≃1.5 inch). On Tuesday morning he continued to scrape the boulder, still thinking at the time that it was the best use of his time. Nothing to be done, the boulder would not give way, would not budge. 🛑

Leatherman Sideclip

Leatherman Sideclip. Author: Sn.Ho (CC BY-NC 2.0)

"At no point was I ever able, with any of the rope mechanics, to get the boulder to budge even microscopically" said Aron.

He eventually abandoned this strategy, however, as he ran out of water and food. Ralston knew he would die of hydration in a few days if he did nothing. There was only one way out, the one he had been dreading since the second he got stuck in that canyon, amputation

The Amputation

Aron knew he had to cut off his arm, but he didn't know how, after trying to use his knife as a saw, he soon realized that he was never going to make it that way. His blade was so dull that he didn't even break the skin or cut his arm hair. That same day, he also experimented with several garrotes to lose as little blood as possible. doct

On the fifth day, exhausted, Ralston finally managed to find a use for his knife: he carved his first and last name, date of birth and presumed date of death on the canyon wall. It was also during this day that, dehydrated, Aron decided to drink his own urine. Finally, he used his camera to make a farewell video dedicated to his family. This camera, despite its theoretical uselessness in this kind of scenario, helped Aron a lot to keep hope alive. 

"It's like this lifeline to the outer world, to other living beings, to love. That's what kept me alive."

But the most important event of that Wednesday 30 April 2003 for Aron was that he used his knife as a dagger for the first time and not as a saw. He realized that he could pierce his skin, but he still had to find a way to break his bones to get through the ordeal. 🦴

The survivor entered his fifth and final night between the rock and the canyon, a particularly difficult night but essential to the young engineer's survival. He was convinced that the cold would kill him, given his critical condition and his clothes, which were ill-suited to the freezing air. Aron began to hallucinate, seeing himself playing with a child, his unborn child with one arm missing. 

Ralston interpreted this dream as a vision, giving him the conviction that he was going to get out of what he saw a few minutes before as his grave. Against all odds, he survived the night by trying to stay as warm as possible and began to prepare for the toughest challenge of his life. He even carved "good luck" on the rock before the amputation. 🍀

I Kept my Eyes Open for 127 HOURS

I Kept my Eyes Open for 127 HOURS, Author : Al_HikesAZ (CC BY-NC 2.0)

At dawn on May 1, 2003, Aron looked at his arm and realised that it was starting to decompose, he wanted to get rid of it more than ever and get out of this nightmare. 

Aron used the hose from his backpack as a garrote and embarked on an hour-long torture. He began by breaking the bones in his arm by throwing himself roughly against the rock. According to him, he would have smiled when the bone broke, knowing that he was ending the ordeal. 

After breaking the radius and ulna, the hardest behind him, he used his knife to cut through the skin, flesh and nerves to finally free himself from this canyon. Leaving the arteries last to limit the bleeding, after 127 hours stuck, Aron was finally free, but he was not out of the picture. A race against time began, he was losing a lot of blood, he was very weak and he had to get help as soon as possible.  

Free, but not Safe

Imagine being in Aron's shoes at that moment, on the one hand, (no pun intended) you are finally free from more than 5 days of misery, on the other hand, you are bleeding to death and suffering from dehydration in the high heat. After 10 km (≃6 miles) and more than 3 hours of walking and abseiling in the canyon, our survivor finally comes across some people. A family of 3 Dutch tourists came across the poor man, they immediately gave him water and food. 

While the Dutch mother and her son went to get help, the father stayed with Ralston waiting for the rescue team. The rescue helicopter arrived quickly, as it was already looking for the young engineer, alerted by his family that he was missing. About 4 hours after his amputation, Aron was recovered by the rescuers, he had lost 18 kg during his 5 days and 7 hours in the canyon. ⏲

air rescue helicopter

Public Domain

Three days later, a squad of 13 rangers returned to the amputation site to retrieve Aron's arm.  Despite the help of a hydraulic jack, it took them an hour to finally move the rock. Our protagonist's right arm was incinerated, and the ashes were then scattered at the scene of the accident 6 months later during a filming for NBC with Tom Brokaw.

A Story that Spilled Ink 

Media Appearances 

Aron Ralston's story has made a lot of noise around the world, since 2003, his media appearances are numerous: 📺 

  • Late Show with David Letterman
  • GQ's "Men of the Year : Survivor" in 2003 
  • "Vanity Fair's "People of 2003
  • The Today Show
  • Good Morning America
  • The Tonight Show
  • The Howard Stern Show
  • The Ellen DeGeneres Show
  • CNN's American Morning with Bill Hemmer
  • Minute to Win It
  • etc. 

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In September 2004, Atria Books published Aron's autobiographical story "Between a Rock and a Hard Place". The book is an absolute success all over the world, Ralston has sold several million copies. It also reached number one in New Zealand and Australia. 📚

127 Hours

James Franco

James Franco at the New York Film Critics Series première of "Child of God" in July 2014, 21 July 2014, Author: Bridget Laudien (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The same book was adapted into the film127 Hours directed by Danny Boyle with James Franco in the role of Aron. The film was also a great success and was even nominated for six Oscars. The amputation scene is described by Ralston as very realistic, with some members of the audience fainting. 🎬

📷 Credit: SearchlightPictures Youtube Channel

"so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama" says Aron

How to turn a Nightmare into a Career ?

The Blue John Canyon survivor is now a motivational speaker who shares his experiences and values. Ralston says we all have "rocks" in our lives, whether it's a literal rock like Aron's or more commonly financial, health or family problems.

Aron says he has three main lessons from this experience: 

  1. It shows you who or what is important to you 👨‍👩‍👦
  2. It shows you what we are capable of 🦾
  3. It shows you what is extraordinary about being alive 🤩

More down to earth, Aron also advises to tell your loved ones when you are going somewhere because it could save your life. He also explains some of the lessons he learned from the event, such as the fact that sometimes, to get through it, you have to realise that a big sacrifice is inevitable and act accordingly. 

Aron Ralston Speaker

Aron Ralston, Author: Penn State (CC BY-NC 2.0)

"Adversity causes us to dig deeper than we had ever done before, to get in touch with the thing that can motivate us, even when we lose our motivation.”

Conclusion

Aron continued to climb, achieving his goal of being the first person to climb all fourteen Colorado mountains alone in winter. He still goes to the site of the accident, a place that is important to him for obvious reasons.

"I touch it and go back to that place, remembering when I thought about what's important in life, relationships, and this quest to want to get out of there and return to love and relationships"

The vision he had on the last night in Blue John Canyon has proved to be true, he is now the father of a young boy. Ralston says he has changed a lot since his accident, including admitting to depending on others, although he still enjoys solitude. He is also much more cautious than the man played by Franco in 127 Hours. 

As for the numerous video recordings, only one has been shared with the general public, he decided to keep the others. Only his parents and a few other very select people have seen the recordings, but some of the monologues in the film include the engineer's words. 

What about you? If you were Aron Ralston, would you have been able to cut off your arm? Hard to say I know, let me know your thoughts in the comments! 😉

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Author: Felix

Felix is a very curious person who is always looking to learn and explore. Always in search of the unknown, he hopes through this blog to share with you his passion for adventure and vintage objects

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