What You Should Know About Aron Ralston

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.

{ 25 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Zak

    Great piece Steve. When I first heard of Aron’s story I too thought that his actions were foolhardy and overly risky; however, as I thought about it more (and read his book) I realized that it is indeed the nature of the risk and “alone-ness” that creates adventure. The part that makes it a great story isn’t ‘how he got there’ it is ‘what happened when he did.’ His resolve to free himself is at the same time heartwrenching, horrific, and inspirational.

    Truth is that it could have happened to almost anyone. I have climbed and hiked in those areas around the Moab (Canyonlands, Castle Tower, Blue John, The Roost, etc) and it’s an inherently remote and dangerous place. Even the safe sport route haven of Wall Street outside Moab can be dangerous after a flash flood (that can be on you in minutes!). In the end though, as you so eloquently put it, “What is adventure if not a risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome?”

  • Craig Rowe

    Very solid piece; I really enjoyed reading it. Count me in amongst those who railed against Ralston’s decisions but, as logically point out, in the end, it simply comes down to our desire to be outdoors. Sometimes, it’s an urge greater than reason. I can relate. I’ve been out surfing in nasty swells, telling my wife I’ll be in one place and ending up in another because the sets are better. I’m no different.

    Can’t wait to see this.

  • Fitz Cahall

    Steve,
    great piece. It’s funny. I had no idea there was so much negativity towards Ralston when it happened. Especially from the outdoor community. I could see it coming from the greater community who loves to critcize, but seriously, who has ever skied alone? Or ripped single track alone?

    Fitz

  • Rajesh

    “that he’d gotten friends caught in an avalanche while backcountry skiing”.. now that deserves criticism.
    But as a solo adventurer myself I admire Ralston’s courage to get himself out of that nasty situation.

  • DrT

    The one thing that struck me initially and still seems to be glossed over is the fact that he had a “cheap knock-off”. Traveling alone is part of the adventure. Buying cheap tools, equipment or supplies is just asking for problems. Likewise, knowing how to use them, and practicing with them, before you go are paramount.

    Never, never buy cheap stuff if it is something you life may depend on.

    • steve casimiro Post author

      DrT:

      Sounds like you haven’t read or heard the whole story. Aron’s mom gave him the knockoff as a Christmas stocking stuffer. He intended to take his Swiss army knife, but couldn’t find it.

  • Kelly

    I recently read ‘between a rock and a hard place’ because i couldn’t wait for the movie to come out. I don’t remember the boom mentioning anything about Aron wishing to take his Swiss army knife. I think this was something that was fabricated for the film (correct me if I’m wrong) maybe to convey the inadequacy of the knife he took, not thinking he’ll need it.
    After reading the book I came to the conclusion that, whilst Aron did the unimaginable to save his life, he was the one who out himself in that position on the first place. Yea bad luck and circumstance contribute to the situation but I got the impression he gets a kick out of solo pursuits and not much has changed.
    Yes this accident could have happened to anyone that does this sort of thing but I wonder would any experienced climber make such mistakes as Aron did? It is these mistakes (which seem to have occurred time and again) that forced him to make a decision which could have been avoided.
    Brave man. But hero? I don’t think so.

  • janet

    and what’s so bad about the ‘knock off’. It did the job, albeit rather knife and forkish but without it the job would not have been done. Good film.

  • Laura

    Great, great read. I have been obsessed with Aron’s story since I saw the movie then read the book. I think you nailed it on the head.

  • Casey

    I saw the movie recently and since Ive been reading the book and researching about extreme adventuring. I can totally relate to the rush and excitement from exploring dangerous parts of the outdoors and I do actually enjoy doing some solo as well. For me the raw emotional feeling, I only seem to find when I am on my own. All I can say is that I know now from Aron’s story that there has to be a limit as some point, and to remember to take safety precautions as much as possible. Its a lesson for all of us that dont know when to draw the line in extreme.

  • Tracy

    I read the book recently – it was brilliant. Sure, I also had thoughts that he was some silly little man-child that stupidly didn’t let anyone where he was going, but by the end of the book you geniunely LIKE the guy.

    Great post. I’m glad someone else feels the same.
    xx

  • Timmy-Time

    I am one of those people that feels Ralston was an idiot and I still do. As uplifting as his story is about the spirit of life and survival, he was reckless. It isn’t about the fact that he didn’t leave a note or tell anyone where he was going. It is that he behaved recklessly in this case and in a few other instances in which he imperiled others. I have soloed in mountain hiking/climbing in the Olympic Mountains of Washington State. I let people know where I was going, no big deal, that is smart when going into one of the wildest parts of the lower 48. What I didn’t do was go skipping on capstones or hanging off ledges or walking on glacial ice where the bottom was in doubt or putting myself at risk in a negligent or reckless way. That is why experienced outdoorspeople have such a low regard for Aron Ralston. He was asking for trouble and got it. Good for him that he had the cojones to cut off his arm. To me that is the price he pays for his own recklessness and self imperilment. The fact that he is now making money off of it is simply a reflection of the perverseness of American entertainment today.

