Everyone in America must know Aron Ralston’s story by now. After amputating his own right arm to free himself from a half-ton boulder in 2003, his saga of survival was celebrated by the national media, and documented in Between a Rock and a Hard Place, a book by Ralston that has taken its place in the canon of outdoor disaster literature alongside Touching the Void and Into Thin Air. And the 2010 movie 127 Hours, starring James Franco as Ralston, was recently nominated for six academy awards--including best picture.
But while it seemed as if the rest of America was celebrating Ralston’s steely grit and undying will, I remained skeptical. Why celebrate someone who, as Ralston freely admits, put himself at such risk in the first place, heading out alone on a remote trail, and not even telling his friends and family in which state he had parked his car? As a skier, I heard rumors about him taking risks on powder days too, barreling down potentially unstable slopes. And I wondered if he wasn’t just one of those people who liked to keep rolling the dice, finally dumb-lucking and de-arming his way into a book deal and movie residuals.
After hearing Ralston’s keynote speech at the National Ski Areas Association’s annual convention in Carlsbad, Calif., on May 6, 2011, however, I don’t feel that way anymore. A kind of traveling roadshow and revival in which Ralston recounts the reality of the six days he spent trapped beneath that boulder--praying, drinking his own urine, and videotaping a goodbye to his parents and sister--the personal nature of the experience carries an impact that no book or movie ever will. Because as we all may know the story, meeting the person behind it makes it resonate even more.
Most impressive, is that Ralston doesn’t seem interested in making himself out as a hero in any way at all. While many if not most of us would have laid down for good under that rock, he fought for his life and won. But like the title of his book suggests, in his presentation he talks about someone who just pushed himself into a situation where his options shrank to two: cut off your arm or die all alone in the middle of nowhere. Second is his sense of humor, which is gallows to the core. Like a subconscious mocking narrator, he said his first thought was, “Why did I have to buy the stick shift?” when he realized he had crushed his arm. Third is his sense of hope and optimism after all that he has endured. “I stepped out of my grave, and into my life,” he said of that moment when he finally freed himself, adding that “gaining the will to love” is his continued reward.
It’s a reward that he seems only too happy to share. I can only imagine that the passion with which he tells his story is as therapeutic as it uplifting and insightful. As Ralston seems to be working the mountain circuit of late (with a speaking rate which has reportedly increased markedly following the release of the movie), you might want to keep an eye out for him hitting your mountain town in the future. As a doubter who is now a fan, this definitely a story worth hearing told.
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