In May 2003, 27-year-old mountain climber Aron Ralston narrowly avoided death when he fell down a narrow canyon in the Utah desert. With his right arm pinned beneath an immovable boulder, in freezing conditions with little water and no food, Ralston faced certain death, and even recorded farewell messages on a camera, before finally freeing himself five days later in a manner few would dare contemplate.
His extraordinary story was reported all over the world, recorded by Ralston himself in his bestselling book, Between A Rock And A Hard Place, and is the basis of Danny Boyle’s new movie, 127 Hours, in cinemas now.
We were lucky enough to meet with Ralston for a round-table interview, where we discussed the film and his remarkable experiences. Ralston’s recollections were candid, thoughtful, and often exceptionally moving.
I understand you were heavily involved in the making of the movie?
For sure, yeah. It was a big part of the feeling that Danny [Boyle] and the team had earned my trust. I think if they’d have wanted me to give them my story and then go away, I’d have been, like, “I’m not so sure about that, guys.” So it was reassuring to me, and important, in that sense, that I could still be involved, and I felt respected that they wanted that.
It’s obviously a big part of my identity, of who I am. And to have this story as a gift to share with people, I had to build a detachment, so I wasn’t in the kitchen adding spice to the stew while the cooks weren’t looking – it needed to be their project. I don’t know how to make a movie, so it needs to be them doing that work.
Were you often on set?
Not every day. Once a week, I was there. I was as accessible as much as they wanted me to be. Journalists came to see the set, and so I did interviews with the folks there. And then it was partly just personal – one of the trips, we went to the real canyon, where they were filming. I got to be there, because it was the seven year anniversary after I’d been trapped in the canyon, and that was a very special time in my life, to be able to go and be there again.
I think there is some credence to the way our bodies rejuvenate themselves, where some cells grow and others die off. There’s an urban legend that after seven years all the trillions of cells in your body will have died and been completely replaced. So I’m literally a brand new person at that moment. I’m no longer the same person that walked into this canyon seven years ago, or the person who walked out. There’s been this cycle that’s come full circle.
With the film, especially, having had my baby boy, and envisioned him seven years ago when I was trapped – when I see that scene with the little boy, I cry so much at that part of the film. It invokes such a connection and emotion. One of the most loving relationships in life is between a parent and a child.
I had pictures of him on my digital camera, and I was looking at them standing by the rock, and I took the camera and showed the rock the pictures of my son. It was like sharing.
How changed are you as a person as a result of this experience? There’s a moment in the movie were you said how selfish you were before.
It was like I took my family for granted. I hadn’t expressed my gratitude to them. There’s a line on the video tape that James delivers verbatim from what I said to the camera, and it was, “Mom and Dad, I want to say I’m sorry. I feel like I haven’t appreciated you enough in my heart as I could have. I regret it now. I regret that I had been a little walled off.”
I think everyone, as you grow up, has to become independent and more self-reliant, increasing especially as you move through your teenage years and your 20s. I’d done that maybe more than most. At the time I was there in the canyon, I was 27 years old, and I was looking at how I’d moved so far away from my family, in a sense, and distanced myself, and maybe even walled off from relationships in general.
I’d become very obsessed with being outdoors and adventures. My whole life was going into mountaineering and climbing, and there was a cost to that. What’s most important about life? It’s not the number of mountains I’ve climbed, it’s the relationships. These people that have spent time with me. I was, like, “I wish I’d spent more time with them. I wish I’d said thank you more often. I really regret that.”
In terms of how it changed me, I had these epiphanies, like “This is what life is about” when I was trapped, and I got out and recovered, with a lot of help from my family and friends. But then I went right back to doing all those things I was doing – being obsessed with adventure and climbing and athleticism.
It was like I didn’t learn anything, at least for a few years. I had these epiphanies, but they didn’t change me. I think that’s true of a lot of things that come too easily or too quickly – it doesn’t stick, it doesn’t last. You might ask why, if I cut my arm off, I didn’t learn my lesson. But that’s how deeply rooted the issues I used to have were – my ego, my desire for fulfilment, my obsessions.
It took a long time before I was able to move past what I was doing with adventure and climbing, and really start to focus on relationships. It’s taken getting married and having a baby to pull me out of that life and move forward into a new one – I think that’s part of coming full circle. It didn’t just happen, even after that transformative experience in the canyon. I just went back to being the same brazen guy that you see at the beginning of the movie.
