Aron Ralston may have America’s most famous amputation. In 2003, Ralston was an adventurous 27-year-old who had left a job as an Intel engineer to attempt to climb all 59 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks—solo, in winter. That May, during a solo canyoneering trip in Utah’s remote Blue John Canyon, the future author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place accidently dislodged an 800-pound boulder, which slammed down the desert slot canyon and pinned Ralston’s right hand against the wall. Knowing he could not expect rescuers, Ralston survived for six days on sips of water and his own urine while trying to extricate his arm. On the sixth day, he realized that his trapped hand was already putrefying, so he snapped both bones of his forearm and used the blunt blade of a cheap multi-tool to cut through the soft tissues to amputate it. Still eight miles from his truck, he rappelled 65 feet down a cliff face and hiked six miles under the desert sun before encountering a family who alerted rescuers.
The incident vaulted Ralston into a media frenzy. In the past six years, he has been the subject of countless interviews and articles, including appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and a Dateline NBC special called “Desperate Days in Blue John Canyon.” He has since gone on to complete his mountaineering project as well as many other adventures, including becoming an author, motivational speaker, and advocate for preserving the wilderness.
The O&P EDGE: When I look over your writing and speeches, I see is you as someone who is now living some really big questions about human motivation and the purpose of life—
Ralston: As we all are!
The O&P EDGE: …well, it seems like you may be putting more focus on this than most people. In 2005, you completed your seven-year project to become the first person to solo climb, in winter, all of Colorado’s ‘fourteeners’ [14,000-ft. peaks]. What was it like to go back to that project after your injury?
Ralston: It was very important to me to take it up again because in my mind, it was the ultimate test of my self-reliance. I saw it as the answer to a question—if I ever doubted myself, my life, finishing the project could answer that. It was extremely challenging at the level of climbing that I was capable of before my accident. To pick that up again, to get to that level again, would test me doubly. And thanks in part to the prosthetics and the people who worked with me on those, I was successful in not only finishing the project but also using it as a growth point, to challenge myself and get back to my pre-accident level of independence and self-reliance, and then to even move beyond that to what I see as the really important parts of my life, which are relationships. On Valentine’s Day, I proposed to my girlfriend, and she said yes. That’s definitely the big news in my life.
The O&P EDGE: Congratulations! Now you’re planning a marriage, you’re still adventuring, you have a speaking career, and you’ve published a book. A lot of people who are dealing with an amputation really want a life of joy and fulfillment like you’ve created for yourself. What would you say to them?
Ralston: Find what challenges and inspires you because inspiration will motivate you over the obstacles that are certainly going to come up. And know that any endeavor is going to be challenging, and if you don’t have motivation, your challenges, no matter how small, will be daunting, and you’ll never do what you set out to do. But with self-inspired motivation, there’s probably nothing too big to stop you.
Drifting along without feeling motivated or inspired to do much is a challenge that I’ve faced, which had nothing to do with my injury, but much more with the question, “What’s my purpose?” That’s something a lot of people struggle with. I say that the answers to that question are really inside you—and that’s tricky because our ego sometimes puts so many things in the way of our intuition that we don’t know what’s inside of us. Getting through that takes incredible discipline.
The O&P EDGE: What are the major outdoor events that have happened for you in the last few years?
Ralston: I climbed the highest peaks in Mexico and South America and some Central American countries—
The O&P EDGE: Wait, are we talking 17,000 feet, 15,000—how high?
Ralston: In Mexico were some fifteens, some seventeens, and the highest one was 18,600. In South America, the highest one I climbed was Aconcagua [22,841 feet], which I climbed with a team in 2005. And then I solo-climbed the third-highest mountain in South America, which was a really beautiful experience of solitude—the most alone I’ve ever been in my life. Physically speaking, I was probably the only person in [about 63,000] square miles. And that is very, very alone…. Some of my friends helped coach me through running a couple of the Colorado 100-mile ultramarathons, the Leadville 100 and then the Hardrock 100—I think at the time I was only the 12th person under the age of 30 to have even finished Hardrock. Picking up scuba diving as a recreational sport was a huge thing for me—I’ve always had a fear of being in the ocean—little fish nibble on your toes and all of a sudden you decide you’re never going into water where you can’t touch bottom again.
I got back into rafting starting in 2005 or so and have my own raft now and have taken it on excursions on several of the big rivers in the West. Piloting my boat down through Cataract Canyon, Desolation Canyon, the Grand Canyon—those had all the elements I love: hiking and adventure on the river and the comforts of friendships and being able to have a comfortable sleeping pad and gourmet food.
The O&P EDGE: You told the New York Times in March that at some point you realized your drive for adventure was pushed by an “ego-building and need-fulfilling place,” and that now you want love to be the source of what you do. How did you come to that conclusion, and what does that mean to you?
Ralston: Adventure is still a very important part of me because it’s part of how I learn about myself, but I started asking myself, “Why am I doing this?” Whether it was the solo winter fourteener project or climbing the highest mountains in South America or even climbing Denali and skiing down from the summit this year, part of it served as ego fulfillment. Why am I attracted to something that has such great potential—and even likelihood—of being very uncomfortable if not actually dangerous? And honestly answering that question, I saw that I have fragility in my sense of identity and confidence. By testing myself and coming through that test, I was proving myself and finding self-knowing. The transition has come from seeing that I’ve probably proven myself enough, and yet I still find myself highly attracted to adventures. So now I’ve moved on to a higher level: self-knowing, being with friends and loved ones in my day-to-day life, and treating my time with my fiancée and our families and friends as being as precious as when I’m on adventures. I’ve been an introvert and isolated myself at times, and I’ve been ostracized and pushed away at other times. So the shift is part of my sense of higher purpose. Drawing in and getting close to people and connecting is kind of the antidote to those past patterns.
The O&P EDGE: That’s very moving. So what’s next for you?
Ralston: I want to steer the conversation toward what I see as a big shift—from going on adventures just for my own hedonistic pleasure and solitude—and I still do experience the pleasure and solitude of them—but now my friends and I are building memories together and sharing work that helps people protect the landscape and the wildlife that depends on them. My environmental advocacy has taken on a huge portion of my nonprofit and volunteer time. I participate routinely in the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), which is working to protect nine million acres of land, including Blue John Canyon. I also sit on the board of the Wilderness Workshop, which protects Colorado wilderness and is working to draft what’s called the Hidden Gems Proposal—Colorado has its wilderness crown jewels, like the Maroon Bells, but then there are these mid-elevation hidden gems that are even more ecologically important for wildlife. They’re vital habitat for the keystone species—the indicator species that tell us how the health of our environment is doing—as well as the game species and the endangered species.
I also have the film adaptation of my book that we’re working through contracts with a director, so I’m going to be in London for a little bit, then a rafting expedition, and then a three-week trip to climb Kilimanjaro with my sister and brother-in-law. So I’ve got kind of a full plate for the next couple of months, as well as organizing for my wedding.