Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Out on a limb

He amputated his own arm to save himself. Now Aron Ralston’s tale is the Danny Boyle-directed, Oscar-bound 127 Hours

Jeff Dawson

Published: 12 December 2010, Sunday Times

Aron Ralston is pretty much what you’d expect for a 35-year-old outdoorsman from the Rockies: tall, sinewy, trim beard, a touch weather-beaten, a little awkward in a suit — like a kid at a wedding, fresh from a maternal spit wash. The left-handed shake is firm, a bit too so. Hell of a grip you’ve got there, I say. He laughs: “I could give you a better one with this.”

From his right side, Ralston raises what is conventionally described as a “hook”, actually a mean-looking pincer, the kind of thing a Bond villain would tote. This afternoon, a Saturday, as part of the hospitality laid out, Ralston is being taken to see Arsenal play. He might have trouble getting that contraption through security. It’s okay, he says, this is his “dress prosthetic”. He’ll slip into something more comfortable — though probably not the customised Edward Scissorhands device he uses when mountaineering, a sort of Swiss Army multitool featuring an ice axe and, no doubt, an implement for prising stones out of horses’ hooves. “I actually flew with it on a plane a couple of times before they figured out, ‘That’s actually like a weapon. We can’t let you take that on,’ ” he says. “Trust me, nobody’s going to storm the cockpit while I’m sitting up there.”

A likeable westerner, Ralston also happens to be one of the most inspiring people you’ll ever meet. In April 2003, after a solo trip into the wilds of Utah, he found himself trapped under a boulder in Bluejohn Canyon, a shoulder-width ravine. After six long days, having exhausted every method of extraction and with scant chance of rescue, Ralston freed himself by severing his own limb. So cast-iron are the man’s cojones, having completed his auto-amputation, he then packaged his wound, abseiled down a 65ft rock face and set out on an eight-mile hike back to his car, pondering how he would change gear when driving himself to the hospital. He had been walking for five hours, the latter part aided by a family from Holland, when a helicopter arrived.

Ralston pops his claw attachment on and off, then does a trick with a glass of water

Ralston’s book about the accident, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, became a bestseller. Now it is the subject of a film, 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle, who bagged Oscars galore for Slumdog Millionaire. There are gongs being tipped again, not least for the actor James Franco, who puts in a riveting turn as Ralston. “My family and friends have said, that was so you,” enthuses Ralston, who was on hand throughout, on a set re-created “to millimetre accuracy”.

“He’s done an amazing job. He makes himself become a corpse over time. My sister said that, 15 minutes into the movie, she was no longer watching James, she was watching me.”

So, here he is: Aron Ralston, the “arm guy”. On stage, as a motivational speaker, he grumbles that he doesn’t want to be defined as such. He fell in love with his wife, Jessica, precisely because she didn’t ask him about his loss. But that was before the film.

Ralston pops his claw attachment on and off, then does a trick with a glass of water — almost, the glass being a little too wide for his mechanical clasp. Doesn’t he feel like a performing seal? He makes some mock arf-arf noises. “This is always going to be a part of my life,” he shrugs. “But what I meant, too, is that it’s not all that I’m here to do. The film is part of this closure.”

Its gruesome finale notwithstanding, the prospect of a drama about a man trapped in one spot for 127 hours would seem to defy the term “movie”. Ralston was interested in his tale being presented as a Touching the Void-style documentary. Then came Boyle, persuading him his experience was worthy of a dramatic canvas. “I went through six days where I came to even accept that I was going to die. It was, ‘What has my life been?’ Going deep into that, philosophically. Realising regrets, mistakes.” Indeed, via the pen of another Brit, the screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), the film becomes altogether existential. Boyle makes clever use of the camcorder on which Ralston had logged his last goodbyes, throwing in flashbacks as Ralston slips into out-of-body delirium, so much so that, even today, he often refers to himself in the third person. The arm severance? It’s rather an “ecstasy of liberation”, as Ralston puts it, the climax of a journey “from the deepest despair to highest euphoria through this crucible of pain”.

That said, it’s still not one for the faint-hearted. The film has grabbed headlines for people being carried out during screenings. “Oh, they are, pretty regularly,” Ralston chortles. “Yes, it can be overwhelming. You do have to keep breathing, people. But it’s also that affirmation of life. It’s why I wanted to work with Danny. He didn’t want it to be a horror story.”

