Aron Ralston

Keynote by Aron Ralston at COLLABORATE 13 Conference

I arrived in Denver yesterday for COLLABORATE 13, the annual conference of the Oracle Applications Users Group (OAUG).

Today, I attended the keynote speech by Aron Ralston. He was an experienced outdoorsman out for a walk in a Utah park when a dislodged boulder trapped him for five days. His story was captured in the movie “127 Hours”, based on his book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”.

After watching a trailer from “127 Hours”, Aron took the stage, making a joke about the April blizzard expected to hit Denver tomorrow, and laughing about being the guy that cut his arm off. The way he sees it, he’s only gained from the experience, which happened ten years ago this month.

Aron related his story to everyone in the audience – whatever our “boulders” might be – and how he found his way to being grateful for the boulder.

“Our boulders in our lives are gifts – they show us what is important to us. Our relationships at home, the source of our greatest vulnerability – divorce, depression, whatever it is for you – we will always be meeting these challenges.”

The area in southeast Utah, in “Canyon Country”, is known as Robbers’ Roost, because Butch Cassidy and his gang used to hide out there after robbing a train or stealing horses. The area is so remote it doesn’t have a paved road in the eastern part of two counties.

In exploring that fateful day, Aron came across two young ladies out for a little adventure of their own. Aron made a great joke about the difference between their reaction to him and the reaction of the two actresses in “127 Hours” to James Franco. He described the way the light bounces down the twisting canyon as “otherworldly”.

The girls invited him to cut short his hike and go out with him to grab a burger and a beer, but Aron deferred to go see the Grand Gallery, which is over 100 cave paintings preserved for thousands of years.

After parting ways, Aron continued down to the lower slot where all the tributaries of the Blue John system come together. He entered a drop-off around 2:00 in the afternoon, walking around a bend to see a beautiful scene of sandstone and light.

Around 2:45, he entered a gauntlet of boulders that have accumulated at the bottom of the canyon. He confronted a boulder that represented an obstacle, which could also be a steppingstone.

Aron described how he was fully extended, hanging from an 800-pound rock, when the rock pulled free, coming straight at his head. His right hand slipped between the rock and the wall of the canyon, and his hand disappeared into an impossibly small space between the boulder and the wall.

Aron showed a clip from the movie, recreating the scene. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. The pain was incredible, driving him out of his mind for more than an hour. But he told a joke to lighten the mood, and the audience caught its breath and moved on with him.

Aron realized that his water supply was his lifeline, and that he had to stop and think in order to get out of this situation. His emotional response was not helpful at all. When the crisis comes – when your boulder hits you – the fear response is not your most effective response. Stop, think, observe, find options, plan.

He realized he was not going anywhere. His wrist had been crushed to the width of his pinky finger. The pain had become irrelevant. The pain was not going to kill him, but his response to the pain might.

The option of cutting his arm off to get free started to occur to him, as a last resort. The first night, he spent fifteen hours trying to chip the bolder away. He tried rigging a system of ropes to try to lift the rock off, but that option failed.

No one was coming for him, and it would only be a day or two before he died there alone. He went out on a five-day trip, and he hadn’t told anyone where he was going. After about 24 hours, he was back to the option of amputating his arm.

He realized he would need a tourniquet to survive the 8-10 mile walk out to his truck, and a 57-mile drive out of the park. It seemed like a slow act of suicide to him. He turned on his video camera and started taping a message for his parents and his sister. Aron was briefly overcome with emotion as he recounted the words in that message.

Aron asked the audience what they would say if they had a video camera and they were in that same situation. It would reveal something very powerful about you and what’s important to you. That was the first gift of that trap. The rock showed him what was truly important in his life.

What was important were not his achievements in life, in high tech or becoming a mountain guide. What was important in the end were his loved ones. “I love you, thank you, I’m sorry, goodbye.”

It’s not just what you do – it’s who you are. How do we relate to one another, especially the people closest to you?

By the second and third days, Aron was willing to trade the uncertainty of dying on the way out vs. the certainty of dying in the canyon. He was down to his last couple of ounces of water, and a couple of bites of a mummified burrito.

By the fourth morning, he tried using his knife as a dagger rather than a saw. His knife came up against his bone. He hit bottom, because he realized his dull knife wouldn’t be able to cut through the bone.

After drinking his last water and eating his last food, he survived the fourth night, shivering in 40-degree temperatures. He had lost almost 30 pounds of body weight in those four days.

