For six days, Aron Ralston kept himself alive with fierce self-control and a conviction that only logical thought could let him survive. But the epiphany when the 27-year-old climber realized how he could save his own life came from an explosion of blind rage.
Ralston had been climbing the narrow canyons of Utah alone when a dislodged boulder fell on to his right arm, trapping him against a rock. He was entombed in the wilderness of Bluejohn Canyon, carrying a small rucksack with just one liter of water, two burritos and a few chunks of chocolate. He had headphones and a video camera but no mobile phone — and there was no reception anyway. Most foolishly of all, he had not told anyone where he was going. He eked out his water, futilely chipping away at the 363kg rock and slowly entering a state of delirium, until he was eventually forced to cut off his trapped arm with the small knife from his cheap multitool kit.
Ralston, who is now 35 and still with the wiry physique of a climber, has just attended the London premiere of 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s film about his extraordinary escape from certain death. The film — like Ralston himself, full of boyish energy — is remarkably true-to-life, says Ralston, talking quickly and waving his arms around animatedly. It does not, however, fully describe his “gruesome” moment of revelation.
When his blunt knife pierced his skin but came to rest against solid bone, Ralston thought there was no chance he could perform the gruesome amputation that would save his life. He brushed some grit from his trapped thumb and a sliver of flesh peeled off “like the skin of boiled milk,” he remembers. “I’m like, what the … ? I take my knife and I’m poking a bit more and the knife just slips into the meat of my thumb like it’s going into room-temperature butter. My hand has almost jellified. The knife tip goes in and, ‘pssstt,’ the gases from decomposition escape and there’s this putrid smell. I go into this rage. I’m in this hyper-emotional state after all this regimented discipline to keep it together and in this moment, when I’m trying to rip my arm out from the rock, I feel it bend and it stops me — ‘That’s it! I can use the boulder to break my bones!’”
It was this moment of high emotion, rather than calm logic, that led to Ralston deliberately snapping the bones in his arm by hurling himself furiously against the boulder, finally enabling him to cut through his limb with a blunt knife. It is hardly surprising that audiences have responded with feeling: fainting in auditoria when they watch the point when Ralston, brilliantly played by James Franco in the film (he has been nominated for a Golden Globe), begins his amputation. Despite what might be considered an unpromising climax for mainstream entertainment, made more unpromising by the fact that most people know exactly what will happen, this moment is compelling, without Boyle being gratuitously gory. And despite retelling the story for what must be the umpteenth time, Ralston is also utterly captivating, completely inhabiting the moment again, miming out what he did by making a brutal stabbing motion with his good arm into what is now a gray prosthetic limb.
In the film, Franco’s Ralston is at first a hyperactive, overconfident loner who believes he is invincible as he careers around Bluejohn Canyon, shamelessly showing off to a couple of female hikers he meets and, Jackass-like, taking photographs of himself when he falls off his mountain bike. “That’s so you, Ralston,” friends have told him, but if his portrayal on film was true to his life then, Ralston is certainly much more likable now.