By Scott F. Rosenfeld
Photos courtesy Aron Ralston
After his very famous brush with death, Aron Ralston continues to rock on, appearing this May as
Carnegie Mellon University’s commencement speaker.
Aron Ralston is a little bit of a nerd.
The 35-year-old mountaineer and motivational speaker has a best-selling book — and now, an Oscar-nominated film — to his name, but as we talk, I hear the same thing I’ve heard from my classmates for the last four years: the passionate ramblings of someone who just thinks what he’s doing is really cool. Whether sounding off about his love for the outdoors or recounting his recent trip down the red carpet, Ralston exudes the kind of excitement that makes you wonder if you love what you’re doing as much as he does. It might be that enthusiasm that made him an obvious choice to deliver the keynote speech at Carnegie Mellon University’s commencement ceremony on May 15, where it just so happens that I’ll
be sitting among the students, ready to receive my diploma.
For Ralston, who himself graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Engineering, it’s a little strange to be telling a group of students sitting where he was not too long ago how to put their education to use in the real world. “The irony, of course, is that I’m no longer an engineer, nor am I using my French degree to anyone’s benefit,” he laughs. “But if there’s anything great about that education, it’s that it teaches you how to learn. And you need that skill first and foremost: to learn how to do new things.”
As for his own time as a student in Pittsburgh, Ralston doesn’t remember getting out much: “If we ever did show our faces in public, it was to go to The O,” he jokes. But he does mention the rare opportunities he had to take advantage of the Pennsylvania terrain, hiking and mountain biking in Summit and Slippery Rock State Parks. These little tastes of the outdoors during college confirmed the passion for adventure he’d felt growing up in Colorado.
It was his thirst for adventure that led Ralston to leave the engineering job he’d scored with Intel after graduating to take up work as a mountain guide and set out to climb the country’s tallest peaks. It was during a vacation from these mountaineering pursuits that Ralston would face circumstances that would forever change his life.
While Ralston was hiking in Utah’s Blue John Canyon back in 2003, a boulder dislodged and fell onto his right arm, trapping him in the canyon for five days without any way to call for help. Having reached the end of his water supply and videotaped goodbyes to his friends and family, he finally decided to use a cheap tool he was carrying with him to cut off his arm and escape to safety.
“Stepping forward, it was certainly relying on those friends and loved ones that got me through it,” Ralston says of life after the accident. “The best part of life is those relationships. They’re our greatest strength and asset as we head into new challenges.”
Ralston reflected on the experience in Utah in his autobiography, Between A Rock and a Hard Place, which shot to the top of the bestseller list in 2004. But even after losing his arm, Ralston remained a dedicated adventure-seeker, climbing the 59 tallest peaks in Colorado during the wintertime — he is the only person to have completed the ascents as solo climbs during the winter — and inspiring others with his expeditions around the world. This past year, Ralston’s story made it to the big screen in the film 127 Hours, with actor James Franco starring as Ralston.
In the beginning, Ralston was a little skeptical of the choice in casting. “I didn’t have faith in him at first because I thought, ‘Oh, he’s sort of a pretty boy. He looks handsome in a tuxedo,’” the climber confesses. “How would he look playing me, which was more or less the question, ‘How much can he look like a corpse?’” Then, Ralston had a chance to see some of Franco’s more dramatic work, including 2002’s City by the Sea, in which Franco plays a heroin addict, and he grew more optimistic. When the film premiered,
he was amazed.
“He blew it away,” Ralston says. “My sister said it was hard because she had to keep reminding herself that it was James Franco and not me.”
Though Ralston was thrilled at the performance, James Franco’s authentic portrayal also heightened the emotional impact for Ralston of seeing his near-death experience play out again right in front of him.
“When I watched it, I was often sobbing because — here I am sitting with my family and my best friends, the people who matter the most to me. I spoke to them during my entrapment. The underlying emotion of all of that was the experience of love and the gratitude of the people who shared that love with me in my life.”
The film garnered six Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actor nod for Franco’s performance, which meant that Ralston got the chance to rub elbows with Hollywood elite at the ceremony in February. He attended with his wife, Jessica, who enjoyed the perks of the star treatment with a custom-made gown for the event. But despite the excitement of sitting within arm’s reach of Donald Trump or exchanging words with Colin Firth moments before his Oscar win, Ralston confesses that the fanfare had caught up with him. “I think at that point, we were ready to be done with it and come back to Boulder, to have our private life again rather than the very public life of red carpet and about 50 interviews over the course of two hours.”
Part of that life is his son, Leo, born in early 2010. Ralston still likes to think of himself as an adventure seeker, but he has scaled back on the danger a little bit for now to enjoy the new adventure of parenthood. And while he might have grown a little weary of the buzz around the movie, he is grateful to the filmmakers for giving him a pretty novel way to connect with his son in six or seven years.
For Ralston, it’s that connection to his loved ones that propels him toward each new goal. He credits his family and friends for inspiring him to survive in Utah and for supporting him in each new endeavor he takes on. “There is something that motivates all of us, and that one thing is enough for us to do things way beyond what we think for ourselves. For me, it was these relationships. It was my loved ones. It’s not just for ourselves that we live. It’s for others.”
Ralston pauses for a second, then laughs.
“So that might be my last point. You just helped me write my speech.”
I’ll be expecting a special credit in the program come graduation day.
For more information, visit cmu.edu.