On the fifth day, he ran out of options and out of hope. He realized it was not up to him. He gave up the illusion of control. He felt relief at knowing in his heart there was no way to guarantee anything in this life. He felt a sense of peace, and spoke to his family on camera again. He felt their warmth and their love. “The force that’s more powerful than the will to live is the will to love.”

On the fifth afternoon, he felt like the end was going to come quickly. He wrote his name and birth and death dates, plus “RIP” on the sandstone wall of the canyon.

He left his last will and testament on the video camera, and he hunkered down to wait for the end. His watch beeped, and April 30th turned into May 1st. His epitaph on the wall was outdated!

He knew he was not going to see the dawn. Convulsing, a couple of hours later, he stood up and stepped free of the rock. He could look back and see his body. He walked down a passageway into a living room. He saw a little boy playing with a truck. He scooped the boy up with his left arm and a handless right arm. The boy’s eyes locked on his, and in the next moment, he was back at the boulder. But the vision of that little boy changed everything. If that vision was true, he would get out of there. A few hours later, the sun came back over the desert, and he made it through the night.

At 127 hours, he got a flash of insight. He would break the bone using the boulder. He crouched down and bent his arm until it broke. Then he realized there were, in fact, two bones in the arm.

He stood up straight, reversing the process until the second bone broke. He felt this wasn’t horrible at all, but that it was beautiful. The second gift of the boulder was to realize what was possible for us. He felt an excitement at the euphoria of getting free. When the knife hit the nerve, that moment was the crux. It felt like he incinerated his arm in a vat of liquefied metal.

When he opened his eyes again, he was smiling. He cut through the last piece of skin, and he was free. He stepped out of his grave and into his life again.

The ecstasy of that moment, realizing that he would get his life back in one moment, was too much to handle. He caught his breath, put on the tourniquet, and took one final picture of the boulder and his severed hand. He took that picture to say thank you to the boulder for its gifts.

The boulder had shown him something so beautiful about life.

He started to walk out through the slotted canyon, stepping out into the sunshine. He rappelled down a 65-foot drop to a pool of water, gulping down almost a gallon of water.

Chanting “one more step” to himself, staying focused on what was right in front of himself, trying to avoid any stupid mistakes. He hiked 6.5 miles, with his eyesight blurring and his heart pounding. Just when he thought he couldn’t go any further, he came across a family. He called for help, and they started running towards him.

They gave him water, and said “we need to get going”. There were rescuers out looking for him, but he only had minutes left.

A helicopter landed nearby, and the pilot got him onto the chopper. His mother made that rescue happen. When she found out that he hadn’t turned up for work, she went into action.

He made it to his sister’s wedding later that summer. He continued climbing, to finish climbing the last of the 59 mountains that were 14,000 feet or higher, an achievement no one else has done.

“You’re not alone. It’s not easy. It’s not enough to enrich our own lives. We’re here to enrich the lives of others. The gifts of the boulder were to know what’s important to us, what’s possible for us, what’s extraordinary in us.”

Aron ended with a picture of his son Leo, the little boy he envisioned that last horrible night, the courageous little lion that gave him what he needed to get through that ordeal.

“Our boulders – smile at them, be grateful for them, maybe even to embrace them, to welcome them into your life because they will give you gifts.”

The audience gave him a standing ovation at the end of his talk. Thank you to Aron Ralston and to COLLABORATE 13 for arranging for him to speak.

Aron Ralston at COLLABORATE 13

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4 Comments on “Keynote by Aron Ralston at COLLABORATE 13 Conference”

  1. Thomas Atkinson 04/08/2013 at 5:52 pm #

    Wow, I had heard of this story but the details really are incredible! Aron is an amazing guy. Thanks for the well written blog post Dan, very inspiring.

  2. Karen Way 04/08/2013 at 6:42 pm #

    Dan – Thank you for sharing Aron’s story with us. I can only imagine how incredible it must have been to hear this in person. It has certainly made me a bit more introspective this evening!

  3. Dan Power 04/08/2013 at 7:56 pm #

    @Thomas and @Karen – thanks for the kind words. He really was amazing. I had a feeling when I sat down (up front, as I usually do) that this one was going to be something special. He didn’t disappoint. I was able to capture a lot of it word-for-word. If anyone is wondering whether to have Aron Ralston speak to your group at an event like this, I would recommend him 110% – he’s an amazing, inspiring speaker.

  4. Prash Chan (@MDMGeek) 04/08/2013 at 8:45 pm #

    This is excellent narrative Dan. Thanks for sharing…

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