The Incredible Survival Story of Aron Ralston
Adventurer Aron Ralston was used to going on trips alone. He had solo climbed mountains over 14, 000 feet and had even survived an avalanche. There was nothing a little canyon could do to harm him. Or so he thought. The 27-year-old went on an adventure to the Blue John Canyon and it would test every single skill he had learned in all his years.
With no food, barely any water and no way to call for help, just how would Aron Ralston survive being literally stuck between a rock and a hard place without leaving pieces of his body behind? It’s time to find out what happened.
Growing Up Aron Ralston
Aron Ralston grew up in Colorado and attended the Carnegie Mellon University, where he graduated with honors in 1997. Already an over-achiever at that age, he double majored in French and mechanical engineering and received a job offer to work at Intel, shortly after. He traveled the country often for his job and found a love for going on adventures while he worked, often volunteering on local search and rescue teams.
But this six-foot-two young man would soon be facing one of the most difficult decisions of his life and he would do it on his own, all while clinging to his sanity and fighting for his life.
New Move, New Job
In the spring of 2002, Aron decided it was time for a change. He decided that he wanted to pursue something he was a little more passionate about, instead of the two things he went to school for. After the company refused to allow him to go on a planned two-week adventure, he quit his job at Intel, moved to Aspen, Colorado and took a retail job at a local mountaineering shop to support him financially, while he trained to become a guide.
At this point, the young man had found a love for being outdoors and exploring the more dangerous things that nature had to offer. But his next adventure would test his mental and physical strength in a way he never expected.
By the time Aron had made the move to Colorado, he had quite the resume as an outdoorsman. He had climbed and experienced the highest points in 34 out of the 50 states in the country, summited Mount McKinley (over 20, 000 feet) and had solo climbed most of the 53 fourteeners (mountain peaks with an elevation of over 14, 000) in Colorado.
So, he was used to being at home in nature. But although he was successful most of the time, a few of his missions went horribly, awry, as would the one in Blue John Canyon, which caused him to make one of the most difficult decisions that a human could possibly make.
In 2003, Aron went backcountry skiing with two of his friends near Resolution Peak in Central Colorado, and all three of them got caught in an avalanche. Ralston remembered the encounter as being extremely scary and he even thought that all three of them should have died because of the sheer force of the snow.
He was buried up to his neck but was miraculously rescued by one of his friends. The two of them then dug out the third skier and were able to get to safety. But these adventures would pale in comparison to what was about to happen to him at the Blue John Canyon just a month later.
Horseshoe Canyon Trailhead
On April 26th, Aron Ralston had a plan. He decided that he wanted to head to Horseshoe Canyon, an isolated window located at the Canyonlands National Park, on one of his solo missions. The young man had planned to drive to the park and complete a 30-mile cycling circuit (and some canyoneering) through the Blue John and Horseshoe canyons.
Aron saw this as a vacation, thinking of it as a road trip that would replace a mountaineering getaway that his friends had canceled last minute. He had a few days off from his job at the outdoor gear shop and decided to head to the canyons for five days. It would quickly become the most trying five days of his life.
Blue John Canyon
He planned to complete the Blue John Canyon circuit in one day, Saturday, April 26th. He took a 25-pound backpack with him that had all the gear necessary to climb and do the things he wanted to do. In addition to his equipment, he packed a gallon of water and some food.
He wore very light clothing; a thin pair of bike shorts and a t-shirt since he knew what kind of weather awaited him. It was a routine that Aron went through often- almost every time he set out on an adventure. There was nothing that would suggest that he would soon be fighting for his life, but that’s exactly what was about to happen, in just a few hours.
So, the young man found his way to the park, grabbed his things and then started cycling. He set a pace of 30 miles an hour on his bicycle and soon got to the Blue John Canyon. He locked his bike and started the descent. By 2:30 pm he was seven miles into the canyon, which was just about the midway point of his trip. He was in great spirits as everything was going right on schedule and he was enjoying the scenery as he walked.
Taking in the sights and sounds as he went down, he soon got to a narrow slot that was marked “Big Drop” in his handy guidebook. At that point, the canyon deepened dramatically and the terrain got a bit more challenging to move through. Aron, who was used to this kind of thing, was not deterred.
Navigating Rocky Terrain
When he got to the first drop, he used his climbing skills and some footholds to easily lower himself. He was fully committed at this point, knowing before he made the drop that there was no way he’d be able to get back up.
