15 Unbelievable Facts About Aron Ralston's Canyon Ordeal

Whether or not you’ve watched the hit 2010 film starring James Franco, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the horrific real-life story that 127 Hours is based upon. The film’s title refers to the actual time frame that real-life thrill-seeker Aron Ralston spent in a canyon in Utah when a rogue boulder dislodged and pinned his right hand to the canyon wall. For six grueling days, Ralston almost gave up on the idea that he would ever be found, until he made the insanely brave decision to amputate his way to safety.

On what started out as a beautiful carefree day exploring the wilder parts of Utah’s southeast canyons, 27-year-old adrenaline junkie Aron Ralston became trapped between a rock and a hard place (in every sense of the word). Seeing the funny side years later, he even gave this name to the title of his autobiography, and soon after, British Director Danny Boyle became enamored with Ralston’s incredible human courage story and was determined to tell it on the big screen.

Nearly 15 years after the accident that changed his life back in 2003, Ralston feels blessed to be living a life he never thought he could in those lonely six days in Blue John Canyon. Despite everything he went through, though, his ordeal never stopped him from putting his life at risk! With the help of his versatile prosthetic limb, Ralston still climbs rocks and mountains as much as he ever did but has never forgotten the 127 hours that changed his life forever. Here are 15 awe-inspiring (and pretty gruesome) facts about this guy’s amazing survival story.

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15 Ralston Foolishly Didn’t Tell Anyone Where He Was Headed

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We learn from a pretty young age to stay in groups and to never go wandering off alone, but for a thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie like Aron Ralston, this well-meant motherly advice kinda fell on deaf ears as he made the horrible mistake of venturing off into Utah’s canyon lands alone. In his haste and excitement for adventure, he also deliberately neglected to tell anyone–not his family or even his roommate–where he was headed that afternoon.

Ralston never believed he needed to. He had done similar treks hundreds of times before, and this trip would be no different (or so he thought). Aron had planned for an eight-hour round trip which would see him ride his bike up to the canyons and hike down the sandstone bluffs on the other side before driving his truck to pick his bike up. Within days, his family and co-workers filed a missing person report but it was ultimately up to Ralston to free himself (in the most horrific way imaginable!).

14 Ralston’s Pocket Knife Was Pretty Flimsy

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On that fateful sunny day on April 26th, 2003, adventurer and passionate canyoneer Aron Ralston had packed all of his usual trekking supplies with him—hiking boots, climbing equipment, a bottle of water, etc. He also brought along a pretty basic pocket knife and had left his quality swiss army knife back at home. Incredibly, Ralston managed to amputate his arm with the blunt blades of an imitation leatherman pocket knife—the kind of tool you might give to a 10-year-old boy scout!

Nevertheless, Aron’s incredible survival instinct kicked in and he was able to save his life with what he had at his disposal, but it sure made things more difficult. For starters, one of the blades was intended for scaling fish, and according to Ralston himself, it was pretty average at doing this. Another odd against him was that the blades had become blunt after Ralston had chipped away at the boulder for days in the vain hopes of dislodging it.The worst part? It was also a right-handed pocket knife and his right arm was the one that the boulder had trapped.

13 Aron Witnessed His Arm Decompose While Still Attached To Him

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There can’t be many people in this world who have experienced the incredibly grim reality of just what Ralston faced while trapped in the Blue John Canyon. And a specific part of that grim reality is the fact that Ralston was witness to his own body part decomposing... while still attached to him. Wow! There really are no words to describe how dark and disturbing that must have felt to him (if the reality ever really sunk in at the time).

With the 800-pound boulder cutting off all circulation from his wrist to his fingertips, his entire hand was numb and the condition known as ‘compartment syndrome’ set in. This essentially meant that the nerves and blood vessels are pinched so tight that the skin tissue dies. Now, this is where the super gruesome part comes in. While Aron had been chipping away at the boulder with his pocket knife, he accidentally nicked the blade on the tip of his thumb, which let out an audible ‘hisssss’ as air escaped from his rotting hand. Vom.

12 He Described Freeing Himself “More Beautiful” Than The Birth Of His Son

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We’re sure that Ralston’s young son won’t take offense to this confession because for Ralston, the moment he sliced through the last few nerve fibers in his arm was the moment he was given a second chance at life, and it felt pretty exhilarating. In his own moving words, he describes the joy he felt at finally being free from the boulder after six grueling days in Blue John Canyon. “The experience was 100,000 times more powerful and beautiful than seeing the birth of my son,” Ralston said.

He went on to say that losing his arm was something he will never regret because it meant “stepping out of my grave and into my life.” Now at 7 years old, Ralston’s son, Leo, is enjoying the usual childhood rituals of climbing trees. But does his dad ever want him climbing rocks and canyons? “After he’s 18, he’ll do what he wants. But I hope he’ll have an adventure-filled life.” Although hopefully, not quite as adventurous as yours, Aron!

