Aron Ralston: The Three Gifts Adversity Gives Us

Outdoor enthusiast and subject of the movie 127 Hours Aron Ralston shared the lessons he learned at XChange August 2019 from surviving a 2003 canyoneering accident that required him to amputate his own forearm.

Aron Ralston has faced so much adversity in his life that Hollywood made a movie out of it.

So when the man whose story was portrayed in the film 127 Hours says that facing challenges in life and in business also brings blessings, you can rest assured that he knows what he’s talking about.

In 2003 at the age of 27, Ralston, an avid outdoorsman and adventurer, fell into a narrow gap in Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon and was trapped when a falling boulder pinned his right hand to the canyon wall.

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"I was no longer standing in the bottom of the canyon," Ralston said, describing his harrowing experience during a keynote address at XChange 2019, hosted by CRN parent The Channel Company. "I was standing in my grave, and I knew it."

Suffering from dehydration, hypothermia and blood loss after being trapped for more than five days, Ralston was able to free himself by amputating his own hand above the wrist and hiking miles before he was rescued.

While Ralston’s nemesis was a literal rock, he says “boulders” in life come at us from all directions, be it dealing with financial struggles, grappling with a family member’s medical diagnosis or going through a divorce.

"The boulders can be burdens, they absolutely feel like that," Ralston said. "And at the same time, you know they also bring life's greatest blessings."

Here are three gifts Ralston said facing adversity gives us.

1. It Shows You Who Or What Is Important

After realizing that we was likely going to die in that canyon, Ralston recorded goodbyes to his family, his “last will and testament.” Formulating those thoughts and focusing on his family kept him going and motivated him not to give up, he said.

2. It Shows Us What We’re Capable Of

At multiple points throughout his experience, Ralston said underestimated his ability to survive. Yet he kept powering through each milestone that he thought would be his last.

"I found strength, courage and determination and grit that I never could have conceived of," Ralston said. "Adversity causes us to dig deeper that we had ever done before, to get in touch with the thing that can motivate us, even when we lose our motivation."

3. It Shows Us What’s Extraordinary About Being Alive

By the time Ralston was able to amputate his own hand, he was smiling while he did it because he had come so close to death so many times throughout the ordeal. But his drive for freedom, his will to see his family again and his certainty that he had more life left to live in the end overpowered all of the agony and despair he felt along the way.

Along with imparting those lessons, Ralston shared details of his incredible ordeal.

It all began with a plan to enjoy a normal day in nature.

An avid rock-climber and outdoor enthusiast, Ralston planned a light (by his standards) schedule in Utah's Canyonlands National Park for April 26, 2003, consisting of a 15-mile bike ride, a shuttle, and a 15-mile hike. But things went awry when a boulder Ralston had stepped on came loose, causing him to fall to the bottom of the canyon and wedging his right arm between a boulder and the canyon wall.

"Most of us know what it feels like when a crisis erupts, when our world is turned upside down … and it can be really hard in that moment to not get hijacked," Ralston said. Ralston was hit with a wave of panic, adrenaline, fear and rage, punching and cursing and attempting to lift the rock to free his right arm. But after an hour of sweat and all-out exertion, Ralston realized that wasn't going to work.

"Brute force is not the answer here," Ralston told XChange attendees. "I had to stop."

Ralston then spent the next 15 hours attempting to cut through the rock using a knife that had come free with a flashlight his mom bought at Walmart. At his current rate, Ralston estimated the job would take a month to complete, but given that he was immobilized with only two burritos, 12 oz of water and not a single paved road or electric line within 50 miles, he estimated he only had a few days left to live.

Twenty-four hours after the accident, Ralston had resigned himself to the fact that he'd probably have to cut off his right arm to get free, but wasn't sure how to do it. But sawing against his flesh only created friction, plus Ralston was fearful that even it he successfully cut himself free, the tourniquet wouldn't sufficiently stem the bleeding and he'd die from blood loss before making it back to his truck.

On 3 p.m. the second day Ralston was trapped, he turned on his video camcorder and recorded a goodbye message for his parents, hoping another hiker would stumble upon his body (and the recording) at some point in the future. As sad and somber and it was to record the message, Ralston said being pinned by the boulder helped he realize just how much his parents and sister meant to him.

cyberMIND's Timothy Butkiewicz admired the way Ralston was able to use the adversity he faced to fuel growth and drive positive change. Butkiewicz, founder and president of the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based solution provider, said Ralston's talk motivated him to keep taking risks and find ways to turned negatives into a positive.

"We all have these boulders in our lives," Butkiewicz said.

But for Ralston, the circumstances on the ground were getting increasingly dire. The starvation and dehydration were causing Ralston to lose 7 lbs. of body mass each day, and overnight temperatures below 40 degree (Ralston was wearing a t-shirt and shorts) put him at grave risk of hypothermia.

But thoughts of Ralston's family gave him the drive to keep fighting, and after 80 hours of being trapped, he made a breakthrough. By holding the knife like a dagger rather than a saw, Ralston was at last able to cut through his skin, but once again found himself in trouble when he encountered bone.

As the end of his fourth night of being pinned approached, Ralston was down to 130 lbs. and had resorted to drinking his own urine to stave off dehydration.

"There's the idea that if we just try a little harder and if we just exert our will more, then we can get what we want … It's up to us," Ralston said. "And yet, there are times when it's the opposite, that it's not about will, desire, and drive, it's actually about surrender and letting go, and knowing that it's not up to me anymore."

By the start of day 5, Ralston haven't given up hope, but had let go of any sense of having control over the situation. He carved his date of birth, date of death (04/30/03), and RIP into the stone above, confident that the frigid overnight air meant he wouldn't see the dawn of his sixth day being pinned by the rock.

But with a vision of the son he one day hoped to father, Ralston made it to the dawn of day six, and in his 127th hour of captivity, had an epiphany. He would use the boulder to deliberately break the bones in his right forearm, meaning it would then be possible to use the 1.5-inch blade on his pocketknife to cut through the remainder of the skin.

"Each step I took was a step toward freedom, a step toward home, toward possibility," Ralston said.

After the excruciating pain of cutting through the nerve and his last bit of skin, Ralston was able to move his legs for the first time in six days.

But for Ralston, help and a chance at survival were still many hours away.

After five hours of freedom, Ralston was fading fast due to 6.5 miles of walking and two liters of blood loss from the amputation (roughly four times the amount of a typical blood donation). That's when he ran into a mother, father and son with two Oreo cookies and a liter of water.

The mother and son raced ahead to let rescuers in the area know that Ralston had been found and needed urgent medical attention, while the dad stayed with Ralston as his heartbeat raced upwards of 200 beats per minute. That's when a medical evacuation helicopter arrived nearly out of gas, and raced Ralston to Moab Regional Hospital before running out of fuel entirely.

In the subsequent 16 years, Ralston has become a father to his son Leo and daughter Elisabetta, and returned to the scene of the accident nearly a dozen times to reflect on the gifts that came out of the adversity that nearly claimed his life.

"It's pretty incredible what he did," said Don Tiaga, president of Leesburg, Va.-based solution provider FedBiz IT Solutions. "It took a lot of strength and willpower to cut your own arm off for survival."

Tiaga appreciated that Ralston was able to use his time being trapped to discover what was most important to him. Ralston's story is a testament how powerful hard work and persistence can be for people facing adversity, Tiaga said.