May 2, 2024 | Allison Robertson

Aron Ralston: A Miraculous Story of Self-Rescue


A Testament to Perseverance

You may have seen the film, 127 Hours, about a young solo hiker who beat unimaginable odds of survival during a five-day ordeal trapped in the deep and isolated canyons of Utah.

The film is an accurate retelling of a true event that happened in 2003 to a man named Aron Ralston. 

These are the details of what actually happened in those grueling 127 hours, including how he had to sever his own arm to save his life. 

Aron Ralston Split2

Early Life

Ralson was born in Marion, Ohio and moved to Denver Colorado at the age of 12. It was then that he developed a passion for the outdoors, becoming an avid backpacker and skier during his teenage years.

Map of Ohio, MarionSevenMaps, Shutterstock

College

Ralston went on to attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, where he double-majored in mechanical engineering and French, and minored in Piano. He satisfied his need for adventure by working as a raft guide during the summer months.

Picture of Carnegie Mellon UniversityCorey Seeman, Flickr

Back to his Dream

After college, he worked as a mechanical engineer in Arizona for a few years before ultimately returning home to Colorado to pursue his dream of climbing—a choice that would change his future forever.

A person climbs the mountainafrica_pink, Shutterstock

World Records

Ralston, being an avid outdoorsman, had been building up his skills in mountaineering for many years, and was now ready to crush some of his goals—one in specific that would get him a world record.

two of Colorado's fourteenersBrian Wolski, Shutterstock

Colorado’s Fourteeners

Ralston’s main goal was to climb all of Colorado’s “fourteeners”—peaks over 14,000 feet altitude—solo, and during winter. There are 59 peaks in total, and he was determined to climb them all—a feat that no one before him has ever done.

three of Colorado's fourteenersMike Peters, Shutterstock

A Dangerous Level of Confidence

This wasn’t Ralston’s first time climbing massive mountain peaks, and by this time he was very confident—perhaps a little too confident at times—in his mountaineering skills.

image of Aron Ralston and two other girlsSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Feeling Invincible

Previous climbs had Ralston face-to-face with gray wolves, avalanches, severe storms, and numerous bouts of second-degree frostbite.

The fact that he survived it all only made him feel more invincible.

Portrait of Aron RalstonAron Ralston, Wikimedia Commons

Success

Ralston had climbed alone plenty of times, more times than not actually. In fact, he was successful in reaching his goal of mastering all 59 peaks—45 of them he did solo during the winter months, like he had planned.

So naturally, he wanted more.

Rocky mountain viewDavid Banta-Garcia, Shutterstock

Resolution Peak

In February 2003, two-weeks after he set his sights on Resolution Peak in Colorado, and begged two of his friends to go along with him—reluctantly, they agreed.

Elk Mountains of ColoradoAlexey Kamenskiy, Shutterstock

A History of Reckless Behavior

According to Ralston’s friends, he had a history of recklessness in the mountains, often making risky choices and traveling without appropriate gear—a lesson he would soon learn the hard way.

image of person cycling in the mountainsSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

The Wrong Call

Ralston, and his skiing partners Mark Beverly and Chadwick Spencer, set out to reach the summit. It wasn’t long until Ralston led his friends into an east-facing bowl in dicey conditions—a judgement call that would send them face-to-face with imminent danger.

hiker in a winter mountainVronska, Shutterstock

The Avalanche

Sure enough, the uncertain weather changed, and a loud rumble vibrated the snow-covered peaks around them. Suddenly, the trio was blindsided by a massive avalanche plummeting directly for them.

avalanche rumbling downMarcus Placidus, Shutterstock

Panic

Ralston was instantly buried up to his neck, while one of his buddies was completely submerged by the heavy snow. The third friend, scared and disoriented, dug through the snow in sheer panic attempting to free them.