11 It Took Him Over An Hour To Saw His Arm Off

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Those of you with a weak stomach probably won’t want to read any further, because the gory truth is that it took over an hour for Aron Ralston to cut through every last bit of sinew and nerve tissue in his right arm before he was finally free of the boulder. Yep, Ralston describes starting out with the larger of the two blades on his pocket knife. But upon realizing that he couldn’t break deep enough through the skin, he went with the smaller 2-inch blade and began the horrible self-surgery that would save his life.

He managed to hack through the top layer of skin and muscle before severing the first artery. After that, it was a slow and excruciating journey through the deeper layers of muscle and tendons (the hardest part to cut through). Because the small blunt blade wasn’t enough, Ralston had to use pliers to twist and yank at his own tendons. Mercifully, this moment was only 3 minutes long in the film retelling, but it was still too much for some. Apparently, 10 people fainted during the previews for 127 Hours.

10 The Real Footage Of Ralston In The Canyon Still Exists

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If you’re familiar with the 2010 Danny Boyle film about Ralston’s ordeal, you’ll remember a lot of scenes where James Franco was documenting his time trapped in Blue John Canyon. At times, the camcorder footage offered a bit of light relief in-between darker moments where Franco pretended to be a TV talk show host and used the camera as a kind of therapeutic diary to distract from the inevitable and give himself some kind of company in his darkest moments.

It’s not known how true to real life all of the film’s footage is, but Ralston himself has held on to the footage from his time in the canyon and even routinely shows it to his family every now and again. Apart from sharing it with those closest to him and with James Franco to help him prepare for the film role, Ralston has no plans to make the entire footage public. You can, however, find brief clips of Aron recording a moving farewell message from inside Blue John Canyon on YouTube.

9 2 Years After The Accident, Ralston Continued Climbing 14,000-foot Peaks In Colorado

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Determined not to let his lack of a right arm get in the way of his passion, Ralston has continued to pursue what some would consider unthinkable—climbing the tallest mountain peaks in his home state of Colorado. Just two years after his life-changing accident at Blue John Canyon, Ralston got back in the mountaineering saddle and finished a challenge that he set up for himself back in 1997—to climb all 59 of Colorado’s “Fourteeners.”

The “fourteener” mountains refer to all the peaks in Colorado that have a summit of 14,000 feet or higher. And by 2005, Ralston managed to accomplish this lifelong ambition of conquering all 59 peaks! This would be a crazy cool achievement for any mountaineer, but for someone with a prosthetic limb, this beggars belief. Keen to push himself to the absolute limit, Ralston ramped up the challenging element even more by climbing these peaks solo...and during winter. Amazing!

8 Ralston Later Scattered His Arm's Ashes In The Canyon

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In what must have been a moving but cathartic day, Ralston returned to the very same spot where the boulder pinned his arm against the canyon wall 6 months on from the accident and scattered the ashes of his amputated right arm. Shortly after his accident at Blue John Canyon, the National Park authorities dislodged the boulder with a hydraulic jack and retrieved Ralston’s severed forearm. According to Ralston’s wishes, his severed right arm was cremated so that he could scatter the ashes at a later date.

Movingly, he chose to give himself a sense of closure about his ordeal by scattering the ashes in the place that Ralston once described as his “grave.” In the first few days of his 127 hours pinned to the canyon wall, Aron was convinced he would die there, so it must have been a surreal experience to revisit it for a kind of memorial service. His trip back to the canyon was filmed for a Dateline Special on NBC on his 28th birthday and is where Ralston said his arm’s ashes truly “belonged.”

7 He Made A Makeshift Tourniquet Out Of A Drinking Tube

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On that 2003 April morning when Aron Ralston began his exploration in the Utah canyon lands, he headed out the door with his pocket knife, hiking boots, and all the usual camping equipment including one item that would ultimately save his life. As was customary on most hiking treks, Ralston brought a hydration pack with him filled with a gallon of water. But this one happened to be fitted with a long drinking hose to suck the liquid through.

Little did Aron know, he’d later be using this to drink his own urine to ward off dehydration, but mainly, he would eventually put it to creative use by using it as a tourniquet during his amputation. When it dawned on Ralston that his only hope for survival was to perform the grisly act of cutting his arm free, he looked to his handy drinking tube to apply to his upper arm and stem the blood flow. Ralston may have neglected to tell people where he was going that day or bring a swiss army knife, but he certainly proved his survival credentials with this smart trick.

6 He Had To Break Two Bones In His Lower Arm Before Amputating

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By the first morning after finding himself trapped against the boulder, Ralston had the idea of amputating his arm. Unfortunately, his outlook looked bleak when he realized that his flimsy pocket knife blades wouldn’t be sharp enough to cut through the bone. And without a bone saw in his reach, he became resigned to the fact that he would never escape Blue John Canyon alive. That is until he had the epiphany that he could break his radius and ulna bones.

