Aron Ralston Pushes “Embracing Your Boulders”

So how exactly do you describe a man that mustered up the willpower to cut off his own arm to escape 127 hours “between a rock and a hard place” under conditions that should have killed him in 48 hours?


I will try my very best to portray the experience of being able to speak with Aron, of listening to him speak about his struggles, of drawing inspiration from how he has lived his life and how he views the world.

Here goes.

I had the privilege of attending Aron’s press conference and there, I chose a seat directly across of him, completely lost as to what I wanted to ask him; I just sat and observed. Observed how he carried himself, how he exuded this positivity that was infectious as he chatted with us — about THON, about seeing the beauty of “Happy Valley” for the first time, about how these two things revealed true spirit of Penn State.

And then he exuded this same positivity, with this unwavering smile, as he described the beauty of the canyon that nearly claimed his life. As he spoke of how his initial panic — rage, even — when he found his arm crushed by an immovable boulder, as he considered the dire, almost hopeless situation hew as in. As he spoke of his will to break both bones in his arm and to saw through muscle and nerve to free himself from his grave. But what stood out most was one particular emotion that he constantly expressed: gratitude.

He said that, as he freed himself from the boulder he said “good riddance” to his hand and thank you to the boulder. And, of course, he smiled.

It quickly became apparent that his story — famous enough to be captured in the film “127 Hours” — was just a second fiddle to his message. Indeed, you would have thought it was a comedian running the stage judging by the laughter in Eisenhower, all while he joked that he “could not get a break” when the epitaph he carved into a wall — Aron, April 30 ’03, RIP — became outdated as he survived to the next day, May 1st.  127 hours under a rock? Definitely not your average punchline.

What he came to Penn State to share with us — in his words, to be of service to us — was how he came to realize that the most important things in his life were with his family, with his friends, with the people that he encountered and the relationships that he made.

If you have seen filmmaker Danny Boyle’s portrayal of Ralston’s story, which Ralston himself described as genuine and very human, you may remember the scene where James Franco, portraying Ralston, turned a camcorder toward himself and filmed a message to his parents.

Here’s the actual beginning from that actual video. Ralston then reached out to his loved ones — his parents, his sister — and as the hours went on, he reached out to his best friends and his relatives: he reflected on what was most important to him. And from that point on, he didn’t feel alone, trapped in the desert, god knows how far away from civilization. He felt as if his family and friends were with him.

And then he asked us, the audience, to think about what we would say in that situation, in the face of death, with one last message to deliver. Would you speak of your accomplishments, your awards? He asked us to reflect on what was truly most important to us.

He then described the night when he submitted himself to death, the night when he carved his epitaph. He shared how he left his body, how he observed his corporeal self, pinned under the boulder. How he walked through a doorway into a living room, to a little boy, blonde, playing with a truck, who looked at him with beautiful blue eyes to say to him, “Daddy, glad you’re home, let’s play”!

Ralston said that this was the day he met his son, Leo, and the moment that he woke up on May 1st, beside his outdated epitaph and in his former grave, that he found the willpower to escape from the boulder.

I did ask him one question during that press conference. I told him that, for me, college was my opportunity to come of age, to grow, to change how I view the world around me, and I asked him how we as college students could better appreciate the world as he does.

He said we will inevitably face our challenges — our boulders — sometime in our life. He said that, for him, being trapped under his boulder was his turnaround — the point in his life where he had to power to make a choice between tragedy and triumph. According to Aron Ralston, our own personal moments of trauma, we have the power to make a choice between tragedy and triumph. “Turn [your boulder] into the best thing,” he said.

Ralston describes his triumph through his continued passion in climbing. He became the first man to climb all of Colorado’s “fourteeners” solo, but he attributes his success to the relationships he has made in his life. Now, it’s not that “he was climbing and happening to be with friends”, it’s that “he was with friends and happened to be climbing”.

At the end of his speech, Ralston said, “Thank you very much for having me”. No Aron, thank you.

Also check out the recap of Ralston’s speech by Laura Nichols over at Her video clip is below!

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About the Author

Bobby Chen

Writer and photographer, helping tell the many stories of the Penn State community.

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