Rear view of skier hiking to mountain summitsirtravelalot, Shutterstock

A Very Close Call

After 12 minutes of frantic searching and digging, the men were freed from the massive heap of snow, and luckily, all three survived the ordeal with minimal physical injuries, and one bout of hypothermia.

Colorado 14er Torreys Peaknyker, Shutterstock

Not the Last

Once again, Ralston had crossed the line and nearly cost him and his friends their lives. Unfortunately, this would not be Ralston’s last brush with death.

man leaving his bike and go hikingSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Adventure Continues

Only a few weeks later, Ralston set off for another adventure. He planned to canyoneer down the remote Bluejohn Canyon and hike out the adjacent Horseshoe Canyon—and this time he would go alone.

Horseshoe Bend, Grand Canyoniacomino FRiMAGES, Shutterstock

Bluejohn Canyon

On Saturday, April 26th, 2003, Ralston, 27-years-old at the time, parked his pickup truck at the Horseshoe Canyon and took off on his bike for the 15-mile ride to Bluejohn Canyon.

Smooth rocks at Blue John CanyonSamuel Woods, Shutterstock

Ill-Equipped

Wearing only a t-shirt and shorts, and carrying a small backpack, Ralston was ill-equipped, as usual. His pack contained two burritos, less than a liter of water, a cheap imitation brand multi-tool, a small first aid kit, a video camera, a digital camera, and a handful of rock-climbing gear.

image of a man hiking on rocksSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

The Final Rappel

After a long day of climbing between the narrow canyons, Ralston was about 150 yards above the final rappel in Bluejohn Canyon, maneuvering in a 3-foot-wide slot trying to get over the top of a large boulder wedged between the narrow canyon walls.

image of Blue John canyonSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

The Boulder

As he climbed up the boulder face, it seemed very stable as he stood on top of it. He took a moment to look up at the gazing sun, basking in the tranquil freedom he enjoyed most about his explorations—not realizing this may be the last time he feels the sun on his face.

man climbing on a cliffSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

The Shift

As he began his decent, the perfectly balanced 800-pound rock unexpectedly shifted several feet—pinning his right arm. All of a sudden, he was trapped inside the 3-foot-wide canyon, and in immense pain.

image of the man with his hand stuckSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Disbelief

After a few moments of disbelief, Ralston pulled himself together. Surely, this couldn’t be as bad as it seemed. After all, he had cheated death many times before, why would this be any different? All he had to do was move the rock—or so he thought.

image of man thinkingSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Stuck

It took Ralston nearly an hour to grasp a sense of reality. This massive boulder wasn’t going to move. His body was tightly packed between the canyon walls, and he had very minimal gear on him. He started to weigh his options.

man stuck between rocksSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Weighing Options

Ralston came up with four possible solutions: someone would happen along and rescue him; he would be able to chip away at the boulder and free his arm; he would be able to rig something with his gear to move the boulder; or, if all else failed, he would need to sever his arm.

Of course, the fear of a fifth option was always present—death.

image of Aron Ralston looking at his stuffSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Option #2: Chip Away the Boulder

Feeling optimistic, Ralston supported his feet on a ledge, and carefully unpacked his gear on top of the boulder to see what he could jimmy up to help free his arm. Carefully watching the time, knowing nightfall was only a few hours away, he decided to try option two—chip away at the boulder.

aron ralston stuck between rocksSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Regret

Ralston instantly regretted the items he chose to pack, specifically the knock-off multi-tool. But it was his only tool, so he did what he could and started chipping at the boulder, while pain radiated through his body.

portrait image of Aron RalstonSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

A Setback

Not long later, the multi-tool slipped and fell to the bottom of the canyon. Frustrated and pained, he looked up to the sky as darkness was looming in, and he knew he only had moments left until everything would turn dark—he had to get his tool back.

image of Aron Ralston looking at his watchSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Determination

Thankfully, Ralston had been in sticky situations before, so he had knowledge and skills that would help him. Within reach was a thin stick that he would bend to make a hook and reach down to retrieve the tool.

image of a fallen camping knifeSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Nothing But Dust

Upon his success, Ralston let out a loud cry—one of both desperation and rejoice. He tied the tool to his belt loop using a shoe string and continued to chip away at the boulder. But after several hours he had produced only a small handful of rock dust.

