(Aron and myself, Denver, CO)
Two weeks ago, I found myself seated next to Aron Ralston for lunch. Aron is the remarkable man who famously cut his right forearm off with a dull pocketknife to escape certain death after falling down a canyon wall and coming to rest underneath an 800 lb boulder. A group that I belong to, Entrepreneurs Organization, had invited him to share his experiences from that ordeal (which was made into the motion picture “127 hours”). As I take in Aron, I’m struck by his humility, his intelligence and a serene sense of gratitude. It’s a very different vibe than what I got from Lance Armstrong, which you can read about in Lance Armstrong – Career Management Lessons, who I met earlier that same day. Lance left with me questions but Aron left with me hope. In this blog, I’ll try to capture his amazing story and share what Aron described as the “gifts” he received from his near death experience.
In Aron’s words, “we all have our boulders. They can be a challenge or a blessing.” In everyday life, these boulders often show up as what he calls the 3 Ds – Death, Depression and Disease. There are many other boulders that could be added to the list, such as losing a job. Aron again, “We can turn the trauma into a tragedy or a triumph.” In case you’re wondering what Aron’s boulder looked like…
A mechanical engineer by trade, Aron appraised the situation and considered his options. It looked bleak. His efforts to lift the rock via pulleys proved pointless. So too were his efforts to chip the rock away to free up his arm. To complicate matters, the location was extremely remote and he hadn’t told a soul where he was going. As night fell, the temperatures plummeted into the low 40s causing him to shiver violently. Low on water, low on food and with almost no chance of someone finding him, he started to accept that he was standing in his grave. His last option was to cut off his arm, put on a tourniquet and hope that he didn’t bleed out before he could reach his truck, 15 miles away. As he considered this, he thought “it’s just a slow act of suicide.”
Gift 1 – Aron had brought a video recorder with him which he used to leave what would most likely be his last will and testament (watch Aron Ralston’s Read Video Footage). As he captured his thoughts, he was struck by what wasn’t on the tape he was recording. Aron recounted, “My life had been about what I did. That was the first time it was about who I was. My (life) choices were showing up as regrets.” Every moment on that tape was a message to or about the people he loved. “None of my accomplishments were on that tape.”
In Aron’s words, “What’s on your tape?”
Gift 2 – At the start of the 3rd morning he pulled out his knife and started cutting. What little edge the blade had he’d dulled from his efforts to scrape away at the rock and he quickly realized that cutting his arm off wasn’t a possibility. Taking a break, he shot more video. At that moment he received his 2nd gift. Aron shared, “As I was saying my last words I noticed that I was smiling. What I was going through was that there is no force on earth more powerful than love.” This force would later prove to be the only thing strong enough to carry him through.
(Aron recounting his time in the desert)
Gift 3 – The morning of the 4th day, he realized that he didn’t have to saw his arm off; he could strike his way through. He gave it a try and it worked! At this point someone asked if this hurt. To that, he smiled. His previous 10 in pain was slamming a door shut on his fingers as a child. That was now a 0. Undeterred, he started hacking away until he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to cut through the bone. “At this point, I’ve lost 25 lbs. In the video screen I could see how gaunt I was. It’s coming…” That’s when he prayed and received his 3rd gift – courage. “Indomitable resolve. That’s how I made it to the 5th day, when I gave up.”
Gift 4 – The morning of the 5th day, Aron realized “that it wasn’t up to me. Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking that we are at the root of our successes. No matter what I did, I had no control over my outcome.” At 110 hours he gave up and accepted. He had been rationing his last piece of a convenience store burrito. It was so dry, Aron remembers that “I had to dunk it in my own urine to be able to eat it. This was the definition of a bad day.”
As the shivering set in and he was fading from consciousness he was certain he was entering his next chapter when Aron “saw a vision of my son.” From that vision he found his 4th gift, his why? and the strength to try again. As the dawn came up on that 6th morning, Aron shared that “stadium lights went off.” He realized that he could get out by breaking the bone. “I’m going to get a hug from my mom!” With that, he found the strength and “stepped out of my grave and into my life. If you could imagine every moment of joy you’ve experienced in your life it couldn’t hold a candle to what I felt.” Freed from his boulder, Aron started off on the long, painful hike out. If you’re into goose bump inducing endings, I suggest you watch 127 hours. His story has an amazing ending.
Aron’s Life, Part 2 – That experience in the Utah wilds back in 2003 completely altered Aron’s life but it didn’t change his dreams. Aron has gone back into the wilds to complete his original quest to summit all 59 of Colorado’s fourteen thousand foot peaks, alone, in winter. He is the first person to accomplish this feat. One change is that he tells people where he’s going. More importantly, Aron’s vision of meeting his son came to be. Now a motivational speaker, he lives in Boulder and makes his living by sharing his remarkable story.
Facing our Boulders – For me, the most powerful part of Aron’s story is simply his example. He faced his boulder alone, with an open mind, an open heart and with a level of determination that was (to steal his word) “indomitable”. I’m struck with how little time he spent feeling sorry for himself and I’m in awe of his grit. As I boarded my plane to fly back to Seattle I left with a profound sense of gratitude. I felt grateful that I met Aron and heard his story. For my part, I’ll “choose” to look at the “boulders” take come into my life as a potential blessing. Thank you Aron.