The guy who swims up to the edge of the pool and sees his friends and family, and the guy sitting on the couch with his wife and baby, it takes seven years before that comes around.
Are you more careful now than you used to be?
Since I’ve been a father, definitely. I still climb, and I mountain guide a little bit. To go out into the outdoors, there’s always going to be risk and decisions that go into that, and I feel that I notice now when I make a decision. Even up to a few years ago, I was “Go ahead, it’ll be fine” and do something riskier than necessary. Today, I see myself making decisions that the little voice, instead of saying “Go ahead” says “Think about [your son]. Do what’s cautious.” I find myself making different decisions.
In some ways, there’s not just decision making or precaution, but there’s also the focus. What’s most important in my life is my family. I don’t spend so much time outdoors alone, even compared to a few years ago, because my focus is on being with them.
Last year was a big year. My grandmother passed away, so we had a death. We bought a house. The film was like starting a new job. Having a baby. My wife and I had just got married a few months before that, and we went through all these changes over the span of a year.
You’re not going to spend 90 per cent of your life rafting, skiing or mountaineering like I was doing previously.
I’m sure your son will naturally grow up to be an outdoors person. How would you advise him, with your experience?
We’re already teaching him about animals and water. He loves looking at it all. Teaching him about the wonderment of the outdoors. He’s a very physical little boy, as witnessed by the fact that he loves doing laps on the stairs. He doesn’t like to go down, only go up [Laughs].
I think, like anything between a parent and a child, you have to get to the point where you say, “Okay, we’ve given you the skills and the knowledge. Now it’s up to you to go off and do what you want to do.” If, when he’s 18, he wants to go climb a mountain in Utah in the wintertime solo, like I was doing, I think by that point I’ll say, “I’ve done what I can, I’ve prepared you as well as I could have” and hope they survive their learning curve.
I wouldn’t say I have any advise to him I could boil down into a nugget. But up to a certain point it’s up to me to give him the practise and the skills he needs, and it’s my job later to say, “Okay, you’re on your own. We’ll be here for you if you need any assistance.” My parents were definitely there for me. Just like any mother would, my Mom showed up in a very strong way when it was discovered that I hadn’t turned up for work. She said, “He’s in trouble. Something’s not right. He needs our help.”
Within 25 hours, not even knowing what state I was in, she found my truck and had a search team and helicopters coming in. Actually, two other helicopters were en route to join the search. You don’t have much time for someone who’s been out for that long without water in the desert.
Little did they know what had actually happened. It really was like the movie poster says – every second counts. It was slipping away very quickly.
Back at the beginning, when Simon Beaufoy was obviously going about the tricky task of writing about what happened to you, was there ever a debate over how much the events should be fictionalised?
We had a lot of discussions about it. And this was, again, why I felt honoured to be a part of it – in most Hollywood situations, where they take a true story and adapt it to be a film, whoever provides that original source material is told, “Alright, great! Thanks!” Good luck having any input on it.
It illuminated for me the challenges that they faced. I thought, how much more drama do you need? It’s all there. The thriller aspect, the timing, this idea that a person could do something like this. I’ve always enjoyed survival dramas like that too.
And they said, “Yeah, but this is film. It’s very different” They have to condense things, and expand other things. They have to explain things without being too expository, to show an audience the wonder of the desert, to take the audience through the thought processes I went through. They had to show what happened in a worse case scenario.
So there were these fantasy sequences, and things that are dramatised or fictionalised. We had a very poignant conversation when we went out on a hike. [Simon Beaufoy] is a kind of an outdoors guy – one of the outdoorsman of the whole crew. Most of the rest of them were more “I’ll stay on the sidewalk, thanks.”
Simon and I had a really good discussion. He described the concept that a fictionalisation can convey the essence of truth even more than just a raw display of facts, because it can bring people through an emotional experience where they feel something, as opposed to being told about a feeling. That was Danny’s feeling from the beginning too. Instead of having me in a documentary talking about this experience, and telling an audience, that we identify an actor who’s taking us through the experience.
Simon, with that nugget about fiction and truth – I’ve seen how it works. That brilliant part in James [Franco]’s performance where he’s doing the self interview towards the end of the film. He’s on the morning talkshow, and he’s the interviewer and the interviewee and the caller. I didn’t do that – I didn’t interview myself on camera. I did those recordings, and a lot of what he said was what I said – the self-criticism, the logistics of a potential rescue, the realisation that I’d been looking for this moment of destiny that was coming to a head. I’d created it. I wanted it. I’d been looking for it all my life. All these things were real for me in the delirium and everything else besides.
