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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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3) Daydream Away

Interspersed throughout the book and the movie are Ralston’s daydreams about water, food, past loves, previous adventures, and his family. With nothing else to do, remembering became his primary recreational activity. And unlike his “Oh my God, I’m gonna die!” thoughts, casual daydreaming actually helped him stay focused and alive. In fact, it took visions of his yet-to-be-conceived son—a blond three-year-old boy in a red polo short—to propel the delirious Ralston to finally break his arm bones and slice through the flesh. The purpose of dreaming is to organize our memories—to determine which ones to keep, which to discard, and which mean the most to us. In stressful situations, daydreams naturally occupy our brain with warm, positive, and encouraging images.

I’ve never tried to amputate my arm, but I’m a pro at daydreaming. Ten years ago I worked on a sheep farm in the Borders region of Scotland. My job was to care for 400 pregnant ewes and deliver their newborn lambs. But when the sheep we’re giving birth, I spent most of my 16-hour days standing around letting my mind wander. Like Ralston, I relived past memories, dissected old conversations, and vowed—given the chance—to fix the mistakes I’d made. By the time my two weeks on the farm finished up, I didn’t feel reborn like Ralston, but I did sort out a lot of personal history.

Is survival instinctive or learned? Or what lessons did you discover in 127 Hours? Post a comment, or send an email to

—Jason Stevenson

idiot's guide to backpacking and hikingJason Stevenson is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

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Reader Rating: -


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!

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?

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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