Aron Ralston And The Harrowing True Story Of ‘127 Hours’

Published June 10, 2019

Aron Ralston — the man behind the true story of 127 Hours — drank his own urine and carved his own epitaph before amputating his arm in a Utah canyon.

Aron Ralston Without A Prosthetic

Aron Ralston, subject of the true story of 127 Hours poses for a portrait during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.

After seeing the 2010 film 127 Hours, Aron Ralston called it “so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama,” adding that it was “the best film ever made.”

Starring James Franco as a climber who is forced to amputate his own arm after a canyoneering accident, initial screenings of 127 Hours  caused several viewers passed out after seeing Franco dismember himself while dangling from a cliffside. They were even more horrified when they realized that 127 Hours was a true story.

But Aron Ralston was far from horrified. In fact, as he sat in the theater watching the harrowing story unfold, he was one of the only people who knew exactly how Franco must have felt.

After all, Franco’s story was just a dramatization – a dramatization of the more than five days Aron Ralston himself really spent trapped inside of a Utah canyon.

Before The Accident

Before his infamous 2003 canyoneering accident and his true story was depicted in the Hollywood film 127 Hours, Aron Ralston was just an anonymous mechanical engineer from Denver with a passion for rock climbing.

He studied mechanical engineering, French, and piano while at college at Carnegie Mellon University, before moving to the Southwest to work as an engineer. Five years in, he decided corporate America wasn’t for him and quit his job to devote more time to mountaineering. He wanted to climb Denali, the highest peak in North America.

Aron Ralston True Story Of 127 Hours

Wikimedia CommonsAron Ralston in 2003, on a Colorado mountaintop.

In 2002, Ralston moved to Aspen, Colorado, to climb full time. His goal, as preparation for Denali, was to climb all of Colorado’s “fourteeners,” or mountains at least 14,000 feet tall, of which there are 59. And he wanted to do them solo and in the winter — a feat that had never been recorded before.

In February 2003, while backcountry skiing on Resolution Peak in central Colorado with two friends, Ralston was caught in an avalanche. Buried up to his neck in snow, a friend of his dug him out, and together they dug out the third friend. “It was horrible. It should have killed us,” Ralston later said.

No one was seriously hurt, but the incident perhaps should triggered some self-reflection: a severe avalanche warning had been issued that day, and had Ralston and his friends checked before climbing the mountain, they could have saved themselves from a dangerous situation.

But while most climbers might have then taken steps to be more careful, Ralston did the opposite. He kept climbing and exploring hazardous terrain — completely solo.

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Just a couple months after the avalanche, on April 25, 2003, Aron Ralston he traveled to southeastern Utah to explore Canyonlands National Park. He slept in his truck that night, and at 9:15 the next morning — a beautiful, sunny Saturday — he rode his bicycle 15 miles to Bluejohn Canyon, an 11-mile-long gorge that in some places is just 3 feet wide. He locked his bike and walked toward the canyon’s opening.

Bluejohn Canyon Utah

Wikimedia CommonsBluejohn Canyon, a “slot canyon” in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, where Aron Ralston was trapped for more than five days.

At around 2:45 p.m., as he descended into the canyon, a giant rock above him slipped. Ralston fell and his right hand became lodged between the canyon wall and the 800-pound boulder, leaving him trapped 100 feet below the desert surface and 20 miles from the nearest paved road.

Ralston hadn’t told anyone about his climbing plans, and he didn’t have any way to signal for help. He inventoried his provisions: two burritos, some candy bar crumbs, and a bottle of water.

He futilely tried chipping away at the boulder. Eventually, he ran out of water and had to drink his own urine.

The entire time he considered cutting off his arm — he experimented with different tourniquets and even made several superficial cuts to test his knives’ sharpness. But he didn’t know how he’d saw through his bone with his cheap multi-tool — the kind you’d get for free “if you bought a $15 flashlight,” he later said.

Distraught and delirious, Aron Ralston resigned himself to his fate. He used his dull tools to carve his name into the canyon wall, along with his birthdate, the day’s date — his presumed date of death — and the letters RIP. Then, he used a video camera to tape goodbyes to his family and attempted to sleep.

Aron Ralston’s video farewell to his family.

That night, as he drifted in and out of consciousness, Ralston dreamt of himself, with only half his right arm, playing with a child. Awaking, he believed the dream was a sign that he would survive and that he would have a family. With a determined sense of resolution, he threw himself into survival.

