Since 2003 most of us have inevitably heard the story of “that guy who got his arm stuck in a rock and had to cut it off”. Some of us have even seen director Danny Boyle’s 2010 film 127 Hours, where James Franco plays “that guy”. And still fewer have read the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston (he’s “that guy” if you didn’t manage to pick up his name when you heard the story), who the movie is based on. I remember when I saw the film at Memorial Union during one of those free movie showings that MSA has on Wednesday nights. The room was packed and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why so many people had come to watch some guy spend four minutes getting his hand stuck between a rock and a canyon wall, half an hour trying to get it out, and then an hour cutting it off. I was, however, thoroughly amazed by how well the movie progressed through what I had initially perceived as a less nuanced story than it really was.
This Wednesday, I was lucky enough to be present when Ralston spoke to a packed Jesse Auditorium. As with the movie, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was leaning toward the idea of an energetic motivational speaker who was a bit full of himself. Some may disagree with me, but I left that night with my expectations affirmed. That is NOT to say that Ralston is a bad guy or that you can’t take some substantial meaning from his story. It just seemed as though he had told this story so many times that it was no longer a recounting of it, but a well rehearsed performance. A performance complete with dramatic pauses for effect and him staring at his outstretched hand pinned by an imaginary rock on the stage most of the night. After his speech an elderly woman even asked him how he became such a great actor… awkward? The audience’s whispering seemed to evidence that it was. I think seeing Marlee Matlin speak next week will provide a very interesting comparison. I’m sure no one would bat an eyelash at her having the slightest bit of an ego since she’s worked her ass off her whole life for the achievements that have made her famous, while Ralston’s slight egotism just seems to stem from being famous for making a poor choice that led to having to make a life or death choice and then talking about it.
Ralston does, however, have an important message in his speech. He basically told the story of his accident in the Canyon Country of Utah, which was motivational in that the moral of the story wasn’t merely that you should tell people where you’re going but that you should appreciate the important people in your life. Ralston was modest to an extent, introducing himself as “the guy who cut his arm off” and apologizing to the audience that he wasn’t as attractive as James Franco. He was very clear at the beginning of his speech saying “I’ve lost nothing! I’ve only gained many things!” He said that we have a responsibility to use the power we have to make choices. He had made the poorest choice of all when he failed to tell anyone where he was going, but because he made the choice to cut off his hand and experience a few hours of pain, it empowered him to live a new life full of opportunities to make better choices, which was well worth it.
The moment his hand got pinned, he said he felt a burning pain and panicked. He beat the rock with his other fist, kicked it, cussed at it (he said his words would have made Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen blush). Then he realized that he needed to STOP (Stop Think Observe Plan). He emptied the contents of his backpack in front of him and thought about what his options were. He was able to come up with four; chipping away at the rock, using his climbing gear to make a pulley system to lift the rock, committing suicide, and cutting his hand off. He set to work chipping away at the rock with a pocket knife but it wasn’t working, the pulley system didn’t work either. So he looked to *suicide, which he says would have been a rational decision as he was going to die if he couldn’t get out anyway. Not to mention suicide would have been less painful than a slow death of dehydration, hypothermia, and infection from his wound. After he prayed on it (he told the audience that he wasn’t trying to push any religion on them, but that this is what helped him, personally) he decided suicide was not the best choice.
Ralston got out his video camera and set to work saying thank you and goodbye to his friends and family in case he died. He said it was “not the will to live, but the will to love” that gave him the courage to begin cutting off his hand. He said that had he died in the canyon there was at least one thing he had done right in his life; he had recently quit his job as an engineer at Intel to follow his dream of being a professional outdoorsman. Something he could not have done it without the unwavering support of his friends and family. He cut through his arm, broke the two bones in it, cut the last piece of skin and looked at his watch, noting the date and time. It was his new birthday, he said, he had been given a whole new life. He then said, jokingly, to the audience “for us guys who will never know what it would be like to give birth, I think this would be on par.” He then stumbled out of the canyon and was met by a family on a hike, then a helicopter that got him to a hospital.
Now Ralston dedicates his life to spending time with his friends and family and following his dreams, as well as traveling the world, speaking to people about how they should do the same. He really did have a great message. I just wish he had talked more about some of his achievements and other experiences, especially when most of us had seen the movie or read the book. Interesting points could have included running the Leadville 100 (one of the world’s toughest ultra marathons) or how difficult it was to solo climb the 53 mountain peaks in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet. And in my mind, those are the types of things that you can have an ego about. I do, however, suggest you grab his book or watch the movie if you ever have a hankering for an interesting true story.
*Please note that suicide in almost every single other situation should not be an option considered and that the University has a variety of resources (including the Counseling Center 573-882-6601) available to you if you are contemplating suicide for any reason at all.