The canyon was ten feet wide where he stood and he could still see the pale sky as he continued his descent. He kept making his way down for the next fifteen minutes until the passageway got considerably smaller.
At 2:45 pm, Aron got to an area that was three feet wide. He had to walk over and under boulders that had fallen in and blocked the clearest path to his destination. But soon he came to a place that he couldn’t maneuver his way easily out of.
He encountered a chockstone that looked to be about 800 pounds. He decided to step onto it, dangle for a bit and then attempt to take a short fall that would lead him one step closer to the canyon’s floor. He did it all successfully and got to the ground, but the stone rotated as he let go of it. Looking up, he saw the giant boulder above his head and fear consumed him.
He Was Stuck
Because the passageway was already so narrow, he could not move backward and allow the stone to fall. The next few seconds happened in slow motion as the stone fell and smashed Aron’s left hand against the wall. He managed to pull it back but not in time to do the same with his right hand.
The confined space allowed the boulder to crush his right hand while his fingers were still extended right against the canyon wall. But that wasn’t all. The rock slid down another foot from the force of its fall, dragging his arm down with it and ripping the skin right off his forearm. In the silence that followed, he realized that his hand was stuck.
Day One, 3 pm
The pain that gripped Aron as the boulder smashed his hand against the wall then drug it down was as terrible as it was ferocious. But he knew that despite his pain, he needed to try to yank it free and assess the damage. He tried, three times. Nothing happened except that he was hit with a dizzying wave of pain.
He then tried to shove the boulder against the wall, using his body to heave against it and even lifting with his knees which were pressed together under the rock to get some momentum. And absolutely nothing happened.
Aron was sweating at this point but realized that he had to calm down to really think about what was going on and what his next move should be. With adrenalin still coursing in his veins, the first thing he realized was that his backpack, which was filled with his supplies, would not be completely accessible because of his hand. But he found a way to get a pack of water to quench some of his thirst (he dived the gallon into three packets).
Before he realized what he was doing, he had guzzled down one-third of his water supply in less than five seconds. It was a chilling realization and one that prompted him to really slow down, take a look around.
Aron had to find something that could help him out and the first place he looked was in his backpack. In the outer pouch, he found some batteries, a CD and CD player, his camcorder, digital camera, headlamp and a Leatherman multitool. He also had some rappelling gear that he immediately used to place a barrier between his sore shins and the rocky wall.
He was comforted by the tools that he had, despite being all alone and having no way of contacting anyone to rescue him. But the sight of his graying hand let him know that he didn’t have that much time left.
Later That Night
With little to no blood supply to his arm, Aron knew that something needed to be done, but he had to think. He knew that humans could survive in the desert without water for up to two or three days, but it could be less if one overexerted themselves. Doing the math, he figured that he had until Monday night to get out of his situation.
But with no one in sight and the boulder not budging an inch despite all his efforts, he would have to use everything in his arsenal to get himself out, alive, with his hand intact.
Literally being stuck between a rock and a hard place gave Aron some ideas, even if they were silly. It even crossed his mind to crack open his double A batteries on the rock and hope that the acid would eat through the stone and not his arm.
A multitude of ideas flitted through his mind as he stood there; he could excavate the rock with the knife he had, he could create some sort of pulley system that would allow him to lift the boulder with the rope he had or he could just cut his arm off and be done with it. All Aron needed was time to see what worked.
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
The first thing he did was try to saw off pieces of the boulder, but it doesn’t crack. In fact, he doesn’t even manage to get a scuff on it. He tried again, but with more pressure and a different grip and still, nothing happened to the rock. Aron then decided to switch gears and attack the wall which was made of a softer material, with his knife. He managed to carve a few letters into it, but not much else.
By 8 pm, the stress of the situation had gotten to him and the negative feelings took over. Aron found himself arguing with…himself. He debated several things and eventually chuckled at himself for this bout of insanity. Deciding to fight the bad thoughts, he kept digging at the rock with his knife intermittently throughout the night, trying to make progress and keep his body heat up at the same time. And with that, his first night stuck in the canyon was over. He could only hope that better luck awaited him on day two.
