127 Hours, the movie based on Aron Ralston’s experience in Canyonlands, Utah, opens across the country today, and it almost assuredly will rekindle the debate over the actions that led him to be trapped in a slot with his arm pinned by a boulder. Although Ralston became a hero to uncountable thousands of people for having the fortitude to cut off his forearm off to escape, within the outdoor community he was much more commonly slammed as a yahoo and a knucklehead who didn’t have the sense to tell people where he was going, and who perhaps got exactly what he deserved.
I was among the latter group, though my opinions weren’t quite that harsh. I’d heard rumors that Ralston was a wild man, that he’d gotten friends caught in an avalanche while backcountry skiing, that he took foolhardy risks, and that the odds caught up with him. Many folks I knew were offended that he turned a dumb mistake into fame, or at least infamy, and was making a living speaking and writing about it. Although the incident occurred in 2003, Ralston appeared frequently in magazine ads for personal locator beacons, so he never really disappeared from the scene, and as time went on, it seemed the more someone knew about the outdoors, the more vehemently negative their assessment was of him.
Last spring, through a series of events not worth recounting, I found myself working on the production of 127 Hours. It was all stuff in support of the movie, extra content, time lapses, interviews, small features designed to let movie fans dig deeper into the realm of canyonlands, canyoneering, and the issues surrounding Ralston’s accident. At that point, I thought it might make sense finally to read Aron’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. And for the first third of it, everything I read reinforced my opinion. All who have adventures take risks, but Ralston willfully flirted with disaster in pursuit of thrills, then described it almost joyfully.
But then, in the book, he leaves Aspen, where he lives, and goes to Utah for a long weekend with vague plans to ride in Moab and explore the canyons in the south-central part of the state. He famously doesn’t tell anyone exactly where he’s going, a couple days later he ends up in Blue John Canyon, and there he has his date with destiny by dislodging the chockstone that entraps him. And as you read the book, as Aron describes getting caught and his dawning realization of just how deep he’s in it, a funny thing happens: It stops mattering whether Ralston was a lion or a lamb, a typically hyper-excited Colorado fun hog or a fool. The tale is no longer one of the outdoors, it’s now an existential human story, a timeless tale of life, death, and decisions that must be made.
That’s where I was in the book last April, when, almost seven years to the day of Aron’s incident, my job was to hike into Blue John and spend the whole day shooting a time lapse of a crew flying load after helicopter load of supplies onto a slickrock bench and setting up the base camp for the full movie production to come later. When I first got there, it was silent and still, and straight away I descended into the slot, past the “S” log, between the twisting walls, and then down to the very spot Ralston had been stuck. And when I reached the darkened gash and scrambled down to stand on the boulder (which now lies lower than when he was there), I felt a surprising surge in my gut, not nausea exactly, but a kind of empathetic kick of sadness, disgust, and horror. No person should have to be trapped in that place and go through what he did. No one.
Well, shooting 12 hours of time lapse doesn’t actually require much action – you set up the camera, monitor it, and change memory cards – and so I climbed back out of the crack, hunkered in the shade of a juniper bush, and pulled out the book. And I found myself as unable to leave the story as Aron had been to leave Blue John. Within hours, I consumed the rest of the book, finished it with tears running down my face at the almost unbelievable nightmare he’d gone through and the uplifting optimism of the strength of the human spirit.
Since then, I have considered the story of Aron Ralston from almost every conceivable angle. I spent a week with Aron out in Robber’s Roost, scrambled Blue John with him, and watched as he outlined with his fingers where he’d scratched “Aron Ralston RIP 1978-2003” in the rock. I interviewed the first person to descend Blue John, an expert on the geological dynamics of slots, a rancher whose family ran cows on the Roost and grew up out there, and quite a few others. And I’ve thought at great length about the simple facts of what happened.