That was a demonstration of the concept. It takes the audience through a variety of emotions and experiences. It’s truthful in content, but the way it’s delivered is, basically, made up.
I think they did a really great job of that. How do you go about understanding the consequences of a flash flood? For me, when I did it, I said into the camera, “I’ve been thinking about what might happen if the canyon flooded. I’d probably drown, but at least I’d get a drink of water.” And so that’s very dry and straightforward.
What’s cinematic is seeing the flood build and how shocking it is to have those first drops hit, or the flash of thunder and lightning, the torrent build steadily and moving rocks. It was like this nightmare fantasy. I love what they did with a lot of that. It was necessary, and if I’d clung too tightly to it, they couldn’t have done that.
My wife was pretty instrumental. She’s a great counsellor. She’s there reminding me that they’re artists, and you don’t want to spoil their creativity.
In the book and the film, you say “Rocks fall all the time”. Do you feel what happened was destiny?
I directly caused that rock to move, because of how I dangled from it, and where I put my weight. I pulled it loose accidentally – I didn’t do it intentionally – but in a sense, that was what I was out there through all these adventures. I came to the conclusion that I’ve been wanting this to happen. I’ve been reading books, I’ve been wanting to know, “What would I do if my life was on the line” and now here it is. I even knew that when I was trapped. I knew this was an experience I had created, and also wanted. I said this to the camera.
It wasn’t just a physical experience, but a spiritual one, about attaining self-fulfilment. What I was here for was to discover myself. Cosmically, that’s what I think about the universe and all of us, that we’re all part of the universe experiencing itself. It’s a big experiment.
For me in that canyon, and James says it, that the rock’s been waiting for me my whole life. There’s a little bit of exaggeration from what I really said, but I was almost being drawn by forces unseen – less external, more internal. That’s what I wanted for myself. I subconsciously created it. I’d built up a whole repertoire of experience that I took with me in that canyon. I’d quit my job, and dedicated myself to these passions, so I was at the level of fitness I was at when I got there.
I was an engineer by my university training, so I had an understanding of search and rescue, rope systems, the logistics of what happens in rescues.
I chose to go to that canyon. I chose to go to the desert without telling anybody where I was going. I met those two girls, then chose to go my own my way. My friends tease me still. “Next time, go with the girls. What were you thinking?” [Laughs.]
I speak about destiny not like it was some predetermined fate that God had laid out for me, but more like an interaction of my freewill and circumstances. I’d been looking for it, and there it was.
You put yourself in extreme situations, because that’s what lots of mountain climbers do. You found yourself in the ultimate survival situation, and made your decisions accordingly.
Exactly. That’s what we all do. As much as we say we want easy street and the good life, it’s boring. Sure, it’s okay for a little while, but we relish challenges. It’s what we’re made to do. Whether it’s a trauma or adversity, or loss, we seek out, through our experiences, situations for ourselves. People who love very intensely grieve very intensely.
We go through these cycles of feeling like our lives are on the line, and then the relief once it’s over is part of what’s here for us. My story’s sort of an allegory like that. The boulders in are lives are also our lessons.
This is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, because of the lessons and the growth. You don’t grow, you don’t learn a lesson unless you pay a price for it, and I think that’s a necessary part of growing up, to struggle.
There’s the Buddhist idea that life is suffering and loss, and it’s true – that’s how we grow into our highest potential. Without extraordinary circumstances, we wouldn’t realise our extraordinary potential.
But you didn’t always know you were going to survive…
Definitely not, no. In fact, from the moment I turned the camera on, that was me acknowledging that I wasn’t going to survive. And that came 24 hours into being trapped. The first message I left on the tape was, “Whoever finds this, please get it to my parents.” Straight off, I knew I’m not going to get out of here.
How long was the tape?
Just a few minutes shy of 60 minutes. I’d maybe taken five minutes of other stuff at the beginning of the tape. I got all the way to the end by the fifth day, and rewound and watched it all through, criticising. It was so incoherent at moments because I hadn’t slept. It was kind of funny and ironic that I was like a director telling an actor. “Go back, do it again!” [Laughs.]
I rewound it to the beginning and taped over a few minutes of stuff prior to when I got trapped. All the way up until an hour before I realised what I could do to get myself free. But for days I’d tried to saw at my arm and stab my arm, just like you see in the film.
