“Boulders can be blessings,” Aron Lee Ralston told a rapt AANA Annual Meeting audience. The profound, emotional story of how he came to that realization made for a compelling Keynote Session speech titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” on Monday, Aug. 6 in San Francisco.
Ralston knows the meaning of being between a rock and hard place. In 2003, at age 27, he spent five days trapped by a dislodged boulder in a slot canyon in southeastern Utah, and was forced to amputate his own right arm with a dull multi-tool to free himself. “I left something behind in that canyon,” he said but he doesn’t think he lost anything. “I only gained from the experience.” Boulders, he told the audience, “show what you are capable of.” They are something to embrace, and can be a blessing. “I found out that there is something extraordinary in me and there is something extraordinary in you.”
The Keynote Session began with the trailer of the movie “127 Hours,” which is based on Ralston’s book Between a Rock and a Hard Place. During the hour-long speech that followed, Ralston gave a gripping, moving, and sometimes even humorous account of his nearly unimaginable five-day long ordeal. It was an amazing physical, emotional, and spiritual journey that enthralled the audience.
At one point, knowing the near impossibility of his situation and that he would be facing a slow, painful death, he considered “taking action against myself.” After saying a prayer, he said, “I found my answer. No: See this through to the end.” Certain in the knowledge that he was standing in his tomb, Ralston taped his goodbyes to his loved ones, “making his last will and testament.” That process of thanking his family and telling them that he loved them, was the “first gift of the boulder,” he said. He realized what life really meant to him and what was most important—people rather than accomplishments.
Over the course of the five days, Ralston tried to think of ways to move the boulder, and finally came to the conclusion that he had to cut his hand off to save his life. He only had a dull knife that would barely cut through flesh, and would do nothing at all to sever his bone. Growing weaker by the day from starvation, dehydration, and hypothermia, by the fifth day Ralston was certain that he would not see another dawn, and scratched his epitaph—the date of his presumed death—on the wall. He then had an out-of-body experience, and saw a vision of the future that would be beyond that tomb—and his son. After that vision, despite his extremely weakened condition, he “stepped back into his life” found the strength to go on and meet that future, and that little boy. He realized that he had to break his bones to free his arm, and went about an excruciation process of using the boulder to break his arm and the dull knife to cut through flesh, sinew, arteries, and ultimately nerves.
Although freed from the boulder, Ralston’s ordeal was far from over. He then had to climb out of the canyon and rappel down a 60-foot sheer wall with one hand in his severely weakened condition, and begin a 15-mile trek across the desert to his truck. After walking seven miles, he ran into some hikers who gave him food and water, and was saved through “amazing synchronicity,” finding himself at just the right place at the right time to be picked up by a rescue helicopter his mother had arranged to look for him. Ralston later learned that he was about an hour away from death. He told the audience, that ultimately, he was saved by love: his mother’s and his own will to return to his family.
Ralston’s miraculous survival was the beginning of a new chapter in his life. He resumed climbing, including a 2008 expedition to climb Ojos del Salado in Chile and Monte Pissis in Argentina. In 2005, he became the first person to climb all 53 of Colorado's “fourteeners” solo in winter, a project he started in 1997 and resumed after the amputation in Blue John Canyon. Ralston is passionate about preserving the environment and being a voice for the wilderness, and is now married and the father of two-year-old Leo.