Camping & Survival

Survivor Stories Aron Ralston: “What am I Capable of?”

Photo by Aron Ralston

What is the one thing you need to survive a potentially deadly situation? Water is a good answer, but the one thing that matters between living and dying is the will and determination to survive. That is exactly what Aron Ralston relied on in April of 2003. Aron, an experienced hiker, climber, and mountaineer set out one morning from his Aspen, Colorado home to get away from it all and do a bit of canyoneering. Admittedly, a risk-taker, Aron had many times before that day set out on his own to climb. One of his long-term goals was to conquer the Colorado Fourteeners, solo in winter. The Colorado Fourteeners are mountains in Colorado that reach heights of 14,000 feet. A feat never accomplished before.

Aaron Ralston
Aaron Ralston

On this particular pleasant spring day, Aron did not want to “accomplish” anything, but have a nice vacation. He simply wanted to “get away from it all.” Aron was interested in exploring some slot canyons and had a guidebook for Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Canyonlands National Park is literally out in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from any paved road. Aron made a base camp and continued on foot to Bluejohn Canyon with his backpack.

In his backpack he had two burritos, rope and climbing equipment, video camera, digital camera, Walkman®, headlamp, a fake Leatherman® tool, of which would later help save his life, and 22 ounces of water. He climbed down into Bluejohn Canyon and when trying to get around a boulder when it shifted, crushing his right arm, sticking him in a standing position deep within the canyon. So far down that no one at the top of the canyon would be able to see him.

At first, Aron tried to use the strength in his legs to push the 800-pound boulder, but it was not budging.  Right away Aron knew that amputating his arm would be an option, but he didn’t want it to come down to that. At one point he even attempted, but realized he would not be able to cut through the bone.

He took everything out of his backpack and with the file on his cheap imitation Leatherman began attempting to chip away at the boulder. He thought that maybe he could get enough chipped away to free his arm. That first night he continued to chip away at the boulder to the point of wearing down the file on his multi tool.

Aron is an experienced Search and Rescue volunteer and knew he had to conserve his food and water and stay active to stay warm to avoid hypothermia. He was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt and the temperature in the canyon dropped into the 50s at night. Knowing he had to conserve what very little water and food he had, he limited himself to one small sip of water every hour and a half.

Photo by Aron Ralston
Photo by Aron Ralston

His legs started to give away, so he rigged his ropes and climbing gear into a harness so that he could sit down. He attempted to rest, but laying still made his body so cold it would start to shake involuntarily. He recognized that his body was not being able to control its temperature anymore. He knew he was reaching extreme dehydration and was running the risk of getting hypothermia. On his third day stuck in the canyon, Aron started saving his urine to prevent dying from dehydration.

Aron recorded his ordeal on his digital video camera. Not necessarily to have a record of his story, but to let his family know that he loved them. He thought he was going to die in that canyon. He had etched “Aron, “ “Oct 75” and April 2003” and “RIP” into the rocks of the canyon. On his tape he says, “I’m doing what I can, but this sucks.”

By the end of the fifth day, Aron had been without a drink of water for two days, had lost 45 pounds, and been suffering hallucinations. He did not expect himself to live through that fifth night.

On the sixth morning, when he did indeed find himself still alive, he started chipping away at the boulder again with one of the blades on the multitool. At one point the blade slipped and slashed the skin off his thumb. He says he poked around a bit with the blade on his arm and he says, “when I slid it in… it was like sliding in a pat of warm butter.” It was then it occurred to him that if he broke his bones, he might just be able to cut off the arm. “I did what I needed to do,” he says. He had a tourniquet that he had constructed out of the inner lining of his water bottle, which he used in completion of the amputation.

When freed from the boulder, he found his way out of the canyon, repelled down a six-story cliff, and then started the hike back to his car. On his way back he ran into a family of hikers who went for help.

Aron told his story in the book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” and retold it in the award-winning movie, 127 Hours.

Photo from the Daily Mail
Photo from the Daily Mail

Aron is now a motivational speaker and author. He still climbs and in fact helped design his prosthetic arm that has two attachments: one that aids in climbing rock and ice and one for ropes and belaying.

Park rangers retrieved Aron’s arm, cremated it and returned it to him. Aron spread the ashes over the canyon. Aron has returned to Bluejohn Canyon numerous times. He has finished all the Fourteeners.

What happened was an accident, or perhaps fate, the only mistake that Aron made that fateful day was not telling anyone where he was going. Aron’s knowledge and determination helped him survive those six days stuck in the canyon.

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Comments (8)

  1. He was an idiot who didn’t plan well. Sure he lost his arm but he is now rich because he was stupid. This is literally the worst story to use as inspiration. The only thing we should use this story for is a clear cut example of what not to do. He didn’t get what he deserved for being an idiot, and the American people are eating up this story. It really bothers me that people are giving him too much credit for survival. He never would have been in that position if he hadn’t violated the cardinal rule of being an outdoorsmen, which is to always leave a full itinerary with someone. And, you should never go anywhere by yourself. Period. This is just ridiculous.

  2. I read Aron’s book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and saw the movie “127 Hours” a few years later. Without a doubt, it is quite a compelling story and a testament to the will to survive. While he does mention that not leaving his travel plans with someone was a mistake, I don’t recall him saying that going it alone was also a mistake. I wonder if he talks about that point in his speaking engagements. While this is a personal choice and a controversial subject, what’s not so controversial is that you have a better chance at survival if you follow the buddy system.

  3. I have read and heard of many things that have done that would not be acceptable in normal circumstances. People are capable of many thing that they don’t give themselves credit for.

    When someone says they can’t take another step, they still have a couple of miles left in them.


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