I went through an evolution, at first I don’t even want to consider the idea of cutting my arm off, and then by and by, I become more desperate, having figured out the plan of using the tourniquet. The bones being too hard for the blade left me in the situation where, even over these rollercoasters of hope and despair, it was finally the fifth day when I came to peace with this.
Even from the second day when I knew I was going to die, it was the fifth day when I knew it was out of my hands. There was nothing more I could do to save myself. There was an abiding calm that came over me. That’s like the feeling of faith in your life, that it’s not up to me. A relaxation comes from that, acceptance.
It was on the fifth night when I had the vision of a little boy, that told me I’m not going to die, I’m going to get out of here. I saw myself with a handless right arm, playing with him. That was the future. Me, not here, without a hand, with a little boy. The way he looked at me, I knew that he was my son.
In a blink, it was all gone, and I was back, shivering in the canyon. But it changed everything. I knew I’m not going to die here.
And then after you’d freed yourself, you had to rappel down a cliff…
It was a very awkward rappel, too. But I was adrenalised. I was more invigorated with life than I’d ever been when I freed myself. What nearly overcame me was the euphoria, being out of that spot.
What you see at the end of the film, where the little boy appears to James, and he figures out how to bend his arm. That’s the epiphany that leads to him getting out. I don’t have to cut through the bones, I can break them.
The boulder becomes an inversion: it’s not trapping me anymore, it’s actually freeing me. Without the rock holding me the way it was, I couldn’t have done that. So as I broke the bones I had a smile on my face. It was like the most euphoric thing that I’ve ever done. The most painful thing too.
There were times when I severed the nerve and it was like I’d incinerated my arm. It was liquefied in heat. It’s hard to describe what it’s like. But in the moments right after that, I was smiling. All the possibilities of life swelled up, all these great moments. Maybe I’ll see that little boy. Maybe I’ll get back to my Mom.
I think they delivered that extremely well in the film. I know it’s a moment that audiences aren’t sure if they can handle it, and then they get through it, like, “Woah!” But you do, you get through it. And audiences I’ve seen it with clap and cheer.
Sometimes they’re very quiet and overwhelmed, but it delivers this uplift. There’s pain, excruciating experience and intensity, and then there’s something that makes all that irrelevant, something worth living for.
To me, that’s what the real message of the story is. Yeah, it’s the guy who cuts his arm off, but what it’s really about is what’s more important than cutting your arm of.
So many good things have happened to you since.
I certainly am grateful. I wrote a book, I do speaking engagements. I’ve been gifted with something that’s very valuable to share with people, so I feel almost like it’s a responsibility to not just speak to corporate groups who can pay my fee, but also schools and non-profit fundraisers.
I also do work for wilderness groups that protect these landscapes. In Europe, you don’t have many places where, when the camera pulls back, you can see for 50 miles in every direction, pristine landscape. That doesn’t just happen – there are groups that work hard to protect these places from roads and oilrigs and nuclear reactors.
I work for disabled veteran’s groups. I’ve been able to develop some things that pull smiles on people’s faces.
There’s a lot with this story that helps people. In some cases, it’s even saved their lives. There was a really poignant example of this.
I was still in hospital, and depressed, because I didn’t cut my arm off and get out of the canyon to then be hooked in a bed on IVs and 18 pills of narcotics a day. I couldn’t even tell my parents I loved them. There was a month of that, and I thought, “This isn’t life.”
But a lady wrote a card to me, saying she’d been in depression, and even had a plan of killing herself on the anniversary of her husband’s death. She had her sleeping pills, and was going to overdose, and that was going to be it.
She read my story in a magazine, and she wrote and said it showed her a light in the darkness. It saved her life – she flushed her pills, remembered her grandkids’ faces and said, “That’s what I’m going to live for.”
At that moment when I was in a dark place, it reflected back to me, and told me “This isn’t the time to give up, Aron.” It’s definitely brought me a great fortune, both in terms of wealth and life. It’s given me a purpose, to share this with people. It helps in all kinds of ways, most I’ll never know of, but now and again I’ll get a Facebook message or something like that.
Someone comes up after the film and says, “I got out of my seat, and called my Mom before I even left the theatre. I haven’t spoken to her in a couple of years.” It changes people. I’ve needed stories of hope to inspire me in dark times, and that’s what I’m so grateful for to the film team, Danny and everyone.
Aron Ralston, thank you very much.
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