He was a silly boy, was Aron. An experienced mountaineer, he not only made the mistake of striking out on his own, but committed the cardinal sin of not informing anybody where he was heading, save for a note saying, rather unhelpfully, “Utah”. But it all seems to fit with the way Franco plays him, the borderline adrenaline junkie whom we first meet barrelling through the desert on his bike. On the way to Bluejohn Canyon, Ralston had shown off to a couple of comely hikeresses. Later, full of bravado, he stepped on a “chockstone”, assuming it would take his weight. It didn’t. Both came tumbling down, the half-ton boulder rammed tight below his right elbow, pinning him to the wall. At first, Ralston treated his predicament like an extreme boy-scout project, rigging up a pulley system to try to budge the boulder. By day six, reduced to drinking fetid urine, he began his surgery — a process hampered by a useless penknife blunted by

days of chipping at stone.

The most striking thing is just how methodical Ralston was, testament to his engineering background. That he had to remove his arm was a no-brainer. His hand was gangrenous. He’d have lost it anyway. The accursed rock — by now a respected foe — had actually done him a favour by stemming the blood flow, preventing the toxins from flooding back. “Ultimately, it’s more of a puzzle, a riddle almost. How do you cut through an arm with a knife too dull to get through the bones?” he says. “Until finally, the epiphany — boom. It’s not the knife that’s gonna get me free, it’s the boulder.” Levering his body till his radius and ulna snapped, Ralston made his literal breakthrough: “It was this eureka moment for me.”

He makes the rest of the operation sound rather ho-hum — hacking through the skin and flesh, the tough old tendons, then the electrifyingly painful bundle of nerves, which he plucked “like a guitar string”. Last came the arteries. “It was one step at a time,” he recalls. “I’m thinking it through just like anybody would. I had a lot of time, that’s all I had. I mean, I can use a tourniquet, I’ve watched ER. That’s what you do, right?”

Salvation came when he hallucinated a vision of a small boy. Ralston describes the child as being his future son. He hadn’t then met his wife

The procedure took about 40 minutes.

Ralston’s speech is peppered with references to “epiphany” and “miracle” and “ecstasy”. “There was a defining moment in the aftermath when I chose that this was going to be the greatest thing that happened to me, which is why I wrote the book, so that it could touch other people,” he says. “It was a gift I then gave to Danny, so he could share it with other people.”

He takes on a predestinarian tone. It was all meant to be. The two girls he met were “angels”, there to lead him from danger, till he spurned them for his date with destiny. “As one of my friends said, ‘Dude, if there’s a lesson in all this, it’s go with the girls. What were you thinking?’ ”

Is he religious? “I was raised as a Protestant. In terms of practising, I’m a once-a-year kind of guy... The way I practise is, I go out into nature and I touch my spirituality in that place,” he says. He talks further about “these energies that connect us, the spiritual energies that I call God”. If he could turn back the clock, would he still go into that canyon? “Absolutely. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t have taken a sharper knife, I wouldn’t have taken a jacket.” That bloody useless knife came up trumps. A keener blade would have precipitated an earlier release, but he’d have died because he’d have bled out. The progressive dehydration made his blood more viscous. “I wouldn’t trade back any of this life experience I have today,” he restates. “There’s no way I would trade back this gift to have my hand back.”

It hasn’t all been rapture. Initially, Ralston felt himself indestructible: “Arrogant bastard that I was, I was like, ‘Look how badass I am.” Then three friends of his died in quick succession — suicides. A girlfriend left him. “It nearly crushed me. It nearly killed me, the depression. But that’s part of life — there’s balance, there’s positives and negatives.”

Salvation came when he hallucinated a vision of a small boy, who gave him the will to live. In the book, he describes the child in detail, his future son. He hadn’t then met his wife. Eleven months ago, Jessica gave birth to a boy, Leo, who fits the description exactly. Ralston is starting to sound like a Hal David lyric — “Love: at the deepest point that’s what connects us” — but you get where he’s coming from. Meanwhile, he makes a mockery of his “disability”. He’s scaled all 59 peaks over 14,000ft in Colorado. He’s climbed Kilimanjaro. Everest was supposed to happen, but life intervened. “Getting back was regaining my identity, but with time it became more, ‘When I’m in the outdoors, it’s about being with my friends.’”

After the accident, forest rangers retrieved his arm and cremated it. Ralston returned to scatter the ashes and still visits the site, like a shrine. “I stood on that rock this past spring, on the anniversary of my entrapment. I’m looking at digital photographs on my camera of Leo, because I’m reminded about the joy of being alive. Then I turn and I’m showing the rock! It’s that literal touchstone, this place where I can go.”

He still lives in Colorado... in a town called Boulder.

127 Hours opens on January 7

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