  • Gemma

    I liked your piece. I am surprised that every time a mountaineering accident gets notoriety it usually comes with a great deal of scrutiny and quite bitter criticism by experts in that community. There is always a harsh review about the personality, habits and behaviors of those involved in the events. It feels as though the mountaineering community has turned safety rules into principles and dogmas. If you break them, you are criticized, ridiculed and treated as a pariah in that community. I wonder why there is no room for mistake in the world of mountaineering. I find it way more arrogant to assume that a good climber never makes a mistake and that those who make one deserve what happens to them. This attitude aims to reinforce the idea of the climber as superhuman –only defeated by circumstances over which he or her had no agency and could not predict or prevent. In doing that critics become moral gatekeepers and place very high fences in the wilderness.

  • Jodi

    Timmy-Time… pay attention: I recently watched the movie, and am planning to now read the book. I am amazed at Aron Ralston’s will to live. I read “Timmy-Time’s” comment and was apalled. Who are you to judge? You have never made a mistake? I guarantee you, “Timmy-Time,” that Mr. Ralston has beat himself up more than necessary, over his decision not to tell someone where he was going. But accidents happen. How about we not focus on his “mistake,” and instead focus on his accomplishment? I’ll tell you why. Because you’re a typical ignorant self serving person, who would rather attack and criticize someone, than just give an “atta boy,” and leave it at that. You’re a “Negative Nancy.” The world is full of them. I’ll bet if you had an accident, Aron Ralston wouldn’t immediately point out that you’re an “idiot.” He’d probably just find the positive in it and congratulate you on a job well done. Shame you can be more the person Aron Ralston is… mistakes and all.

  • Denis

    If the dude choose to take risks, those were his choices. People sitting in judgement should relax a little. Sure he became famous for what most people would consider stupidness, but look at the end result. Amazing story. Compared to much of our cultures famous people ( countless people that have sex tapes, the kardashian family, self centered celebs/athletes, etc) this guy only made reckless decisions that involved himself.

  • Ali

    Steve, I couldn’t agree more. It’s hard to explain to people why I had the reaction I did when reading the book (before the movie came out), but this piece nails it on the head. I get the reckless thing. Go ahead and criticize, but don’t act like he’s the only guy out there doing that type of adventuring. Aaron Ralston never denies being irresponsible. He never denies being cocky. It was a combination of his bad choices and unfortunate circumstances that got him into the mess that, ultimately, his incredible strength and willpower to survive got him out. There are enough tragic stories in the outdoors, why turn a happy ending into a controversy?

  • alex

    It’s easy for anyone to say…shoulda, woulda, coulda – the people that complain about Aron Ralston and get pissed that he’s famous are always bitter and anal. The fact is….he survived when most people couldn’t! Talking about what he should have done….really? What the fuck does that accomplish now? -Except to discredit the feat that Aron overcame.

  • Sue

    Didn’t know Aron Ralston’s story before watching the film on UK T.V a couple of days ago.
    I’m 66 years old, have a hip and knee replacement due to the amount of walking etc I’ve done.
    Have camped alone for a number of years as well as walking alone. Yes, it’s risky perhaps, but it’s still the sense of adventure, which is so different from doing these things with other people which makes these experiences seem so much more real.
    Aron Ralston got himself in the situation and got himself out. What more is there to say?

  • Tay

    To those confused about the lack of Swiss army knife, Aron said in an interview that he was unable to find it- so it wasn’t just a part of the movie.
    Jodi, I agree with you completely. Aron had six days of torturous isolation to beat himself up about his sheer idiocy of not leaving a note/going alone/walking on chock stones etc and even during his recovery time in the hospital he contemplated suicide.
    I’ve read his book, and he really knew what he was talking about. To me, what Aron was doing was as normal as a trip to the supermarket. He’d done it before, and no one could have possibly predicted what had happened to him.
    No one deserves what Aron had to go through, as said in the article. The author has been to the scene of the accident and witnessed the conditions Aron was in, so they are completely justified in saying that despite his prior decisions Aron Ralston is a truly inspiring character.
    Also, people are failing to mention a part in the book that brought tears to my eyes, that erased any skepticism I had about the incident. The part when Aron tells of how the woman threw away the pills she was going to overdose on after hearing his story and fight for life. Surely, if saving someone’s life is something that comes from Aron’s tale, isn’t that worth it? Why all the criticism?

  • batata

    OK. It wasn’t an accident. But to call him a hero is way to much! He had (and probably still has) a great will to live but that doesn’t make someone a hero. Is tipical (specially to americans) to call someone that went through hard time (or even died) a hero. Soldiers that die in war are not heroes. They are people that are paid to do what they do (which is protect the interest of some rich and powerfull people and not of a country) and sometimes things happens (hey, if you go out in the rain you are gonna get wet, right?).
    All i’m saying is that just because you make several mistakes in a row and survive it, it doesn’t make you a hero.
    Firemen, doctors and volunteers are the real heroes. Everyday!

  • Andrew

    Sorry for stupid question, does anyboby have e-mail of Aaron? I met him in Russia at Elbrus mount and made a lot of photos with him.

  • CR

    Why the need for labeling things ‘good’ or ‘bad’? What does it matter if he is called a ‘hero’ or not?

    And stupid decisions? – so what? We have all made them. Blaming the victim (Lerner’s ‘just world hypothesis’) and thinking ‘it would not happen to us because we are smarter’ is a self delusion. We all do stupid things all the time; I broke a toe in a silly way in my own house: and so what?

    Whatever happened to Aron should not have any moral label applied to it: it was neither bad or good, it was what it was. The only thing that matters is what he’s done with it, and he did incredibly well to turn it into something inspiring.

  • batatinha

    “I think it was God that saved Aron”… It was the same God that put him in that position for starters (if you believe in God)!

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