The True Story Of 127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

At just after 3 pm on Sunday, April 27th, 2003, Aron Ralston turned on his video camera and started talking. Having already been trapped for 24 hours, he knew his chances of survival were slim.

This is the true story of 127 Hours.

"My name's Aron Ralson... whoever finds this, please make an attempt to get it to them [his parents]"

His right arm was pinned to the wall of Blue John Canyon by an 800-pound rock that he dislodged while climbing down on the previous day. By this stage, he had tried everything he could to free himself. He had very few resources with him, including minimal food and water. Crucially, he had brought a cheap pocket knife with him too.

The bad news for Aron Ralston was that the slot canyon he was in was many miles from civilization. Located in the remote desert of Southern Utah, it was so narrow that nobody would hear or see where he was. Worse still, he hadn't told anyone where he was going. He debated his options for staying alive. They were simply:

  1. Free his arm by chipping at the boulder with his knife
  2. Move the rock by building a lifting system with his rope
  3. Wait and hope that someone would find him
  4. The most dreaded choice: free himself by cutting off his arm
127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

As time passed, Aron Ralston's awful situation got worse. His food and water ran out. He suffered long and cold nights since he was unable to sleep. It was not clear what would kill him first, but death was almost guaranteed. This was obvious to Ralston once he realized all four of his options were unfeasible.

Amazingly, he lived to tell the tale. Against all the odds, Aron somehow managed to free himself from certain death. To this day, his escape from Blue John Canyon remains one of the greatest survival stories in human history.

The Early Life Of Aron Ralston

127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

Aron Ralston was born on October 27th, 1975, in Ohio. He moved with his family to the state of Colorado when he was 12. At this time, he developed a love for the outdoors as he began skiing and hiking.

He was very academic as a child and was also a talented pianist. He eventually attended the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University to study Mechanical Engineering and French. After graduating in 1997, he began working for the technology company Intel in different parts of America. His future seemed secure.

Aron Ralston's love for outdoor activities had not disappeared, though. While working for Intel, he would spend every weekend and holiday exploring the wonders of nature, mainly through skiing and climbing. This was what he truly lived for.

A Bold Decision

127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

The demands of his job limited Aron Ralston's growing love for adventure. He did not have enough free time to do all the activities he wanted. By 2002, he worked at Intel for over four years and had a big decision to make. A group of friends was planning to climb Denali, the highest mountain in North America. His work would not allow him to join them. If he wanted to go, he had to quit his job.

That is what Aron did, and he never looked back. Without a desk job to weigh him down, he could concentrate far more on his climbing ambitions. In particular, he was trying to summit all of Colorado's "fourteeners," i.e., peaks higher than 14,000 ft. There are 59 of these mountains, and he was trying to climb all of them in winter ― a challenging task indeed.

Ralston moved to Aspen, Colorado, and started working in a mountaineering store to make ends meet. This, no doubt, did not pay as well as his engineering job, but his life was now more adventurous, and that was all that mattered.

A Routine Vacation

127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

In April 2003, Aron Ralston booked several days away from work for vacation. He had no specific plans except that he wanted to visit some canyons in Utah. On the night of April 25th, he arrived at Canyonlands National Park in his truck and camped overnight. He cycled and hiked for miles in the morning, hoping to find Blue John Canyon, a narrow slot canyon.

He planned to hike and climb through the canyon and return to his vehicle by sunset. Compared to his past expeditions, this was meant to be a walk in the park. During his walk, he met two women who were exploring the area as well. The trio spent a couple of hours together before parting ways. Aron would not see another human for five days.

He arrived at the entrance of Blue John Canyon and started navigating its obstacles. The large boulders wedged between the narrow canyon walls were not a problem for a climber of Aron's expertise. The first 10 minutes passed without incident. Then he approached a 15 ft drop that led to the next section of the canyon.

The easiest way down was by stepping onto a medium-sized rock that was wedged high between the walls. Aron lowered himself from the rock, and it seemed to be solid. Then, suddenly, the boulder came loose and crashed towards Ralston. In the split-second he had to react, he put his arms above his head to protect himself.

The True Story Of 127 Hours

When the dust settled, Aron Ralston's arm was in agony. He realized that the rock had bounced like a pinball and smashed into his right arm. When it came to a halt a few feet from the floor, Aron's forearm was utterly trapped.

The first 30 minutes of his entrapment were pure frustration and panic. He tried to move the rock with all his strength; he pushed, pulled, and lifted to no avail. He smashed into the rock with his left shoulder, and it did not move an inch. The rock weighed more than four times his body weight and was firmly stuck. After trying and failing to free himself, Aron drank 1/3 of the water in his bottle, the only liquid he had.

At this point, he fully understood his life-threatening situation. He was alone, trapped, invisible, and miles from civilization. Nobody knew where he was because he left no note. Nobody was likely to visit the canyon since it was so remote. Also, this was Saturday, and he was not due back at work until Tuesday. Even then, nobody would know where to look for him.

The narrow canyon walls meant he could only see a small patch of sky. Even if someone were nearby, they would hardly hear his screams. He had less than 1 liter of water, a few small bites of food, some rope, a CD player, his knife, and a few other pieces of equipment in his bag. If he was going to get through this, he was going to suffer no matter what.

Lonely Days & Cold Nights

127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

Aron had little to do but think and wait. He reflected on how careless he had been to go to such a remote place without telling anyone. He felt extreme guilt for what his family would suffer. The subject of his slow and painful death plagued his mind too. What would be the cause of death, and how would it feel?

In the meantime, Aron Ralston picked up his pocket knife and started to chip away at the rock. It occurred to him that the stone was extremely hard, so it was unlikely that he would free himself this way. He also managed to tie his rope around the rock ledge above his head to sit in his harness. Other than checking his watch and cutting the rock, there were few ways to pass the time.