A Miraculous Escape

Ralston Prosthetic

Wikimedia CommonsRalston atop a mountain shortly after his fateful climb.

The dream of a future family and life outside the canyon left Aron Ralston with an epiphany: he didn’t have to cut through his bones. He could break them instead.

Using the torque from his trapped arm, he managed to break his ulna and his radius. After his bones were disconnected, he fashioned a tourniquet from the tubing of his Camelbak water bottle and cut off his circulation entirely. Then, he was able to use a cheap, dull, two-inch knife to cut through his skin and muscle, and a pair of pliers to cut through his tendons.

He left his arteries for last, knowing that after he severed them he wouldn’t have much time.

“All the desires, joys, and euphorias of a future life came rushing into me,” Ralston stated at a press conference. “Maybe this is how I handled the pain. I was so happy to be taking action.”

The entire process took an hour, during which Ralston lost 25 percent of his blood volume. High on adrenaline and the sheer will to live, Ralston climbed out of the slot canyon, rappelled down a 65-foot sheer cliff, and hiked 6 of the 8 miles back to his car — all while severely dehydrated, continuously losing blood, and one-handed.

Six miles into his hike he stumbled upon a family from the Netherlands who had been hiking in the canyon. They gave him Oreos and water and quickly alerted the authorities. Canyonlands officials had been alerted that Ralston was missing, and had been searching the area by helicopter — an effort that would have proved futile, as Ralston was trapped below the surface of the canyon.

Four hours after amputating his arm, Ralston was rescued by medics. They believed that the timing could not have been more perfect. Had Ralston amputated his arm any sooner, he would have bled to death. Had he waited, he would have died in the canyon.

Aron Ralston’s Life After Amputation

Following Aron Ralston’s rescue, his severed arm and hand were retrieved by park rangers from beneath the boulder. It took 13 rangers, a hydraulic jack, and a winch to remove the boulder, which might not have been possible with the rest of Ralston’s body in there too.

The arm was cremated and returned to Ralston. Six months later, on his 28th birthday, he returned to the slot canyon and scattered the ashes where, he said, they belonged.

The True Story Of 127 Hours Aron Ralston

Brian Brainerd/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesAron Ralston talks about his life since he saved it by cutting off his lower right arm with a pocketknife.

The ordeal, of course, sparked international intrigue. Along with the movie dramatization of his life — which, Ralston says, is so accurate that it might as well be a documentary — Ralston appeared on television morning shows, late night specials, and press tours. Throughout it all, he was in shockingly good spirits.

As far as that dream of a full life that sparked his incredible escape? It came true tenfold. Ralston is now a proud father of two, who hasn’t slowed down at all despite losing an arm. And as far as climbing goes, he hasn’t even taken a break. In 2005, he became the first person to climb all 59 of Colorado’s “fourteeners” alone and in the snow – and one-handed to boot.

Creating The True Story Of 127 Hours

Aron Ralston himself praised the film version of his ordeal, Danny Boyle’s 2010 film 127 Hours, as brutally realistic.

The arm-cutting scene — which, while in real life lasted about an hour, in the film only takes a few minutes — required three prosthetic arms made to look exactly like outside of actor James Franco’s arm.

Aron Ralston And The True Story Of 127 Hours

Don Arnold/WireImage/Getty ImagesAron Ralston was portrayed by Hollywood actor James Franco in an Oscar-nominated performance.

“I actually have a problem with blood. It’s only my arms; I have a problem with seeing blood on my arm,” Franco said. “So after the first day, I said to Danny, ‘I think you got the real, unvarnished reaction there.'”

Franco wasn’t supposed to cut it all the way through, but he did it anyway. “I just did it, and I cut it off and I fell back, and I guess that’s the take that Danny used.”

Ralston has praised 127 Hours not only for its loyalty to the concrete facts of his harrowing true story, but also for its honest depiction of his emotions during the 5-day-long ordeal.

He was glad the filmmakers were okay with including a smiling Franco in the moment he realized he could break his own arm to get free.

“I had to hound the team to make sure that smile made it into the film, but I’m really happy that it did,” Ralston said. “You can see that smile. It really was a triumphant moment. I was smiling when I did it.”

After learning about Aron Ralston’s 127-hour ordeal in Bluejohn Canyon, read about how the bodies of climbers are serving as guideposts on Mount Everest. Then, check out some of the world’s most beautiful slot canyons.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.