Skip to Content

How Aron Ralston Survived 127 Hours Trapped in a Canyon

The phrase to be “caught between a rock and a hard place” has never been more true than in the case of mountaineer Aron Ralston. 

In April 2003, Aron embarked on a solo adventure to Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon.

The infamous image Aron Ralston took while stuck in the canyon.

He intended to spend some days canyoneering, which involves exploring a canyon using various techniques, including hiking, rappelling, scrambling, and chimneying, to reach a planned end destination.

Aron was experienced in the sport, having moved to Aspen, Colorado, to be close to the mountains. The 27-year-old had a lofty goal of climbing every “Fourteener” in Colorado.

This would have been no easy feat; a Fourteener is a mountain peak with an elevation of at least 14,000 ft, and there are 59 of them in total.

Still, Aron embraced tough challenges and intended to reach each of these mountain peaks alone.

His April 2003 canyoneering trip in Bluejohn Canyon seemed like a walk in the park in comparison.

However, in a stroke of misfortune during this excursion, he slipped on a loose rock and fell down the canyon wall. The boulder that fell with him firmly pinned his right arm against the rock, leaving Aron trapped.

He was 100 feet from the surface and miles away from help. Aron had not told any friends or family about his plans to adventure the canyons, so nobody knew where he was. He was stuck, with next to no resources, in the middle of nowhere.

Aron documented some of his ordeal on his video camera, using his left hand to hold it as he spoke. In one video, he addressed his parents and asked whoever found his body to pass the tape over to his mother and father.

However, the worst never happened, although Aron didn’t make it out of the canyon unscathed.

In fact, he left part of himself behind in order to escape.

An Adventurous Spirit

Born on October 27, 1975, Aron grew up in Denver, Colorado. As a teenager, he learned to ski and found his passion for backpacking.

While he attended university, he worked as a rafting guide. As a young adult, it was clear that Aron was becoming a keen outdoorsman.

After graduating, Aron found work as a mechanical engineer for the technology company Intel. While the job funded his newfound passion for mountaineering, it also mentally drained him.

After five years of corporate life, Aron decided he’d had enough. His calling was to be outdoors, not behind a desk, so he quit in 2002. He packed his bags and moved to Aspen to be closer to the mountains.

It was here he decided he was going to conquer all of Colorado’s Fourteeners.

Amid his dream of tackling the 59 Fourteeners, Aron also found time to partake in other adventures with friends. In February 2003, just two months before his fateful trip to Bluejohn Canyon, he and his companions found themselves in a dangerous situation while skiing.

The group was enjoying the slopes off-piste when they were caught in an avalanche. Aron was buried under over five feet of snow, but his head was luckily spared, and his friends were able to pull him from the barrage of snowfall.

The potentially fatal event could have been avoided – if the group had heeded the severe avalanche warning that had been issued earlier that day. The sobering event caused Aron to reevaluate his stance on safety and be more diligent when avoiding danger.

Ironically, just two months later, after another accident, Aron would be fighting for his life in the Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

Trapped In Bluejohn Canyon

Aron traveled to southeastern Utah on April 25, 2003, to explore Bluejohn Canyon. The gorge is as vast as it is unforgiving, although he didn’t think the 11-mile journey would be too taxing for him. He slept well in his truck the night before he embarked on the adventure.

Photograph taken at Bluejohn Canyon. Via The American Southwest.

After the sun rose the following day, he jumped on his bike and made his way to the breathtaking opening of Buejohn. 

He secured his bike and set off on his latest adventure, entirely unaware of the horrors he was about to face.

The first few hours of the expedition were standard for the outdoorsman. By mid-afternoon, Aron decided to descend into the canyon, making his way onto a rock lodged between the canyon walls.

Unbeknownst to him, the rock was loose, and as he used it for leverage, it slipped, causing Aron to skid two feet down into the canyon.

That was the least of his worries, though. On the way down, the boulder had pinned Aron’s right arm to the canyon. He could not dislodge his limb; it was tightly secured between the 800-pound boulder and the unforgiving canyon wall.

Nobody, not even Aron’s closest friends or family, knew where he was. He had no means of contacting anyone for help, nor did he have luck on his side: it was highly unlikely that anybody else would be adventuring through the canyon to find him.

When Aron was able to evaluate the situation he found himself in, he assessed his supplies. He didn’t have much: a couple of burritos, the remnants of a candy bar, and 350 ml of water; just over half a bottle left. 

With provisions scarce, Aron had to use them sparingly. He sipped the water just enough to soothe his dry mouth but ensured he left some for later. He figured the best thing he could do would be to try to tackle the boulder that had him trapped in the canyon.

