Inspirational adventurer and author Aron Ralston joined Inyo County’s Community Reads project Tuesday to share his story of hope and survival.
This year’s Community Read’s book, Ralston’s “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and the subsequent movie “127 Hours” starring James Franco, tell the tale of Ralston’s fateful trip into the remote Utah wilderness in 2003.
While hiking solo down Blue John Canyon in Canyonlands National Park, Ralston dislodged a boulder that came crashing down on top of him, crushing Ralston’s hand against the walls of the narrow canyon.
Over the next 127 hours, Ralston suffered hypothermic conditions, sleep deprivation and intense pain from his trapped limb as he improvised ways to free himself.
Eventually, Ralston was forced to break his arm and amputate his right hand to get free.
In front of a crowd of hundreds of residents Tuesday at the Tri-County Fairgrounds in Bishop, Ralston shared intimate details of his struggle to survive and how he found the courage to sever his hand from his body, using a strip of leather and dull multi-tool knife.
“These boulders are really our blessings,” Ralston said his lunch-time presentation. “I haven’t lost anything. When we have a trauma, we have a choice: we might make it a triumph.”
Blue John Canyon, named for a member of Butch Cassidy’s gang, is a narrow slot canyon that, in some areas, is only a couple feet wide.
Where Ralston was trapped, he could not see the sky, could not use his cell phone and could not call for help. To make matters worse, he had not told anyone where he was going or when to expect him back.
When the boulder crushed his hand, Ralston said it completely “re-calibrated” his sense of pain. “With every heart beat, that pain was just pounding. I absolutely lost control,” he said. “I was able to disassociate from the pain, but it never stopped.”
Over the next five days, Ralston went without sleep, because leaning too far one way or the other would send a shock of pain up his arm.
“I went through hell each of those nights,” Ralston said. “It was a lonely, cold place.”
After a brief panic, Ralston composed himself, put his mechanical engineering degree to use, and came up with a few options that could free him.
Ralston attempted to chip away at the 800-pound rock with his multi-tool, but realized that it would take weeks, if not months, to make enough progress to free himself.
From there, he used ropes and other climbing equipment to rig an improvised pulley system in an attempt to lift the boulder off his arm.
Ralston said that didn’t work because his climbing ropes were designed to stretch and soften the impact of a climber falls. That means when he attempted to lift the boulder, the ropes just stretched.
Exhausting his other options, Ralston knew his last hope for freedom was to amputate his right hand.
He was able to fashion a tourniquet out of a piece of leather, and began making exploratory cuts in his arm. It was when he poked a bone that he realized his pocket tool was not sharp enough to cut through the bone, and began to despair.
“On the fifth day, I found myself giving up,” Ralston said Tuesday. “That fifth day I gave up the sense of control, I felt free, at peace, calm.”
Feeling that he was standing in his grave, Ralston carved his name, date of birth and date of death, along with the epitaph RIP in the canyon wall. He turned on his video camera, and recorded his last words to his family, an apology and affirmation of his love for them.
“Boulders can show us what is truly important,” Ralston said. “It’s not just about what you do, it’s about who you are. I decided I’m going to see this through to the end.”
On what Ralston thought was his last day alive, he said he had an out-of-body experience, where he walked in a doorway and found a toddler playing with toys. He approached the youngster, and held him in his left arm.
That was the motivation he needed. Ralston realized he could use the boulder and canyon wall to create enough torque to break his arm, allowing him to cut through his flesh, muscles and tendons, and free himself.
“I stepped out of my grave and into my life,” Ralston said. “That’s when I almost passed out. I have no hard feelings towards the rock, really, it was my salvation.”
After freeing his arm, Ralston fashioned a sling, and began the seven-mile hike back to his vehicle, where he eventually located a family of three, who were able to contact search and rescue personnel who were already in the area searching for the missing hiker, thanks to the efforts of his mother.
Since recovering from his amputation, a process that Ralston said was equally as difficult as his ordeal in the canyon, he went on to summit some of the world’s most famous peaks, get married and have a son, Leo, whom he believes he first met during his out-of-body experience in Blue John Canyon.
“It was my passion for life and living it to the fullest, that’s what got me through it,” Ralston said. “We’re not just here to enrich our own lives, we’re here to enrich the lives of others.”
With that in mind, Ralston has become a wilderness advocate, lobbying to keep America’s open spaces available to those seeking solitude, beauty or even thrills.
Following his presentation, Ralston took questions from the audience, ranging from how well he liked the movie “127 Hours” to how he operates his prosthetic arm and if he has ever considered a hand transplant.
Ralston said he liked the movie, and his only regret about it is that it does not include his favorite band, “Phish,” in the soundtrack.
He operates his prosthetic hand through a pulley system that allows him to grip bicycle handlebars and hold different things.
He said he has not considered a hand transplant, because his self-image, how he views himself, includes his missing hand.
When asked if his actions were reckless, Ralston admits that he is more careful on his adventures now than he was before the accident, mainly because his son is never far from his mind.
“If I had it to do all over again, I would cut off my other hand. I’d do it all over again to get back to my son. I can’t wait until we get a chance to go out there together.
“May the challenges in your life bring out what’s extraordinary in you,” Ralston said in conclusion.