A Boulder and a Blessing

Carnegie Mellon alumnus Aron Ralston and the inspiration for 127 Hours returned to his alma mater to give graduates advice on how to conquer life—one cliffhanger at a time.

The math didn’t add up: Aron Ralston was always good with numbers—so good that he earned his degree in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. But as he desperately chipped away at the 800-pound boulder that was crushing his hand—shackling him to the pitch-black depths of Utah’s Blue John Canyon—the numbers were insurmountable. At the rate he was going, it would take more than 150 hours to free himself. With the meager supplies he had in his backpack, it was a death sentence. The 28-year-old adventurer thought about everything that went wrong: his decision to hike alone and enter the canyon without backup, the misfortune of the falling boulder trapping him—and even his choice to quit his job at Intel to pursue the very passion that lead him to his current situation.

“You cannot imagine the value of a glass of water until you’ve gone six days without it,” Ralston says.

For nearly a week, he nibbled and sipped and thought. Then, suddenly in the silence, something started hissing. It was the decomposition gases escaping from his entombed hand. Ralston realized that part of him was dying—and the rest would follow suit. As his hand whispered, he thought about all the beauty and love in this life: his family and how they understood his decision to leave the cubicle to dive headstrong into canyons. His friends at CMU and the way they used to toss the football a little too far on lazy summer days—right into the path of a pretty girl walking in the grass along Forbes Avenue—and how they used to unwind from exam stress by ordering pancakes and taking syrup shots at Ritter’s Diner at 3 a.m.

“The story of how I got out of the canyon became national news,” Ralston says, “but I want people to understand the motivation for why I was there in the first place. I left my career to pursue a different path as a mountain guide, and that passion led me to the bottom of the canyon. But my passion for life also led me out of it.”

Since Ralston was only armed with a utility knife, cutting through bone was impossible. Luckily, the engineer knew all about torque. So, he found the precise angle—the proper point of leverage to deconstruct his arm. The whip-snap of bone echoed off the canyon walls. Clinging to consciousness, he sawed in short busts with the dull two-inch knife. Every desperate pass of the blade filled him with pain and hope. When he got to the arteries, he fashioned a tourniquet out of his water bottle’s insulated lining. When marrow gave way to tendons, the chintzy knife was useless, so he flipped open the pliers on his multitool and started twisting. Finally, the nerves: The fire. The searing wires that chained him to the canyon wall. Euphoric and entranced with pain, he severed the umbilical cords and fell onto his back. When he opened his eyes, there was the blue sky right there for the taking.

“In that moment, I was born again,” he says. With one hand, he scaled the canyon wall and walked through the desert for hours before a family of hikers discovered him. Now 35, Ralston has found success as a motivational speaker and author. The certified nerd has become, to his own befuddlement, a certified badass. Last fall, the Oscar-nominated film 127 Hours dramatized his harrowing escape from the canyon in 2003.

“My experience is something that’s inside all of us,” he says. “I’m no superhuman. If you find courage or strength in my story, it’s also in you.” In May, Ralston addressed the graduates of his alma mater as CMU’s 2011 commencement speaker, a unique challenge in troubling economic times.

“Lots of people feel lost and adrift after graduating from college—call it a quarter-life crisis,” he says. “To me, life is about following passion. At a university, you learn how to achieve a goal. That’s the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what you want out of life and having the courage to take that step, not just following what’s laid out in front of you.”

Now married with a young son, Ralston still finds time to climb mountains and dive deep into canyons with the help of a prosthesis. “I often tell people, ‘May your boulder be your blessing,’” he says. “I left something behind in that canyon, but I look at it as a gift. You have to treasure every stage of life—your first dorm room, your first child, your first job—because it’s all transient. That’s part of the preciousness of it.”

Categories: Community Feature, From the Magazine