In the movie 127 Hours,
Aron Ralston is trapped in an isolated canyon.
He escapes by severing his arm.
Could you do it? Would you do it? Cut off your arm to save your life?
Of course you would. Because at our most vulnerable, and our most heroic, we all have the grit. It may take a while to summon the courage. We may fight the idea of doing what we know we must. But in the end, we’ll take on even the hardest thing when it means survival.
That’s at least part of what 127 Hours is about: having the cojones to do what you must even when it’s unthinkable.
127 Hours, rated R for language and disturbing images; 1:33 minutes running time.
Stars James Franco. Directed by Danny Boyle and based on Aron Ralston’s memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.
Now showing in major cities. Find a theater showing 127 Hours near you.
Heather and I saw the movie about a month ago with a gathering of Aron Ralston’s family and friends in Boulder. Just as at other screenings, some of the audience was viscerally affected; one person got up, tried to exit the theater, and passed out in the walkway right in front of us. So this film isn’t for everyone, because it’s graphic and because you have to sit for an hour and a half in extremis with Aron (played dead on by James Franco), feeling the emotional tension of will he? won’t he? how could he? even though we all know he eventually did.
But to reduce this movie to something at the end of Aron’s arm, or rather something no longer at the end of Aron’s arm, is to miss the point.
The Real Aron Ralston
I climbed Denali—my first serious mountaineering experience—with Aron back in June of 2002, eleven months before his accident. He was 26 and had two arms. I was a month shy of 51, and at the time, I thought he was a pretty serious young guy, a talented athlete who took some questionable risks. What I didn’t know then, and the movie reveals plainly and with good humor, was that he was something of a party animal. He played hard, the way he did everything else.
But what was apparent to me from the word go was that Aron Ralston was willing to do things most other people aren’t. I’m no shrinking violet, and the kid was balls-out in some ways that made me wince. (We were also climbing with Gary Scott and Charlie Engle, who nearly got into a fist fight while I was clipped to a steep-incline rope above them, but that’s another story, which appears in Running on Empty.) In fact, it’s one of the central questions of 127 Hours, one of the things that made my friend second-guess himself over and over again while he was trapped for five days:
Was Aron Ralston just asking for it, being so foolhardy as to go out into a remote environment like that and tell NO ONE where he was headed? And then to begin climbing in a hazardous slot canyon, only to find himself tumbling into the crevasse with an 800-pound boulder bearing down on him? Who DOES that?
True: With his hand and wrist trapped by an immovable, giant rock and in short supply of food and water, he knew no one had a clue where he was, which made rescue a near impossibility. He recognizes this oversight now, of course, as a huge mistake.
The movie does a phenomenal job of showing his battles with himself and a re-evaluation of his life while he’s caught in Blue John Canyon, using flashbacks of his youth. 127 Hours reveals the heightened emotions. The highs, the lows, the questioning, the struggle in figuring out what to do.
Finally he decides to break his ulna and radius and then cut through the muscle, veins, arteries, and nerves with a cheap multitool to take off his hand, wrist, and part of his forearm. (With my experience in cattle rendering, I wondered why he didn’t go at the joint, as it would have been easier and quicker to get through his elbow. Aron told me he just didn’t think of it at the time.) It became matter of fact, and the film accurately portrays, I believe, that sense of time slowing down, of re-ordering priorities, of gratitude for the smallest things, like a drink of water, and for the big things, like his relationships with his family and the promise of a future that included a child.
Aron Ralston’s connection with nature intensified, too, with which I identified. Any time I’ve put myself on the line in the outdoors, the weather, the terrain, the flora and fauna—it all becomes magnified in its importance. In the movie, Aron’s mesmerized when a raven flies overhead. He contemplates what would happen if there were a flash flood. He glories in the 15 minutes of sun he gets each day to warm his foot.
What’s so amazing to me isn’t that Aron cut off his arm, but that he kept his wits about him during what happened next. I was most impressed that he was able to get out of the canyon, wounded but with an improvised tourniquet, keep himself hydrated (by drinking his own urine), and eventually find help. He survived. You think cutting his arm off was hard? I bet that in retrospect, to him it simply seems like the logical conclusion.
In fact, Aron may ask himself the same question my wife posed to me: Why on earth didn’t he do it sooner?
Ultimately, the amputation was a pragmatic decision about preserving himself. The only thing to do. And yes, you’d do it, too. Others have. One winter a neighbor of mine cut off his leg, crawled for a mile on the trail, and then he drove his Jeep down the road so he wouldn’t perish in an oncoming storm.
What finally gave Aron the push to do the thing he dreaded was a compelling vision, a “premonition” of himself with a child, the future It urged him to save himself, shouted the essential message in his ear: YOU CAN’T FAIL YOURSELF. Do the hard thing.
That’s what Aron’s story is really about.
If you need inspiration to get on with it, to do the next thing, to do something you know you must but just can’t seem to bring yourself to do, to deal with the tough questions and then get out there and live, I can recommend without reservation that you see 127 Hours. Do it. You’ll get through the amputation. Aron did.