Day Two, 9:30 am
At 9: 30 the next morning, Aron was already thinking about all the ways he could die. Would it be by kidney failure, from hypothermia or would he die from dehydration once his water was gone? Sometime during the night, he had used his harness to construct a seat to relieve some of the tension from his legs. He alternated between standing and sitting when the harness started restricting his blood flow.
But Aron was re-energized minutes later when he saw something that could help him construct a better rigging system and finally remove the rock and free his hand. He set everything up; he used his climbing rope, set up an anchor, and hooked the entire system up to a horn he found poking out of the wall. Two hours went by as he did this and it was finally time to give it a go.
Aron used everything he had remembered from school to make this device as perfect as he could, considering the circumstances. He pulled it, but the rock didn’t budge. He modified it, added some loops, tightened other areas and wrapped webbing. He even called some of his search and rescue experience forth to help him with the process, but nothing he did worked.
He decided to stop and take a breath and suddenly heard voices echoing in the canyon. He was so happy that there could be other humans in the vicinity that he listened for a while before he shouted for help. His voice echoed down the canyon and he listened. He shouted again and again, each time stopping to listen for a response. The only thing he heard in return was his racing heart and just as quickly as hope had blossomed, it faded.
Contemplating Cutting the Arm
It was about 2 pm on the second day when Aron seriously thought about cutting his arm off. He put all his tools on a flat surface and looked at what could be used to do the “surgery.” His two biggest concerns were finding a tool that would be sharp enough to amputate his arm in a relatively short amount of time, then getting a tourniquet to prevent him from bleeding out once he was free.
He had a sharp blade that could saw through his flesh, but he knew he’d have a problem when he got to his bones; he decided it would be best to cut the softer cartilage to free himself when it came to that area. Next, he found the hose from one of his water sources that he would be able to use as a tourniquet, but could not get it free.
He Could Not Do It
Instead, he used a piece of webbing that was knotted but could not get them tight enough to stop his circulation. He used a stick to tighten it and it worked. With his skin growing pale because the blood flow was slowing down, he knew what he had to do next.
But finding the courage to go through with it once he started eluded Aron. He held his breath and placed the knife against his arm, anyway. The tip of the knife made an indentation on some of his tendons and veins and he immediately rethought his plan. He pictured his blood splattered all over the canyon walls while thinking about the pain associated with what he wanted to do and he just could not do it.
Aron was now on his second night out in the canyon and was hating every second of it. Nothing he had experienced in his past adventures prepared him for what he was currently going through and as night fell, he began to think about the some of the worst experiences he had faced during his lifetime.
He eventually drifted off, imagining floating away on clouds that passed over the sea. For a few hours, he seemed to be safe from the problem at hand. But with food and water dwindling, he would soon have to make a very difficult decision.
Day Three, 7 am
On the third day, April 28th, Aron revisited his amputation idea and made a better tourniquet. He also realized that he should cut against the upper part of his forearm because it was easier. Making the decision to do it, he started sawing away, but the knife was so blunt that it couldn’t even break the skin. Just how was he supposed to get through two bones if the skin wouldn’t cut?
He was so frustrated at this point that he did not know what else to do. The only thing he could do was to wait and hope that a better idea would come, or an actual person would find him.
Running Out of Supplies
By the afternoon of the third day, Aron knew he would have to start saving whatever supplies he could. He was already out in the canyon for an extended amount of time and he knew that no one would find him. He had initially thought to last until Monday evening, and the time had come. It was 3:35 pm on Monday afternoon and his biggest concern was staying hydrated.
With minimal water left, Aron decided to do something he never thought he would have to. Before urinating, the adventurer knew that soon, the only liquid he would have to drink would be his urine. So instead of letting it fall to the ground, he saved up every drop of the brownish-orange liquid that he could and transferred it into his CamelBak. It would be a drink he’d have to come face to face with much sooner than he wanted to.
Sending Prayers Both Ways
During the evening of the third day, Aron had considered something he wasn’t really known for doing: praying. He shut his eyes, bowed his head and made a fist with his left hand and began to pray. He asked for guidance and for a sign because he had run out of ideas and did not want to die.
Looking up to the sky to see if his prayer was answered, nothing happened. Getting irritated, Aron decided to pray to the devil instead, claiming that God must have been busy. In his prayer, he offered the very arm that was pinned and even his soul, just to get out of his current situation- showing that Aron was well on his way to his breaking point.