Using all of his bodily force, Aron slammed his torso into the opposite wall and pulled on the boulder with his good arm to bend and eventually snap the first bone. Ralston recalls the loud “pow” popping sound of the first bone snapping as it echoed through the canyon. Gruesome. Aron was elated by the sound, though, as it meant he had one left to break. To break his top bone, he crouched down low into the canyon to get downward leverage until he heard it snap. Next step? The amputation.

5 Aron Scratched His Predicted Death Date Into The Canyon Wall

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Shortly after Aron had recorded a goodbye message to his loved ones from inside the canyon, he acknowledged his own mortality in a slightly more morbid way by scratching his predicted death date into the canyon wall. By the fifth day of being trapped in Blue John Canyon, Ralston had run out of the limited food and water supply he had packed with him on his trip and, in his desperation, decided to drink his own urine. It was at this point that he assumed his death wouldn’t be too far away.

Using the pocket knife he would eventually free himself with, Ralston began carving his name and date of birth into the canyon wall, followed by the date he presumed he would die there. It wasn’t until dawn the following day that Ralston had the epiphany that he could free himself by breaking the bones in his arm before cutting his arm to free himself from the boulder. It’s disturbing just to imagine what Ralston’s state of mind must have been to set his own death clock.

4 Ralston Was Originally Opposed To A Film Retelling

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Danny Boyle’s 2010 film about Ralston’s courage shed light on one of the most incredible survival stories of the modern age and garnered an incredible 6 Oscar nominations. But initially, Ralston didn’t want the film to be made at all. At first, the brave canyoneer thought that a more modest docu-drama would be a better way of portraying those excruciating six days he was trapped by a boulder in which he faced freezing night temperatures, a rainstorm, and delirium from lack of food and water.

After meeting with director Danny Boyle, though, Ralston eventually warmed to the idea of a feature film, and knowing that Boyle didn’t want to hold back from the horrors of his amputation, he felt a drama/horror movie would be just the ticket in conveying his agony and isolation in those horrifying hours. In the end, Ralston praised Boyle for his unique storytelling, particularly *spoiler alert* the ending. The scenes involving meeting his wife and future son after the accident moved Ralston deeply as it reminded him of his strong will to escape the canyon and live his life.

3 Just Touching His Arm’s Exposed Nerves Felt Like “Dipping His Arm Into A Pot Of Liquid Metal”

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Remember the last time you stubbed your big toe and cursed bloody murder or the time you felt a pang of toothache pain? Spare a thought for Ralston. Not only did this guy have the nerves in his arms exposed, but he then had the unimaginable task of actually slicing through them in order to break free from the boulder; and just the act of touching them sent powerful shock waves of pain through his entire right arm.

In a TV interview back at Blue John Canyon years later, Ralston recalls the horrible moment he came across his nerves, knowing what he had to do next, “I was looking at the nerve, this little strand of spaghetti running through my arm. And so I had to take my knife and pry it up and even when I touched it, it felt like sticking my arm into a pot of liquid metal.” Grim.

2 The Place He Chose To Hike That Day is Known As “The End Of The World”

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Ever the daredevil adventurer, Aron Ralston chose to explore a part of the Utah canyonlands that are essentially in the middle of nowhere, in the most remote parts of Utah. According to Steve Swanke, a retired National Parks service ranger, the small remote town of Moab, where Ralston was near, is known locally as “the end of the world.” For adrenaline junkie Ralston, though, this was only where he chose to begin his journey.

Ralston kicked off his fateful hiking trip back in April of 2003 at the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead and traveled a further two and a half hours into the canyonlands before setting off on his bike to explore the most remote parts of the canyon! If he hadn’t been so unbelievably brave to make the decision to amputate his own arm to freedom, there’s no way on Earth that rescue workers could have ever hoped to find him alive out there.

1 Ralston Recorded A Goodbye Message To His Family

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The video camera Ralston had packed on his trip that morning was meant to document a fun trip around the canyonlands of southeastern Utah. In the film 127 Hours, the opening scenes are of James Franco bounding about the beautiful landscape on foot and by bike, all the while capturing some of the best moments on video. Sadly, the real-life happy-go-lucky canyoneer later found himself using this same camcorder to film a farewell message to his family only days later.

After the first 24 hours of what would be a six-day ordeal in the canyon, Ralston resigned himself to the fact that he wouldn’t survive and made the heartbreaking decision to tape a goodbye message to his family. The actual real-life footage of Aron’s farewell video to his parents can be found on YouTube and played out more or less word for word in the film version. In it, Ralston movingly tells the camera, “My parents are Donna and Larry Ralston of Englewood, Colorado. Whoever finds this, please make an attempt to get it to them.”

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