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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: The Instinctive 127 Hours

Why Aron Ralston's survival required more than a multi-tool

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

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Could not thinking too hard help you survive like Ralston? (Chuck Zlotnick)
Could not thinking too hard help you survive like Ralston? (Chuck Zlotnick)

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If you haven’t seen 127 Hours, the movie adaptation of Aron Ralston’s survival story, keep reading this post. But once you’re done, go see it. Not since the church fresco scene in The English Patient (1996) has a Best Picture-nominated film depicted such creative climbing rope and harness work.

I’ll assume you’re familiar with Ralston’s 2003 ordeal. If not, here’s the official eight-word synopsis: Canyon, rock, stuck, five days, multi-tool, tourniquet, fame. This post isn’t about whether Aron Ralston is a hero or a dunce. Heck, he’s already admitted he made boneheaded mistakes in his bestselling book. And now those blunders are the subject of a blockbuster movie. How many of us would welcome that level of attention to our own hiking missteps?

And while most of us claim we wouldn’t make the same poor choices that led Ralston to his five-day jam, it’s equally true that, if trapped like him, most of us wouldn’t have lived, let alone returned to hiking, climbing, and skiing with only one arm. Countless solo hikers who faced similar odds ended up dead. Many of their stories have appeared in Backpacker, including John Donovan’s 2005 disappearance on Mt. San Jacinto and Mike Turner’s 1998 entrapment by boulders in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

What made Ralston’s outcome different? A sheltered canyon? Yes. The ability to self-amputate? Certainly. His lucky encounter of rescuers soon after freeing himself? Probably vital. But Ralston needed something more. Most of us could tolerate 24 or 48 hours in a similar spot. But to endure the full 127 hours, Ralston needed his hidden survival instincts to kick in. Here are three of those instincts, and how they kept him alive.

1) Inventory Your Gear 
Wait. Organizing your gear isn’t instinctive. It’s intentional, right? Perhaps, but consider what happened in Blue John Canyon. Half an hour after getting stuck, Ralston was still amped with angry adrenaline, he’d drunk one-third of his remaining water, and his brain veered toward dire, profanity-laced conclusions. Then he stops and slows everything down by emptying his pack and placing each item on top of the boulder that trapped him. Two bean burritos. A CD player (after all, this was 2003). An LED headlamp. A cheap multi-tool, and so on. 

The methodical act of inventorying his gear altered his entire situation by slowing his breathing, focusing his mind, and improving his outlook. No longer was Ralston thinking about dying. Instead, he began brainstorming all the ways he could use his gear to survive. So the instinct I'm referring to here wasn’t the act of organizing—it was how his mind and body responded to this methodical, rationale process. The same calming effect can occur when—after the initial panic of realizing you are hopelessly lost—you stop moving, sit down, add a layer of clothing, eat and drink, and consider your options.

2) Rely on Routines 
Boredom can kill. Just ask anyone who’s sat through a kid’s piano recital. Except recitals rarely exceed three hours. Ralston’s ordeal lasted 127 hours. What do those hours feel like? Well, if you sat down at your desk on Monday at 9 a.m., it means you couldn’t visit the water cooler until 4 p.m. on Saturday. Heck, even Microsoft Solitaire loses its appeal after three days.

To cope with his isolation and boredom, Ralston relied on both natural and artificial routines. Like organizing gear, following routines isn’t instinctive. What is automatic, however, is our hunger to create them. Schedules, rationing, and predictability enable us to function better in chaotic situations. Studies prove that humans deprived of normal light-and-dark cycles are more stressed, less alert, and suffer more medical ailments.

Natural routines are easy; you just need to notice them. Two that are beautifully depicted in the movie are the 15-minute burst of sunlight that warmed Ralston’s body every morning, and the punctual raven that overflew his canyon prison each day. With little else to remind him of the outside world, these dependable events got him through the nights.

Ralston’s self-made routines were even more essential. Within an hour of getting trapped, Ralston began chipping at the boulder with his multi-tool. Even after these efforts showed little progress, he continued to carve away. Attacking the rock, he wrote, kept him active, moving, and warm. Plus, it eventually convinced him that dramatic action, like amputating his arm, was his only hope for escape. To ration his water and food, Ralston adopted a strict eating and drinking schedule tracked by his digital watch. And at one point he decided to call for help only once a day to reduce his anxiety and panic.

You can transfer Ralston’s food, water, and "staying warm" routines to any survival situation. Other routine tasks for lost hikers could be blowing a rescue whistle every hour, calling 911 from prominent ridgelines and peaks, singing songs, and periodically checking for signs of hypothermia.

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READERS COMMENTS

Gabbz
Feb 22, 2011

The guy had a great deal of patience and self control being stuck out there for as long as he was. I can't wait to see how well he handles the pressure tomorrow night when he's trying to win money for charity on NBCs Minute to Win It. He's going from 127 hours to 60 seconds, and I for one can't wait to see if he makes it to the Million dollar game!

Dadatrey
Feb 05, 2011

My hats off to Ralston. What an amazing thing to say you've seen an inevitable death and managed to survive. Ever since my first adventures in nature's playground, I've always been more interested in the idea of what could happen and how would I react. I've personally been in more hairy situations than I'd like to admit but not because of lack of preparation or attention to detail. No offense to the McCandless family but that is ill preparation although Chris represented the courage of ten men. I've read his journal while physically sitting where he laid to rest. Not your typical hero but a reminder of what we potentially face when we decide life is what we make it. As history tells it, life is only as valuable as the people who have chose to live it, without relinquishing the courage to live through it! That's what Chris and Aaron brought to the table. Are you one of those people or are you the person that sits on the sidelines waiting for the opportunity to grade somebody on how they performed during life's most trying moments?

Argosinu
Feb 04, 2011

The article implies that drinking water was an error. I have heard and read that water should not be rationed – water is best stored in the body (within reason) to keep functionality high.

Maybe wat is just an article space problem, but blowing the whistle every hour should include the distress code: 3 blows. And one period of whistleblowing an hour, not one distress call/hour.

Wild Ranger
Feb 04, 2011

As a Wilderness Ranger for many years I can attest to the fact that some folks have a strong survival instinct and some dont. The latter dont allow themselves the time to fully think through their situation, formulate a plan and execute it in a calm, calculating manner. Instead they rush off, even seperating from their companions in a state of panic, the results sometimes deadly.

Jesse K.
Feb 02, 2011

Like so many things, I think survival is a combination of instinct and learned behavior. Some people, like Ralston, react constructively when things go south, and others react destructively.

Modern society is rapidly pushing us further and further away from our evolutionary past, but deep inside almost all of us, the animal instinct that wills us to keep moving and drives us well beyond our perceived limits is still there when we need it. However, in reading Ralston's book after seeing the movie, he clearly had the knowledge and experience that allowed him to overcome a situation that would have killed 99% of us, regardless of our will to live.

Finally, sometimes more important than instinct AND knowledge is that intangible we call luck.

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