No One Was Coming
He had known this already, but it sunk in that no one would be coming to rescue him. He knew this because he had planned the trip without telling anyone where he was going or what he was planning to do. Where he would normally leave a detailed trip with his roommate, this time, he didn’t. He simply packed his gear, most notably his hiking shoes, backpack, climbing equipment, hydration system and pocket-sized knife, put them all in his truck and drove off. When asked where he was going, he answered with the word “Utah.”
His only shot would be if other hikers were to come right up to the crack that he was in and happened to see him. And in his state, he knew that the chances of that happening was extremely rare. What was worse was that at that moment, he knew that he had made a horrible mistake by not sharing his plans with anyone.
Thoughts of Dying
After numerous attempts of trying to free himself and not making any progress, Aron felt defeated. What was meant to be a trip he planned on enjoying had turned into an utter nightmare. He was stuck, all alone and had no communication devices to save his life. Despair consumed him and he began to think that he just might die in the canyon.
At first, he was afraid of dying, but soon enough, he came to be at peace with the idea. It may not be how he thought he would have lost his life, but at least he was doing what he loved.
Day Four, 5 am
By April 29th, Aron was running dangerously low on supplies. He was cold, it was dark and he only had about three ounces of water left in his last bottle. Desperately needing something to drink, he placed it on his lap to unscrew the lid, but as he lifted the bottle to his lips, it slipped and most of the last few drops of precious water fell onto his shorts.
He knew that the amount of water he had was indicative of the amount of time he had left. By spilling most of the last of it, he had lost hours- as many as 12- in the canyon, and that thought crushed what was left of his will to survive.
Thoughts Begin To Slip
By 6: 45 am on his fourth day, Aron’s thoughts began to slip. He thought about some of the most random things he’d done in his life, even making up a theoretical search party in his head. He thought that maybe his debit/credit purchases were being tracked as he stood there, stuck.
He also thought about time, space and the stars. They made no sense to him until he began to think about some of the best experiences he had had, which eventually led him to think about the people he loved the most. The idea of it made him happy, so he took out his camera and started recording.
Messages For His Family
In what he thought would be his last moments, he was consumed by the love he had for his family, so he left messages for them, hoping that they would be found one day. He told his parents how much he loved them and how grateful he was that they supported his dreams. He told them that he had lived so much in the past year and that he’d always be with them, regardless of the outcome.
Aron could not forget his sister, who was supposed to get married soon. He wished her all the best in this new chapter of her life and told her to do things that would honor his memory. He had accepted death, left messages for his family and was finally at peace- at least for a little while.
There’s A Reason for Everything
But the peace was not meant to last, and just an hour and fifteen minutes later, Aron became more and more aware of the knife staring right back at him. He thought that there was a reason for everything and that the knife was meant to be on this horrific trip with him. He made the decision right then and there to change his fate.
So Aron dismantled his rigging system and tied a tight loop around his right bicep, then put the refined tourniquet on. He looked at his multitool and looked at the shortest blade and decided that it had to do. With that, he raised it up to the light, then thrust it violently into his forearm.
*Please note that some of the following pictures are quite graphic and were taken from the movie made because of this story. Viewer discretion is advised*
The knife was buried to the hilt into the meat of his right arm. In a mixture of shock and awe, he stared down at what he had just done. Just 24 hours earlier, it seemed like his knife could not even break the skin, and now, he could barely see the blade. He wiggled the knife and it hit a bone, and the feeling was barely discernable. He figured out that the nerves were concentrated on the outer layers of his arm and with that, he proceeded to cut an inch-wide hole.
He kept using the knife and each tap against a bone sent a vibration all the way through his left hand and soon enough, he got to a place where he could not cut into or through his bones. Sweating from adrenaline and what he had just done, he grabbed the last of his water and drank it all.
The Fifth Day
At 9 am on the fifth day, Aron had estimated that he had been trapped for 90 hours. He had gone 96 hours without sleep so far, 25 hours with no fresh water and had been sipping on his urine for more than 20 hours. And there was nothing he could do except acknowledge it. There was no hope in sight; part of his arm was cut and he had no way of getting through the bone. Just what was he supposed to do?
By the afternoon, he was slipping again and becoming increasingly slower as the hours ticked by. He left more messages for his loved ones, and fell into a trance as the chilling winds of the dark canyon swept by.