Aron used a small, two-inch knife to chip away at the boulder. He thought he might be able to shave enough of it away to free himself. He spent the whole night trying to work his arm out of the rock by chipping away at it.

The 15 hours he spent doing this proved futile. Aron slowly came to realize that his small knife was no match for the boulder that was five times heavier than him.

He decided to change tack. Using a rope, he tied it around the boulder and made a makeshift pulley. He aimed to lift the heavy rock just enough to pull his arm from underneath it. Again, with just the use of one arm, Aron was no match for the boulder.

The small amount of water he had on him was quickly running out. Aron’s survival options had been whittled down to two: wait for help or consider removing his limb.

The issue with taking his arm off was that Aron had no idea how he’d cut through the bone. His small, dull knife certainly wouldn’t be capable of that. Still, he tried.

As expected, all he managed to do was create surface wounds. Aron could barely get the small blade to draw blood, let alone cut through his flesh.

So, instead, Aron used the tool to carve his name on the wall of the canyon. Alongside it, he wrote his date of birth and, macabrely, his date of death. The letters “RIP” were also engraved on the wall.

There was no doubt Aron had resigned himself to an agonizing death, which was made even more apparent in the goodbye video he made for his parents.

Aron drifted in and out of sleep by this point. His water supply had gone, meaning he’d resorted to drinking his urine to survive. His body was struggling to regulate its temperature. He was sure death was imminent.

Delirious, Aron flitted in and out of dreams. One dream in particular felt real; he saw himself playing with a child. In the dream, part of his right arm was missing. It felt more like a glimpse into the future than a dream. When he awoke, Aron was filled with a renewed sense of survival. 

He refused to accept death as his fate.

Aron reconsidered the removal of his arm. Before, he thought he had to cut through the bone. Now, he realized he didn’t: he could break the bone instead. He laid out all of his equipment to figure out how to carry out his new plan.

Aron’s “Rebirth”

With his hand and forearm tightly trapped, Aron managed to break his ulna and his radius, successfully disconnecting his bones.

Then, using the tubing from his water bottle, he made a tourniquet to cut off his blood supply. Again, he made use of his dull knife and set about cutting through the skin and muscle that rendered him stuck. His tendons proved difficult to cut, so he used pliers on these instead.

Photo of Aron Ralston sometime before he became trapped in Bluejohn Canyon.

“All the desires, joys, and euphorias of a future life came rushing into me,” Aron would later say. He credits his new zest for life for his ability to endure the pain of removing his own arm.

It wasn’t a quick process by any means. It took an hour for Aron to carry out the amputation. When he made the final cut, he was flung backwards into the canyon wall. He describes this feeling as being a “rebirth.” 

Fuelled by his adrenaline, Aron managed to climb his way out of the canyon and descended down a 65-foot sheer cliff with just one arm. His vehicle was eight miles away, and Aron was losing blood.

Not only that, he was severely dehydrated. Still, Aron managed to make it six miles, spurred on by his desire to make it out of the nightmarish situation alive.

It was at this point he stumbled upon a family who had been exploring the canyon. They raced to Aron’s aid, giving him much-needed water and sustenance in the form of Oreos.

Authorities were called, and Aron was rushed to the hospital by medics. It was unclear if he’d make it through the ordeal. He had lost 40 pounds, 25% of his blood volume, and had suffered severe dehydration.

However, Aron’s will to live was greater than the dangerous circumstances he’d found himself in. After 127 hours in a living nightmare, he was not only free but on the road to recovery.

While Aron was receiving medical care, park rangers set about retrieving his arm from the boulder. This was no easy task: it took over a dozen rangers and a hydraulic jack. Still, the arm was eventually removed.

It was cremated and presented to Aron.

The Aftermath

Six months after being presented with the remains of his right arm, Aron returned to the slot he’d been trapped in on the canyon and scattered the ashes there. It’s where they belong, he’d say.

Naturally, the story caused immense intrigue from the public, book publishers, and film studios. In 2004, Aron released Between a Rock and a Hard Place, his autobiography detailing his five days trapped in Bluejohn Canyon.

Aron Ralston revisiting Bluejohn Canyon with his prosthetic arm.

Aron was sought after by the media and took part in many TV appearances and press tours.

The dramatization of his ordeal followed in 2010, with James Franco playing Aron in the film 127 Hours.

You may think that after such a horrific experience, Aron would have sworn off adventuring altogether. However, the keen outdoorsman refused to give up his passion and even went on to complete his goal of conquering the Fourteeners.

That fever dream he had of playing with his children turned out to be more of a prediction. Aron has since become a father of two, something that wouldn’t have materialized had he not found the strength and courage to do the unthinkable.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *