Aron Ralston prepares to chop off his own arm to free himself,
48 hours into his ordeal in a Utah canyon.
For six days, Aron Ralston kept himself alive with fierce self-control and a conviction that only logical thought could let him survive. But the epiphany when the 27-year-old climber realised how he could save his own life came from an explosion of blind rage.
Ralston had been climbing the narrow canyons of Utah alone when a dislodged boulder fell on to his right arm, trapping him against a rock. He was entombed in the wilderness of Bluejohn Canyon, carrying a small rucksack with just one litre of water, two burritos and a few chunks of chocolate. He had headphones and a video camera but no mobile phone – and there was no reception anyway. Most foolishly of all, he had not told anyone where he was going. He eked out his water, futilely chipping away at the 800lb rock and slowly entering a state of delirium, until he was eventually forced to cut off his trapped arm, with the small knife from his cheap multitool kit.
Ralston, who is now 35 and still with the wiry physique of a climber, has just attended the London premiere of 127 Hours, Danny Boyle's film about his extraordinary escape from certain death. The film – like Ralston himself, full of boyish energy – is remarkably true-to-life, says Ralston, talking quickly and waving his arms around animatedly. It does not, however, fully describe his "gruesome" moment of revelation.
When his blunt knife pierced his skin but came to rest against solid bone, Ralston thought there was no chance he could perform the gruesome amputation that would save his life. He brushed some grit from his trapped thumb and a sliver of flesh peeled off "like the skin of boiled milk", he remembers. "I'm like, what the . . . ? I take my knife and I'm poking a bit more and the knife just slips into the meat of my thumb like it's going into room-temperature butter. My hand has almost jellified. The knife tip goes in and, 'pssstt', the gases from decomposition escape and there's this putrid smell. I go into this rage. I'm in this hyper-emotional state after all this regimented discipline to keep it together and in this moment, when I'm trying to rip my arm out from the rock, I feel it bend and it stops me – 'That's it! I can use the boulder to break my bones!'"
It was this moment of high emotion, rather than calm logic, that led to Ralston deliberately snapping the bones in his arm by hurling himself furiously against the boulder, finally enabling him to cut through his limb with a blunt knife. It is hardly surprising that audiences have responded with feeling: fainting in auditoria when they watch the point when Ralston, brilliantly played by James Franco in the film (he has been nominated for a Golden Globe), begins his amputation. Despite what might be considered an unpromising climax for mainstream entertainment, made more unpromising by the fact that most people know exactly what will happen, this moment is compelling, without Boyle being gratuitously gory. And despite retelling the story for what must be the umpteenth time, Ralston is also utterly captivating, completely inhabiting the moment again, miming out what he did by making a brutal stabbing motion with his good arm into what is now a dark grey prosthetic limb.
In the film, Franco's Ralston is at first a hyperactive, overconfident loner who believes he is invincible as he careers around Bluejohn Canyon, shamelessly showing off to a couple of female hikers he meets and, Jackass-like, taking photographs of himself when he falls off his mountain bike. "That's so you, Ralston," friends have told him, but if his portrayal on film was true to his life then, Ralston is certainly much more likable now.
The year before his accident, Ralston quit his job as an engineer with Intel to climb all Colorado's "fourteeners" – its peaks over 14,000ft. In May 2003, he began "canyoneering" in Utah, navigating the narrow passages of Bluejohn with a mixture of free-climbing, daring jumps and climbing with ropes. He was negotiating a 10ft drop in a 3ft-wide canyon listening to his favourite band, Fish, when he dislodged a boulder he thought was stable. "I go from being out on a lark in a beautiful place and just being so happy and carefree to, like, oh shit. I fell a few feet, in slow motion, I look up and the boulder is coming and I put my hands up and try to push myself away and it collides and crushes my right hand." Ralston was pinned in the canyon, his right hand and lower arm crushed by the 800lb rock. "There was this stunned moment of what-?" he laughs. "And it's almost comic."
The next second, the pain struck. "If you've ever crushed your finger in a door accidentally," he says, this was "times 100". In an "adrenalised rage", for 45 minutes he "cursed like a pirate". Then he reached for his water bottle. As he drank, he had to force himself to stop. "I realise this water is the only thing that's going to keep myself alive," he says. Having failed to tell anyone where he was going, he knew he would not be found. "I put the lid back on the water bottle and gathered myself. It was like, all right, brute force isn't going to do it. This is the stop-think-observe-plan phase of rational problem-solving. I have to think my way out of here." As he describes how he thought through his options, he taps his prosthetic arm on his fingers.
He ruled out the most drastic option – suicide – but the next most drastic alternative came to him immediately. "There's this surreal conversation with myself. 'Aron, you're gonna have to cut your arm off.' 'I don't want to cut my arm off!' 'Dude, you're gonna have to cut your arm off.' I said it to myself. That little back-and-forth. Then, 'Wait a minute. Stop. I'm not talking to myself. That's just crazy. You're not talking to yourself, Aron.' Except I would continue to talk to myself in various ways, to remind myself not to pass out."
After two days spent fruitlessly chipping away at the rock with his knife and devising a clever but futile system of pulleys with his climbing clips and ropes to hoist the boulder clear – he was defeated because climbing rope is stretchy and he couldn't obtain the required tension – he put his knife to his arm, only to find it was so blunt he couldn't even cut his body hair. In Boyle's film, when Ralston realises he can use the knife like a dagger rather than a saw, the camera follows the knife's journey into his flesh so the audience can see blade come to rest against bone inside his arm. This scene is "beautiful" to Ralston. He vividly remembers how it felt to have the knife in his arm, touching his bone "because it meant, I'm gonna die. It went from, 'I did it!' to, 'Oh, I'm going to die here.' I could no more chip through that bone than I would be able to excavate the rock to free my hand."