After all that, the conclusion is unavoidable: It was an accident. It could have happened to me. It could have happened to any one of dozens of my desert rat friends. It could have happened to anyone who descended Blue John and put their weight on the boulder in exactly the same way. It was an accident, a freakishly malign kink of luck, and the judgmental attacks heaped on Aron are unfair and misguided. Did he deserve entrapment and the loss of an arm because he didn’t leave a note? To argue thus indicates an uncommonly cruel and insensitive way of viewing it.
The one question we asked in all our interviews, from actors Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara to the desert experts such as Craig Childs, was whether they thought they’d have the strength of will to do what Ralston did, but the one question I personally ask the critics is if they’ve ever gone into the wilderness alone, without anyone knowing exactly where they were. Craig, who is not a critic, spends weeks in the desert by himself and no one knows his precise location. Most adventurous people I know head out alone at some point and some do it more often than not. What is adventure if not a risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome? If we’re going to celebrate solo explorers as heroes, we shouldn’t be scapegoating them when things go wrong.
This doesn’t mean Ralston is absolved of responsibility. Of course not. Yes, he was sometimes reckless. He could be self-absorbed and overly individualistic, though that’s not exactly uncommon in the stunted adolescent culture of ski towns like Aspen. It’s safe to say that there’s no person on the planet who understands better than Aron that all the crossroads of his life led him to be alone under that rock, without any hope that someone would come to find him.
But the simple fact that a man walked down Blue John, dislodged a boulder, and got himself stuck? It was an accident.
Thankfully, director Danny Boyle doesn’t linger over judgment in 127 Hours. Aron Ralston through his lens is driven, propulsive, and social when it suits his purposes. He finds himself alone in his predicament because he’s chosen to be alone. And through a series of long, emotionally twisting scenes where James Franco as Ralston leaves messages for his family on his video camera (taken verbatim from tapes Aron made while stuck), it’s clear that Ralston is unblinking in his self-knowledge and self-judgment. There’s a moment that is to me the most emotionally devastating of the film, when Aron is pretending to be both a talk show host and guest. He skewers himself, then punctuates his judgment with one word – “Oops” – that Franco delivers with such acute awareness it’s heart breaking.
But piling on accomplishes nothing. And it distracts from the essential message of the film and of Ralston’s story, which is that the power of the human will and the hunger to survive knows almost no bounds. I’ll tell you one thing I’ve gained from spending weeks in and around Blue John: The more I learned about what Aron did, the more impressed I became. Aron’s spot is a dark, lonely place, damp and cold at night and an easy location to give up and fall gently asleep forever. But he didn’t. He fought back, he tried everything he could to unlock himself, and then he stumbled upon a brutally violent solution. Once freed, he had to downclimb the most technical section of Blue John in near darkness, then rig and perform an 80-foot rappel with one arm. And once out of Blue John and into Horseshoe Canyon, he walked another six miles of sandy, trudging wash before meeting the hikers that signaled the rescue helicopter.
Danny has made very clear that 127 Hours is a not a documentary. He and writer Simon Beaufoy “borrowed” Ralston’s story and played loosely with the facts in order to get to the emotional core of the experience. There are Hollywood conventions that will likely put off the outdoor enthusiast, most notably the absurd scene where Franco frolics in an impossibly blue underground pool with two girls he meets in the canyons, but neither these nods to commercialism nor what you might think you know about Aron Ralston should get in the way of connecting with the truth of the experience.
At the movie’s premiere a few days ago in Beverly Hills, Ralston was invited on stage after the screening to make a few comments. The audience gave Boyle and the actors standing ovations and then roared even louder when Aron was introduced. As he held the microphone with his left hand and gestured back at the screen with his right arm, he spoke of the power of hope and referred to the Aron Ralston of the movie in the third person. Rather than seem affected, though, making the distinction between the Ralston of the story and the Ralston on the stage was exactly right. The story is powerful because it’s true, but the character Aron Ralston has been freed from the constraints of the man and so 127 Hours can simply be about a nameless soul facing its darkest night and fighting to return to the light of day. It can be about all of us, about the strength that lies within, and thus become a tale of inspiration and hope.