After The Arm

Aron Ralston moves on; will speak in Boise


Any one of the actions Aron Ralston had to take to save his own life might have broken another human being.

In April, 2003, Ralston was pinned by an 800-lb. boulder during a rock climbing trip in the Bluejohn Canyon of Utah. Over the next six days, with one arm pinned under the boulder, he would have to make a sling to suspend himself, collect and drink his own urine, protect himself from the elements, and most excruciatingly, snap his arm bone and cut off his hand to extricate himself.

More than three years later, Ralston, 31, says he's more interested in exploring the spiritual lessons of those days than he is in challenging himself in the outdoors. And he wants to share what he's learned with others.

"I see it as part of my responsibility," he says. "I was given a miracle. I plan to use it for every bit that I can."

And Ralston, who travels 40 days a year speaking to groups about his ordeal, doesn't mean use it for money, although he has become a fairly wealthy young man from his near-tragedy, most notably by appearing in one of the "Man Laws" Miller Lite commercials.

But his real passion is in the talks he gives for free at least a dozen times a year, as fundraisers for conservation organizations or groups that serve at-risk youth.

To that end, Ralston will be in Boise next week to speak to the clients and staff of the Idaho Youth Ranch, which operates six residential facilities for troubled youth around the state.

"I've been a fan of Aron's since the day before he was found," says Mike Jones, the president and CEO of the Idaho Youth Ranch. Jones had heard about Ralston from his closest friend, whose son is a friend of Aron's.

"I think his story of courage and commitment and perseverance is important for our kids to hear," says Jones. "They've all faced adversity and the jam he was in far exceeds anything they've gone through. I hope they come away with the idea that regardless of where they are today and what they got dealt, the sky's the limit."

On Wednesday, November 29, Ralston will speak to a general audience at the Egyptian Theatre. He's waived his speaking fee so that the ticket sales will go to the Ranch, and he's also donating all the proceeds of the sales of his book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Jones says the Ranch hopes to make $20,000 for much-needed services.

Ralston says he'll talk to kids about how he overcame the challenges he had at their age by finding his passions and about how they, too, can benefit from the strategies he used to keep himself alive in the canyon.

"It's everything from problem-solving skills to emotional balance, to taking responsibility for your actions," he says. "You're the one that has to make a choice to change the situation you're in. To be alive is to make choices, and choices entail risk."

Ironically, he said, it's not always the rational, calm approach that works.

"I put myself into a rage at several key points and one of those was what got me out of the canyon," he says. "I had kind of an epiphany."

The epiphany was that instead of carving away at his arm with a dull knife, he needed to break it first. After amputating his lower arm and freeing himself, he somehow managed to get out of the crevasse and start stumbling back to his truck, eight miles away. He was discovered along the way by hikers.

Indeed, Ralston's story is so much the stuff of movies, that it will be. He says he's working a on a docudrama similar to Touching the Void, about the harrowing adventure of two mountaineers in the Peruvian Andes. In order to make it as realistic as possible, the actor portraying him will have to go through some of the deprivations he endured.

"It might entail not eating for six days," Ralston says. "Or not sleeping. Because then you're not really having to act. You can't just add makeup to someone to make them look sunburned. The head trip is really what it's all about."

Ralston still travels in the backcountry and even still travels solo. But he always leaves a plan with a friend or family member, and he has endorsed and carries a Personal Beacon Locator made by ACR Electronics. The beacon uses satellite technology to send rescuers the exact latitude and longitude of a user when it's activated.

"It will save hundreds of lives," says Ralston. "If I had had it, I still probably would have still lost my hand, but it would have changed things for my family and the rescuers. My mother is certainly glad I have one."

And he's become involved in the conservation movement, using money from his speaking fees to start the Maroon Corps, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting roadless areas in Colorado.

"Wilderness has given me a lot and I plan to try to give it back," he says.

Since his accident, Ralston has accomplished his goal of summitting all the peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet in winter, alone. And soon he'll be involved in an expedition to K2, the world's second-highest mountain.

But he says physical accomplishments are now secondary to what he has learned about being truly human, which for him means having deeper relationships.

"It was a great physical and mental accomplishment," he says of bagging the peaks. "But it was also something that taught me that I wanted to work bringing myself closer to people, not just the non-human world. So much of my outdoor pursuits demanded a somewhat distant, almost hardened personality. I have a new balance in my life."

But not a serious love interest, apparently. When he was beginning to hallucinate during his ordeal, he had a vision of a toddler in a red polo shirt, a boy he assumed was his future son. It gave him the inspiration to hold on another day.

He hasn't seen the boy in real life yet.

"Yeah, I tell people I sometimes wish I'd also seen the image of the mom-to-be," he jokes, with characteristic deadpan humor.

Ralston says the whole experience has given him a sense of peace. "I have a greater ability to accept what happens in my life," he says. "Now it's, 'What I am I going to do with it?' We need to turn these things into gifts."

For his 31st birthday a few weeks ago, he climbed to the top of an 18,400-foot volcano and meditated on his life.

"I definitely think what happened to me, happened for a reason," Ralston says. It wasn't just for me to be on a hike that day. I want to live my life so I'm inspiring people."

Ralston's talk is at the Egyptian Theatre, Wednesday, November 29, at 7 p.m. Tickets available at the Egyptian box office, $10 and $12. Call 208-342-1441. Door prizes from R.E.I. and others. Sponsored by the Boise Weekly.