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For CMU alum, life after severing own arm remains challenging

Pinned between a rock and a hard place for six days, Carnegie Mellon grad Aron Ralston (EE '97) did the unimaginable: severed his own arm to save himself. But as incredible as his world-famous ordeal was, Ralston considers the publicity tour for the book that recounts his story, not the ordeal itself, as his greatest test of endurance. "It [touring] was the most rigorous endurance event of my life. I'd often only get three hours of sleep a night during those three months of solid touring. Forty-five cities over eight countries in 90 days, 300 interviews, 50 speeches," said Ralston in a recent phone interview.

In his book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Ralston recounts being trapped by an 800-pound boulder in a remote southeastern Utah canyon. He had taken an impromptu trip to the high deserts of Utah to hike, bike, and connect with the outdoors he loves, but failed to leave even a general itinerary of his destination and activities with his roommates. This mistake, coupled with an affinity for risk-taking, impeded the rescue effort that could have located him before he was forced to sever his own arm with the dull blades of a multi-use tool.

In late April 2002, Ralston was hiking through a narrow canyon when he encountered a 12-foot dropoff. Just a couple of feet down from the ledge was a boulder the size of a bus tire, wedged between the walls of the canyon. Ralston tried descending via the boulder after his initial tests indicated it was stable, but while he was hanging over its side, the rock began to shift and fall. In order to keep from being fatally crushed, Ralston threw up his arms and tried to jump out of the way. While this saved his life, it was at the cost of his right arm, which ended up pinned between the boulder and the canyon wall.

Despite almost a week of exposure, shock, starvation, and dehydration, Ralston survived. As a result of that day in 2002, he has broken into the spotlight, first as the story of his accident and extraordinary rescue became known, and then again after he published his book.

"I recognized the power of the story almost right away," he says. "All the letters and reactions people were having showed me that the miracle was not just for me and my family to enjoy." Where perhaps otherwise Ralston would have simply healed and returned to his risk-taking lifestyle, the responses he was getting from all over the world showed that he had a message people wanted to hear.

"Life is ten percent what happens, and 90 percent how you react. You have to transform adversity into possibility."

For Ralston, the ultimate adversity he faced was in making the decision to cut off his trapped right arm. Ralston couldn't bring himself to perform the grotesque and desperate surgery until the very end, when he was literally on the edge of death, and had even carved his own epitaph in the rock above his head.

In his book, Ralston writes of the event, "Miserable, I watch another empty hour pass by.... I have nothing whatsoever to do. I have no life. Only in action does my life approximate anything more than existence. Without any other task or stimulus, I'm no longer living, no longer surviving. I'm just waiting."

It was in waiting and raging against his situation that he realized how he could escape. "I scream out in pure hate, shrieking as I batter my body to and fro against the canyon walls, losing every bit of composure that I've struggled so intensely to maintain," his book reads. "Then I feel my arm bend unnaturally in the un-budging grip of the chockstone. And epiphany strikes me with the magnificent glory of a holy intervention and instantly brings my seizure to a halt: If I torque my arm far enough, I can break my forearm bones."

Just over an hour later, Ralston had successfully snapped both bones in his forearm, constructed a tourniquet to stop blood-loss, and cut through his skin, flesh, and nerves to free himself and give him a chance of rescue.

Months later, Ralston's book hit number nine on The New York Times' list of bestselling non-fiction books, and he makes enough money to continue the free lifestyle he loves by doing speaking engagements all over the country. "It's my business now," he says. "I do a good deal of corporate and non-profit speaking. I tell young kids who are getting more freedom and responsibility that they have the power to create their reality, but also have the accountability for what they create."

Ralston spent a year writing the book, researching what happened from the perspective of his family, friends, and rescuers.

"It was difficult; I had to pour myself into those six days I spent trapped," he says, speaking about the process of writing his story. "Getting the details right was the most difficult. I had been awake for six days straight." Remembering exactly what happened at what point was a challenge mitigated slightly by the video camera he used to record scattered moments of his ordeal.

Beyond that, he had to find out what he couldn't observe while trapped. "I had to track down the rescuers and try to rebuild these branching shotgun events. It was a huge introspective detective journey." He also had to relive it with his parents. "It wasn't so hard to talk to them about it, since we had gone over it so many times by then. But watching the video with my mother was the most difficult."

In the first of many video scenes Ralston recorded while trapped in the canyon, he attempts to explain what it was he was seeking in this trip and his life. "I don't know what it is about me that's brought me to this. But this is ... what I've been after. I go out looking for adventure and risk so I can feel alive. But I go out by myself and I don't tell someone where I'm going, that's just dumb. If someone knew, if I'd have been with someone else, there would probably already be help on the way. Even if I'd just talked to a ranger or left a note on my truck. Dumb, dumb, dumb."

While hard to relive, the effort was worth it, he says. "It's very hard to move forward in your life when you're constantly having to relive the past. But while it was exhausting and tiring, it was also inspiring in many other ways. I got to see and hear other people's inspirations. For every thousand people that hear what I have to say are a thousand different messages delivered. I have a plaque on my wall sent to me by a little girl. It's made from plywood and painted silver, and says "Yo [sic] got to keep on living." Other people have told me that the most courageous thing I did wasn't to cut off my arm, but to have the courage to quit my job at Intel and live the life I want, as a ski bum."

Even so, Ralston did his best not to let the fame go to his head. "My friends became even more important to me during that time," he says. "They were my balance. I took time to see them, which is part of why I slept so little. They kept me in check when I'd slip into publicity mode."

When asked what exactly publicity mode entailed, he said, "I'd dominate the conversation, or start talking about how I was hanging out with a famous actress after the Letterman show. They'd say, 'Yeah, yeah, shut up Aron,' and we'd go back to normal."

College buddy Chris Adukaitis (CE ?97) observes that Ralston is still the active, spunky guy he was back in school. "We called him Forrest Gump. He was a very smart guy, even by CMU standards. But he ran everywhere. If you saw anyone running around on campus, you could safely assume it was Aron."

So has all the stress of fame and the crazy schedules been worth it? Ralston says yes. Talking to people and hearing their experiences "really brightens my outlook," he adds. He continues to live a life that gives him satisfaction.

But despite the pressure, he continues to promote his message by speaking and touring. Fame, it seems, is the price Ralston pays for surviving and living how he wants. "It's like that line from 'Road Runner' by Jerry Garcia: love the life you live, live the life you love."

"I wouldn't have said I could have [survived the accident] if you asked me before, but I did," he says. "It came from inside. It's the spark of the divine in each of us."