However, the night sky took over and Ralston was met with a whole new set of challenges.

Aron Ralston stuck between cliffsSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

The Cold, Dark Night

Temperatures that low in the canyon dipped into the 30’s at night. It was dark and cold. Ralston had a head-light, but no way to keep warm. His hands and feet went numb and tingly, but he continued to chip away at the boulder in pure desperation.

image of a Aron stuckSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Vivid Dreams

Watching the time slowly go by, Ralston drifted in and out of sleep, constantly waking from vivid dreams of freeing himself from his impending demise. Sleep was impossible, and comfort was something he believed he would never feel again.

Aron Ralston sad faceSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Desperation

By morning Ralston was hungry, thirsty, and desperately awaiting the short period of time when the sunlight from above would reach down and warm him. He had only a small bit of water that he was trying to ration, and no food left.

Aron trying to fill water from rainSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Warmth of the Sun

As the sun moved in, he took off his shoes and reached his toes into the beams of sunlight, caressing the walls around him with his hand, taking in the warmth. He closed his eyes and immersed himself in memories of his childhood.

image of Aron Ralston with eyes shutSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Documentation

Later that day, Ralston decided to document his ordeal. Assuming he was going to die, he recorded himself telling whoever finds his device to get in touch with his parents. He spoke about what happened, and how he had no food or water left at this point, and how he was preparing for the end.

Until he heard something that awoke the spirit in him once more.

image of Aron Ralston documenting himselfSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Option #1: Hikers?

Ralston heard rumbling from above and thought it might be other hikers. Still recording, he started screaming as loudly as he could, but nothing came of it. When he reviewed the video later and saw his desperate outburst, he told himself, “Don’t lose it,” and decided to explore more options, knowing the chances of being found were extremely slim.

aerial image of place Aron Ralston was stuckSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Another Cold Night

Ralston went through his pack once more and tore it apart to create a makeshift tent to put over his head, hoping it would help keep him somewhat warm during the night. He ate crumbs he found in the bottom of his bag, closed his eyes, and once again immersed himself in his memories to get him through another cold, dark night.

image of Aron ScreamingSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Hallucinations

Ralston remained trapped for a few more days. He was in and out of consciousness, and started hallucinating, and making senseless videos highlighting the foolish actions that led him to where he was now.

Aron Eyes with tearsSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Option #3: Rig Something Up

Ralston tried various methods of freeing his arm, including ropes and a pulley-system—to no avail. At this point he resorted to some pretty desperate measures for survival.

image of man thinkingSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Desperate Measures

Ralston started sucking on buttons and even his own contact lenses to relieve his dry, dehydrated mouth. But it wasn’t enough. With no options left, he relieved himself into his water bottle and began sipping on his own urine.

image of man screamingSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

A Final Goodbye

At this point, Ralston was sure he wasn’t going to make it. He etched his name into the rock, followed by a “RIP”, and left a final goodbye message to his parents on his recorder. He was certain this was the end.

Until something happened that awakened his spirit once more.

image of handwriting on a rockSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

The Premonition

Ralston had a vision of a small child running across a sunlit floor to be scooped up by a man with only one arm. He understood this vision to be of his future son, and believed his survival was fully dependent on himself.

With only two options left, he had to make a choice: take his arm, or take his life.

image of man filming himselfSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

The Amputation

Ralston woke the next day to discover his arm had begun decomposing, and knew it was time. He started to prepare his arm for amputation. He looked at his gear and determined his only option was the dull blade on his multi-tool.

man holding pocket knifeSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

A Desperate Rage

Ralston starting slicing away at his arm, but the blade was not nearly sharp enough to cut through the bone. In a desperate rage, his next move was as gruesome as it was painful.

image of man screamingSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Breaking Bones

For the next hour, Ralston screamed as he forced his arm against the boulder to break the bones that were ultimately in the way of his release. He then used his water bag tube as a tourniquet to tie off his arm, and brace himself for the worst part.

Aron trying to remove his handSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Freedom

Ralston began sawing at his arm with the dull blade, going in an out of consciousness, dreaming of the boy from his vision. It was enough to keep him going and he eventually freed himself from the boulder, leaving his arm behind.

The worst was over, but he wasn’t “free” yet.

injured man drinking waterSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

The Escape

After standing beside his arm in disbelief, he quickly wrapped up his wound, gathered what was left of his gear and took off in search of open space and sunlight.

man going on his kneesSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

An Unimaginable Perseverance

Ralston was free from the canyon, but he was still alone. Now, with only one arm and an utterly painful wound, he rigged anchors and fixed a rope to rappel nearly 70-feet to the bottom of Bluejohn Canyon, where he then hiked another 5 miles into the adjacent Horseshoe Canyon.

With nearly no energy left, Ralston collapsed to the ground, once again believing this was the end for him.

image of Aron RalstonSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Pleading for Help

Ralston opened his eyes for a brief moment and saw movement in the distance. He struggled to his feet and started yelling—which actually came out more like a whisper. Hoping it wasn’t wildlife, he crawled toward it, pleading for help.

image of Aron trying to climb without handSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

His Saviors

Eric and Monique Meijer and their son, Andy, had just finished photographing the famous Grand Gallery when they heard the faint cries of Ralston saying, “Help, I need help.” They had been briefed before their hike from the Ranger about a possible lost hiker, and quickly went to him.

image of Aron Ralston getting helpSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

The Helicopter

Ralston mustered up enough voice to tell them who he was and what had happened to him. The mother and son ran off for help while the husband provided Ralston with food, water and mental support. Eventually, a helicopter approached overhead.

image of Aron helicopter rescueSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Saving the Arm

Ralston was taken to a hospital where he told deputies where he had been stuck. It had been roughly four hours since he had amputated his arm. They immediately went back to the scene to see if they could retrieve his severed arm in hopes of reattaching it.

image of Aron in the hospital Searchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

The Team

Sadly, the deputies were unable to move the boulder. They called in additional help, and it took a team of thirteen men with equipment to later remove the severed arm—which unfortunately could no longer be reattached.

Blue John canyonSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

His Will to Live

In total, Ralston’s amazing will to live kept him alive for a total of 127 hours (five days). And while he did lose his arm, he otherwise made a full recovery.

image of Aron Rasler and his wifeSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

Lessons Learned

Today, Aron Ralston lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he advocates for wilderness protection. He continues to climb and ski huge mountains—but when it comes to safety, there is one thing that keeps him in check.

Morning sunrise photo of Boulder, ColoradoWirestock Creators, Shutterstock

Leo

Ralston’s premonition came true. Three years after his accident he married his wife, Jessica. And in February of 2010 their son, Leo, was born. It was then that he decided he would make a change.

image of Aron Ralston and his wifeSearchlight Pictures, 127 Hours (2010)

An Advocate for Safety

Ralston no longer takes dangerous risks, he always leaves information of where he is going, and he has become a motivational speaker advocating for safety and perseverance.

image of Aron Ralston at the 2011 Film Ceremonys_bukley, Shutterstock

His Autobiography

Aron Ralston has since documented his experience in an autobiographical book titled Between a Rock and a Hard Place that was published the following year.

portrait of Alan RaslstonDon Arnold, Getty Images

127 Hours

Ralston has since made several media appearances. And in 2010, the film 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle and featuring James Franco as Ralston, premiered, gaining international attention and receiving standing ovations.

Aron Ralston on the top of the mountainMichael Alvarez, Aron Ralston, Wikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3


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