By the fifth day, Ralston had found "peace" in "the knowledge that I am going to die here, this is my grave". In the middle of his final night, hallucinating through hunger, lack of water and 3C temperatures, he had a vision of a small boy. "I see myself in this out-of-body experience playing with him with a handless right arm. I see myself scoop him up and there's this look in his eyes, 'Daddy, can we play now?' That look tells me this is my son, this is in the future, I'm gonna have this experience some day. Now it's like, I am going to get through this night."
The next morning, finally, came the rage and its revelation – that Ralston could fling himself against the boulder to break his own bones. From then, it was easy. The snap of his bones "like, pow!" was a horrifying sound "but to me it was euphoric", he recalls. "The detachment had already happened in my mind – it's rubbish, it's going to kill you, get rid of it Aron. It's an 'it'. It's no longer my arm. As I picked up the knife, I was very cool and collected." It took him an hour to hack through his flesh. "As painful as it all was, the momentum of the euphoria was driving it," he says.
It is striking in Ralston's own book, and in Franco's portrayal in the film, just how curiously unemotional he is about his predicament, which he views not self-pityingly nor self-critically but simply as a series of problems to be solved. When asked why the epiphany that leads to his freedom came through anger and not his more characteristic rational thought, Ralston gives a particularly good answer. "The lesson is that resilience is about flexibility. It's not just about exercising your strengths," he says, flexing his good arm, "it's also about exercising what aren't your strengths." At this point, he flexes his prosthetic arm. "I'm a very analytical and rational person, very mind-centred in my life. And yet here's this way I was very heart-centred, both finding my strength and finding the solution. It didn't have anything to do with logic, it had to do with the sensation, the feeling of the bone just bending in a really weird way. Then it became a thought: 'I can break my bones.'"
In the canyon, Ralston calculated it would take him at least 10 hours to find medical help and he would bleed to death but, using pieces of climbing kit as a tourniquet, he strapped himself up and somehow managed to scale a 65ft cliff to escape the canyon. Exposed to the fierce sun, he was found by three Dutch tourists, who gave him water and helped him stagger on, before he was picked up by a search-and-rescue helicopter dispatched by his family to look for him.
Watching these scenes on film, "that's where I start getting all weepy-eyed," says Ralston, "because when I see that helicopter what I'm seeing is my mom, because she made the rescue happen."
Where Ralston is radically different today, in the flesh, compared with his pre-accident self as portrayed by Franco in the film, is in his recognition that he depends on other people. The love of others, his relationships with his family and friends, kept him alive, he says now. "It was very much a spiritual experience and different from Joe Simpson in Touching The Void. That reinforced his agnosticism – 'I did this all on my own and God doesn't exist because if he did, he would've helped me out, that fucker.' For me it was to go through this and realise, well, God is love, and love is what kept me alive and that love is what got me out of there."
The tool that connected him to other people's love was his camera. "It's like this lifeline to the outer world, to other living beings, to love. That's what kept me alive." He recorded his "last will and testament" in a series of video diaries during his entombment so it is nicely symbolic that his ordeal has been made into a film. Although he played his videos to his parents, he decided he would never allow them to be shown in public. Instead, many of Franco's monologues exactly replicate what Ralston said in his own personal videos.
Boyle shot 127 Hours at the exact spot where Ralston had the accident but added some fictional scenes, such as when he splashes in a secret pool with the women he meets before the accident (the reality – helping them with a few basic climbs – was much more prosaic). Ralston was uncomfortable with these at first but belatedly understood that such changes enabled the audience to "experience it in a truthful way" and did not undermine the "authenticity" promised by Boyle. "The movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama," he says. "I think it's the best film ever made." He has watched it eight times and cried every time.
The vision that Ralston had during his final night in the canyon has come true. Earlier this year, Ralston's wife, Jessica, gave birth to a baby boy, Leo. Ralston admits to moments of frustration with his prosthetic arm but sees it as his "salvation. It was me getting my life back," he says. After the exhilaration of the rescue, you might expect Ralston to suffer depression. He did not; at least, not immediately. Fearing the loss of "my identity as a self-reliant individual, as an outdoorsman" he "regained all of that": he completed his mission to conquer "the Fourteeners", rowed a boat through the Grand Canyon and is a better climber now than when he had a right hand.
Many people would find this adaptation to disability as inspiring as his escape. But Ralston is honest enough to admit the downside of the fact that this supposedly life-changing experience did not actually change his life as perhaps it should. "What did I do? In the years following my amputation I thought, I won't let it change me, I just want to be the guy I was before and prove that I am still this hard hero. It's almost pathetic to the extent that what I really needed was a humbling and what happened? I just got reinforced – I'm a fucking badass, I just got out of that. Nothing's gonna stop me!" He lowers his voice. "But I was ultimately humbled actually through a relationship – a girl who broke up with me."
It was not the loss of his right arm but this breakup, in 2006, that caused a "really deep depression". He felt "crushed to the core," he says, and began questioning whether he was worth anything if he was not lovable. Belatedly, he realised that it was love and relationships that "leads you to strength and confidence and courage and perseverance and everything that people attribute to this story". In the aftermath of his depression, he met his wife and she challenged him "to implement what I'd learned, that relationships are really very important in life and this is how to transform from being this ego-driven twentysomething into being, if possible, on a path at least to becoming a more mature guy."
Ralston still likes solitude but when he goes out rafting and climbing now he almost always takes his friends. In Bluejohn Canyon, he also has a literal touch-stone, the rock that crushed and trapped him. He still visits it. "I touch it and go back to that place, remembering when I thought about what's important in life, relationships, and this quest to want to get out of there and return to love and relationships," he says, "to return to freedom instead of entrapment."
Original story http://www.guardian.co.uk