The hours passed painfully slowly at night since he could only sleep for 10-15 minutes at a time. Due to the cold, he would wake up in a fit of shivering.

By Sunday, he predicted that his arm was already dead. In the afternoon, he turned on his camcorder to explain his situation and say his goodbyes. Twenty-four hours into his ordeal, he had already accepted that he would die.

Ralston's Suffering Got Worse

By Monday, Aron Ralston had endured two cold nights without sleep. He started hallucinating as a result. His water supply was dangerously low, so he started storing his urine. Although he had installed a system of ropes to try and lift the rock, there was too much friction, and the rock was far too heavy.

Knowing that his chances of being found were slim, he figured that his knife was crucial for getting out. His first attempts to cut through his arm were a disaster ― he could barely break the skin, never mind saw through his bones.

Anyway, even if he could cut off his arm, he would probably bleed to death. He was hours from his car and many more hours away from medical care. It was just a slow act of suicide.

Family & Friends Feared The Worst

127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

At 9 am on Tuesday, Aron Ralston did not show up for work. He was rarely late, so his manager was immediately concerned. If he was missing, he must be in serious trouble. But he knew that Aron was a survival expert, so he decided to wait one day before starting a search.

When Aron did not show up on Wednesday, his manager alerted his mother and roommates. They knew nothing about his location either. As a team, they contacted everyone they could to locate him. The problem was that Aron's schedule changed so often that even his climbing partners had few answers.

After an exhausting day, they discovered that he was last seen in Utah. They alerted police departments and search and rescue teams in Colorado and Utah to look out for his vehicle. Aron Ralston was still missing by Wednesday evening, though authorities planned to explore popular hiking routes in Utah the next day.

Desperate Times

127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

Back in the canyon, Aron was dying. On Tuesday, he took his last sips of water and bites of food. He continued to record messages for his loved ones hoping that they would one day watch them. There was no protection from the canyon winds, so he continued to shiver. His thirst, combined with sleep deprivation, caused nonstop hallucinations about drinks. Sipping his urine was an act of extreme desperation.

A significant potential danger in the slot canyon was flooding. If rainfall occurred, he could drown or be killed by rocks. Even this was attractive to Ralston because it meant he might get a drink of water. Since the knife could not save him, he considered using it to end his suffering early.

Aron Ralston settled down for his final night. By Wednesday, he was no longer feared death. It was simply a question of when. He carved his name, birth month, and expected month of death into the wall on his left on his gravestone.

At some point during the long and cold night, he had a vision of his future self. Aron saw that he had no right forearm and was holding a young boy ― perhaps his son. Despite the impossible, he knew from that moment that he would somehow escape.

From Agony To Euphoria

Aron Ralston did not expect to see the sunrise on Thursday morning. He needed a miracle to escape from his prison. In a blind panic, he desperately tried to move the rock once more, and in doing so, he felt his arm bend.

His forearm was caught so tightly between the rock and the wall that he could snap both bones instead of cutting through them. Excited, he sank as low as he could to push up on the boulder and twist his arm as much as possible. When he heard a pop, he knew that the radius bone snapped.

127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

Next, he climbed as high as he could on top of the boulder to twist his arm the other way. Eventually, he heard the ulna bone snap, and Luckily, they broke in the same place. He was now ready to act.

With the small blade on his multi-tool, he cut through the skin and muscle. He used the plyers to tear his tendons. He avoided the arteries until the end to prevent maximum blood loss. The most painful part was cutting through his nerve. Aron later described the feeling as putting his arm in molten metal, but it had to be done. After slicing through the last layers of skin and muscle, he fell backward.

At 11:30 am, he was free for the first time in nearly five days. This was a rebirth, the true story of 127 hours of despair.

A Miraculous Rescue

127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

Even after freeing himself, Aron Ralston had a long way to go. After collecting his belongings and covering his bleeding arm, he continued his journey. Once he reached the canyon's end, he had to rappel one-handed to the ground 65 ft below. When he did, he found a pool of water on the ground that he could drink from.

After his first real drink in days, Aron prepared for another impossible obstacle. In the desert sun, he had to hike 7 miles to reach his truck before he could drive to a hospital. Unknown to him, a helicopter was already searching for him.

Ralston made slow progress but continued to fight. After a few hours, he crossed paths with a family of tourists who knew about a possible missing person in the area. They helped Aron to walk and gave him the little food and water that they had. All this help was not enough. With his bleeding arm, Aron Ralston was on the brink of death.

127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

It later turned out that he lost 1/4 of his blood supply and more than 30 lbs of body weight. When it looked like he was losing his battle to live, a helicopter appeared. The pilot spotted people on the ground and landed. Within minutes, Aron was flying to the nearest hospital.

Once he arrived, he told doctors and police as much as possible about his ordeal and amputation. They informed his parents that he was alive. Finally, 127 hours after waking up on Saturday, Aron Ralston passed out to close this chapter of his life.

What Happened Next

The True Story Of 127 Hours: How Aron Ralston Rescued Himself By Amputating His Arm

Aron Ralston's story spread around the world and shocked everyone. He was free, but his crude amputation had seriously damaged the rest of his arm. When his health returned, he too returned to his old life of climbing and exploring, only this time with help from a prosthetic arm.

Six months after the accident, he returned to Blue John Canyon to film a documentary about his experiences. Ralston also published a book titled Between a Rock and a Hard Place. More recently, this incredible escape was brought to life by the award-winning film 127 Hours. James Franco accurately depicts what Aron went through in the canyon, telling the true story of 127 hours of hell.

Aron Ralston's dream came true when his son was born in 2010. Aside from his outdoor activities, he is now also a motivational speaker.