Once again, the Conservation Alliance Breakfast at Outdoor Retailer fulfilled its promise. I arrived tired and left incredibly inspired thanks to Aron Ralston and the witty and captivating talk he gave to a huge crowd.

Ralston, best known for cutting off his arm to escape from a fallen boulder, gave an inspiring and compelling presentation that provided a graphic first-hand account of his ordeal, but that also went beyond the 127 hours he spent pinned in a slot canyon in 2003. In the short span of an hour, he was poetic, funny, sweet, humble and entertaining .

Photo Courtesy of the Conservation Alliance

The presentation began with striking imagery of some of Ralston’s favorite places in the desert; canyons and mesas, buttes and rivers. “From above, it looks like a wasteland, but we know it’s a beautiful place. The desert is the yin to the yang of the mountains. These canyons are intimate places that are the crevasses of the desert…. the storm sewers of the desert that open up into cathedrals of light. That light, that beautiful light of the desert. There is an other-worldliness of the desert that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s like walking into an interstellar galaxy. All of these are the reasons we go down there…to explore, to see what is left. “

His love for these places shined through as he spoke so passionately about them. Hearing about his personal connection with the desert definitely provided insight into why he was drawn to spend so much time exploring the desert on his own.

Ralston walked us through his accident in an extremely captivating manner. The audience hung on every word as he described this extreme test of his spirit and showed the photos that he somehow managed to continue taking during the 127 hours he was pinned beneath a boulder.  From the rock falling, to the crushing pain, through the thought process that ensued about how to escape….He carried us through each step with words and images.

“I stopped to smell the roses without any inkling that in 10 minutes things would change…I was being very judicious in my steps, hanging and stretching and right in that moment, the rock let go. Who knows how many eons it had been in place, but my bodyweight was enough to force it free…I protected myself and the rock collided violently with my hands….ricocheting and in the next blink of an eye, I got one hand clear, but in that last second  it constricted against the space between the walls and my hand disappeared in this small gap. There was a surreal pause where the shock of this set in and then the pain came. You know that kind of pain that with every beat of your heart, it is the most intense thing you ever felt? “

He thrashed around trying to use force to get free, but to no avail.  Somehow, Ralston regained his composure, took stock of his supplies and began scheming ways to escape. Over the next hours and days, he tried using the rope he had in his pack, he attempted to carve a space in the boulder, he tried wriggling his body in different positions and he shouted for help, but all to no avail.  “Shouting was sort of silly, “ he says. “It was like Timmy is in the well and Lassie is nowhere around. There wasn’t anyone for miles. So, I tried to keep myself together and I thought through some other options…I realized that I would have to wait it out and tried to make myself comfortable as possible.”

What struck me most at this point in the talk was that Ralston was still able to see the beauty of his surroundings. He described the beauty of the rock funneling light through the canyon and showed photos he continued to take during his time stuck in the slot.

As time passed, Ralston began to lose weight (6 to 7 lbs a day), he began shivering as nighttime temps  dropped below freezing and he suffered from severe dehydration.  So, Ralston began to prepare for death. “What do you do when you’re out of options and standing in your grave? I got my video camera out and said my goodbyes. This made think about what to say and who to say it to. Doing this illuminated what was important –my friends, family, loved ones. None of my achievements or the peaks I had climbed or any of that mattered. That boulder became a gift in that moment because it showed me what I valued,” he explained.

But, Ralston didn’t die. By day 5, he was definitely hurting – starving, hypothermic, dehydrated. “This was epic beyond compare to any experience. But, how had I made it to that point? Effort and will, but not just the will to live. It wasn’t just that I wanted to keep on going to survive. I wanted to keep on going to see my mom, to give her a hug. It was the will to love that got me through. We all have that thing in our spirit that wants to reach out, connect, to love. That’s what did it.”

Ralston’s epiphanies continued. “ I realized it’s not just what you do, it’s who you are, Aron that matters. How do you love? How do you relate to others? Unfortunately, even though I figured it all out – the rock didn’t just vanish and set me free,” he joked.  “But, at this point I found peace and I gave up. I gave up the delusion that we are in charge of anything and I just made peace with whatever was going to come.”

After 5 days with no water, no food and no luck, Ralston didn’t have anything left so he began carving his epithet into the rock. Aron. Oct 75-Apr 2003. RIP 03.  Then, something magical happened. He had a vivid vision that he could see, feel and hear. “It was like I jumped through the sandstone walls and through sliding glass doors. A little boy – 3 years old – was playing with a truck. And, there I am. I’m watching myself and I crouch down, open my arms and I scoop him up with my left hand and a handless right arm. His blue eyes just explode – Daddy I’m glad to see you, let’s play! It was a wordless exchange, but I’m touched. And, then I’m back by the rock, stuck under the boulder, but this vision of a future son. It changed everything. If that was truly as real as it felt, I had to make it. He showed up to give me the courage to survive the night.”

As the sun rose, Ralston had an idea. “A light bulb went on it and it was more like stadium lights…that’s it!  Use the boulder, break the bones!  This smile came over me  – as weird as that is…it was maniacal and perverse, but I was happy for it.”   Ralston described – in somewhat excruciating detail – the process of breaking both bones in his arm, using his dull pocket knife to cut through them, the nerves and the skin to finally get free… “I stepped out of my grave and into my life again and it was then that I almost passed out,” he laughed. “You can imagine what it would feel like to have every moment of joy all compressed into one moment…one instant  where it was all possible coupled with all that joy of a life you have yet to live…it was overwhelming and I had a meltdown. I collapsed against the wall.”  Once again, Ralston found the strength and composure to push on. He put on a tourniquet, gathered his belongings and began to walk out of the canyon, but no before turning back to look at the rock once more. I looked back at that rock and said thank you. I gave gratitude to the boulder. It showed me what was extraordinary in me….then, I turned and walked down canyon.”

Ralston was still far from his car and any help, but due to a huge synchronicity of events involving a family of hikers, a search and rescue operation instigated by his mom and the miraculous timing  of a helicopter , Ralston reached help with minutes to spare.

But, Ralston’s talk didn’t stop here. He took those lessons he learned in the canyon and has made them part of his life. He has a son named Leo – for the bravery he inspired within his dad years before he was even born and he has prioritized spending time with family and friends and giving back in whatever way he can.  “I learned it’s not enough to enrich our own lives, but we need to enrich other people’s lives – to be there when someone else needs it,” he says. “I gained an understanding of what is important and I realized I would gladly cut off my arm to get back to those things – to be with my family and friends again. So, when those boulders come think about what they might give you. What might you be grateful for? And see if you can’t turn your boulders into blessings, too.”

A huge part of giving back now also involves the conservation work Ralston is a part of – specifically working to secure wilderness and protect the desert canyons he loves so much. “These places need a voice and so many of the places we love – including a lot of the Canyonlands are not protected.”  Go to http://www.suwa.org/issues/greatercanyonlands/ for more info.