Breaking It Off
On the morning of day six, Aron was weaker than he had ever remembered being in his life. He’d gone through a range of emotions and was exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally. He knew that he had to do something and when he saw that his arm had already begun to decompose, he was enraged. He prodded his right thumb with the knife and a hiss of foul-smelling gas escaped. He was utterly disgusted by his hand and wanted nothing more than to rip it off his body at that moment.
He began thrashing his body and soon felt his arm bend in an unnatural way. Inspiration struck and Aron knew what he had to do. With absolutely no hesitation, he put his left hand under the boulder and kept pushing at maximum force. He then bent his right arm to the left and there was a loud POP- almost like a gunshot. He did it again and this time, his ulna had splintered. There was just one thing left to do.
The Next Steps
Aron quickly got to work cutting his hand off. He had practiced the procedure many times in his head and it was time to get it done. He sank the knife in again and the pain hit him like a truck. With the tourniquet in place, it took him about an hour to saw through the tissue of his and between his now broken bones. He was free. He had amputated his own arm.
At that moment when he should be feeling pain, Aron felt free. All his hopes and future aspirations came rushing back into him and he was so happy that he sprung into action. Once the arm was off, he rigged his rope, set his anchors and started rappelling 60 feet to the canyon’s floor.
Once he got there, he hiked five miles downstream into Horshoe Canyon with his arm bleeding as he walked. He had fashioned a sling with his CamelBak and made his way down, praying that he would run into someone who would be able to help him out before the pain completely overtook him and he passed it.
Luckily, that’s exactly what happened. He ran into three Dutch hikers on his way and they happily gave him some of their cookies and some much-needed water to drink. Afterward, they carried him the last mile of his trip and by 3 pm, emergency services in the form of a helicopter had rescued him.
When Aron got to the hospital, he found out that his friends in Aspen had already begun to search for him, despite not knowing where in “Utah” they should start. It was just as he had imagined while he was still pinned by the boulder. The hunt in Utah started and they used his debit card activity to zoom in on a possible location.
He went to the Allen Memorial Hospital where he was able to walk, with no help, into the facility from the chopper. Later he was transferred to another hospital where he had the first of several surgeries that would help prepare his arm for a prosthesis. But while Aron lay on the table, a search was still going on for his right hand.
Saving the Arm
It took three days and thirteen rangers to get Aron’s hand. They made the trek into the canyon and all of them used every ounce on manpower they had to lift the boulder in order to free the body part. It took them an hour, a grip hoist and a hydraulic jack to get it done, but it was in no state to be reattached to his body.
Jim Blazik, one of the park’s rangers, praised Aron for his will to survive, but he also said that Aron had done something extremely foolish by hiking in such rugged terrain, all alone and not telling anyone where he was heading to. He went on to say that it was an unwise decision, but his comments did not faze Aron, who was quite used to being criticized.
In the Following Weeks
He had attempted to climb the fourteeners alone during the winter, risking frostbite and death, just to prove that he could. And with this recent adventure of his, people were as equally awed as they were horrified. During the next few weeks after Aron’s harrowing ordeal, it was broadcasted all over the world. Over 500 articles were written and the survivor was invited to many radio and television shows to recount everything that had happened.
It was as if people could not get enough of this story. And it’s why it was soon turned into a movie, 127 Hours) which starred James Franco as the survivor. The actor was even nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Aron’s accident. It was raw and was as real as it was inspiring.
Being A Survivor
Peter Suedfeld, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia heard of Aron’s tale and said that it was “beyond the fundamental will to survive.” He explained that when people are under high amounts of stress, they are more likely to become rigid, which “decreases their chances of survival.”
He said that survivors like Aron are “extremely adaptable,” which is rare and they don’t fixate on something that fails. He went on to say that they are open-minded and constantly searching for options. Suedfeld explained that these people could go through a lot without completely losing it and Aron was a prime example.
Aron Ralston Used His Head
Aron Ralston was twenty-seven years old at the time of this incident. He used his head in a situation where most people would have lost it and died. And this ordeal did nothing to dim his love of nature. In fact, he was thinking about when next he’d be able to go out on another trip while he was still in the hospital room.
The young man went on to be featured books, had been invited to seminars to speak about his survival instincts. He went on to have a wife, child and is still going on adventures with his prosthesis, showing that there is life after tragedy.