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Ralston in Beaver Creek: Lessons from the desert

Geoff Mintz
Vail Daily correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyAron Ralston, who escaped death after cutting off his own arm when it was jammed behind a boulder after a fall in a Utah canyon, describes his ordeal Thursday at the Mountain Travel Symposium in Beaver Creek.
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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. – Perhaps you’ve seen the movie or read the book, but it’s another kind of experience to hear Aron Ralston tell the story himself.

Ralston – the Boulder resident and former Aspenite who cut his arm off out in Utah – has turned his misfortune into a highly demanded speaking tour, a major motion picture and lucrative career.

Hundreds packed into Beaver Creek’s Vilar Center early Thursday morning. There was no coffee needed, as everyone was on the edge of their seat listening to Ralston recount the 127 hours he spent in the desert stuck between a half-ton rock and a hard place.

His ordeal has since been made into the Oscar-nominated film, “127 Hours.”

In case you’ve been living under a rock (no pun intended) for the last several years, in 2003, Ralston was hiking by himself out in the Utah desert, when an unfortunate slip landed him in a crevasse. His arm became pinched between the crevasse wall and a boulder that had become dislodged during the fall.

About an hour into his entrapment, Ralston was able to compose himself and tried figure a way out of the predicament. With a background in engineering and being trained in problem solving, he followed a simple acronym S.T.O.P. – stop, think, observe, plan.

The first step was to define the problem. That was fairly obvious, Ralston said.

The second step was to brainstorm a number of possible solutions. He came up with four: one, chip away at the rock with a knife; two, design a pulley system to lift the rock; three, wait for help; four, cut the arm off.

“Even in the first few moments, I thought I might have to cut my arm off,” Ralston said. “I didn’t want to cut my arm off. I said out loud in a very stern voice, ‘Aron, you’re going to have to cut your arm off.’ I really didn’t want to think about it anymore, so I put that one at the bottom of the list.”

Sure enough, options one through three didn’t work.

Ralston didn’t spare any of the gory details of option four. He described how the knife was too dull along the length of the blade to cut through the flesh, so he had to flip it around and stab his way through. He talked about how he had to snap both bones in his forearm to free himself from the boulder. He talked about how he had to drink his own urine for three days to stay alive.

But more important than the horrific imagery was the lesson that Ralston was hoping to convey: the importance of relationships with loved ones and that any day you don’t have to drink your own urine is good day.

“It says in the movie trailer, ‘There is no force more powerful on the planet than the will to live,'” Ralston said. “I think there is one, actually. It’s the will to love. That’s what got me through this. It’s what kept me alive by bringing my loved ones out there.”

He gained strength during his entrapment by speaking into a video camera, communicating, apologizing and, at times, saying goodbye to his family. Ralston said he never felt alone because he had that outlet to connect with his loved ones, whether he ultimately lived or not.

He also described a vision he had during the fifth and final night – likely induced by the loss of blood and lack of sleep – of a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, which gave him the strength and courage to see it through to the final dawn.

Since the entrapment, Ralston has gone on to summit Colorado’s 14ers in the middle of the winter – just as he did before the incident, raft the Grand Canyon and volunteer with search and rescue operations around the country. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he gained a lot more than he lost out in the Utah desert eight years ago this month.

“I gained my life back, deeper relationships – that sense of what is most important. It’s my family. It’s the bond with my friends. And as of 14 months ago, it’s having this little guy,” Ralston said, as he displayed a slide of his blond-haired, blue-eyed son.

“I know if it all happened again, I would cut my other hand off to get back to him,” he said. “And I’d make a fair wager – for you and your families, for the things that are most important in our lives, for love, for passion, for freedom – you’d do it, too.”


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