Every time I go for a hike, I leave a note on my dashboard that says where I’m going and when I plan to be back, along with my initials and my cell phone number. I keep a notepad in my car specifically for this purpose. Last week I got to hear a talk by the man who inspired such diligence: Aron Ralston, widely known as that guy who cut off his own arm.
In case you’ve been trapped under a rock for the past decade and have missed both Aron’s excellent book “Between A Rock and A Hard Place” and the Oscar-nominated movie it inspired, “127 Hours”, Aron amputated his own right arm to escape Blue John Canyon in the middle of nowhere Utah after a 800-pound boulder fell on his hand, trapping him in the lonesome slot canyon. After six unendurable days, near death, he used a length of neoprene as a tourniquet and a cheap multi-tool to free himself, and then rappelled a 6-story wall one-handed and hiked 8 miles to help. All because he failed to leave a note or tell anybody where he was going and when he should be back.
During his lecture, a captivating hour-long soliloquy delivered to a packed house at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, Aron reenacted his harrowing experience in Blue John Canyon, complete with graphic descriptions of drinking his own urine, using torque to break through the bones in his arm and hacking off his own limb with a dull 2-inch knife. Recounting the videotape of goodbyes he recorded for his family, he was heartbreakingly emotional.
Aron has come a long ways from Blue John – he delivered his talk in a suit and tie, complete with a dandy pocket square – but it’s clear that canyon has remained an important part of him. Despite the loss of his dominant hand, he stressed that he doesn’t feel like he lost anything in that canyon; rather he gained a deep, abiding reverence for life and love. For Aron, Blue John is a sacred place and his boulder the greatest gift.
Upon hearing Aron’s story, most people wonder “could I do that?” I don’t have to wonder. I have not had the grave misfortune to end up in Aron’s exact situation, but I have saved myself singlehandedly when things went seriously south.
When I was 18, out riding alone far from home, I was thrown off my horse and speared into the ground at top speed. Upon waking from blunt unconsciousness, I tried to move my hands to take off my helmet and found only searing numbness. Later I would learn I had broken several vertebrae, cracked three ribs and ruptured two spinal discs. All I knew then was that pain was scorching my spine, leaving me unable to do anything but lie still, gasp for breath and fight off panic. Hours passed before I willed my hands to move again. I was alone and miles from help and so I began dragging myself home, in shock and unable even to crawl.
Face down, against the earth, I remember every inch of that journey, every rock and root that ground against my broken ribs, every clump of grass I grabbed to pull myself along. Every inch brought new pains, but the suffering was welcome. It meant I could still feel something, that I was still alive. I had left the barn in the early morning and it was well after dark when I finally reached the edge of the spotlight on the driveway where somebody later found me.
That accident was the worst and the best thing that ever happened to me. Now 30 years old and an avid solo traveler, hiker and mountaineer, I know I would not be the explorer that I am without having dragged myself across that corn field, descending down to the depths of my soul and finding indomitable strength, courage and clarity.
After surviving Blue John, Aron continued to push his limits, climbing all of Colorado’s 14-thousand foot mountains in winter, solo, with a specially designed climbing prosthesis. Fitting that I spent the day after Aron’s talk in the saddle, trotting 20-miles through fields and woods on the back of a champion endurance Arabian.
I’ll leave you with Aron’s parting words: We all have boulders in our lives, inevitable events that can either crush us or set us free. May your boulders be your blessings.