IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Desperate days in Blue John Canyon

Marking the six-month anniversary of his fateful accident, Aron Ralston returns with NBC's Tom Brokaw for the first time to the canyon where he nearly died after being trapped by an 800-pound boulder.
/ Source: NBC News

Aron Ralston had set out for a carefree desert hike through Blue John Canyon in Southeastern Utah when, with no warning, he had descended into hell. The young man's arm was trapped by an 800-pound boulder and he was forced to make an unimaginable decision in order to survive.

Ralson: "And I was hanging from the boulder, from the top of it, where the last good handholds were. And that was when it shifted. So I dropped down here... and the boulder came and it smashed my left hand here, and it smashed my right hand up here. And then it slid down and it actually dragged my arm down and my arm was right about here.

"I threw myself against the boulder, just trying to get my knee onto this boulder, just lifting up, pushing up. But still, it was -- my hand was trapped. And progressively the pain faded as my hand lost sensation."

Ralston was pinned to the canyon wall by an 800-pound boulder. He was at the bottom of a hole in a hidden canyon, 100 feet beneath the desert surface, 20 miles from the nearest paved road and surrounded by hundreds more miles of uninhabited desert. 

That's when Aron Ralston realized that he had violated one of the most basic rules of the outdoors. Always make sure someone knows where you are. But in a lapse from his normal routine, Aron had not told a soul. He wasn't expected back at work for days. No one would miss him, and when they did, they wouldn't know where to begin to look.

Ralston: "I thought I was going to die."

He soon realized there might be only one way to survive.

Tom Brokaw: "Did you think about amputating right away?"

Ralston: "I pretty well knew that that was at least an option I had to consider. And that I really didn't want to have to do that."

Knowing his chances of survival were slim, Aron picked up his video camera and began recording messages that he hoped would be found after his death.

Canyon tape: "My name is Aron Ralston. My parents are Donna and Larry Ralston of Englewood, Co. Whoever finds this, please make an attempt to get it to them. Be sure of it, I would appreciate it."

Five long days after becoming trapped, Aron lost hope...

Ralston: "I'd taken the knife, and I'd etched into the wall the four letters of my name. Just to identify who this body that was here. And I etched, ‘October 75’ above my name.  And I etched, ‘April ‘03’ below my name. And I wrote, ‘RIP’ right there."

Ralston had carved his own epitaph. His gravestone was Bluejohn's majestic walls. He recorded his last message to his family, asking to be cremated, and instructing them where to spread his ashes. He prayed to God, and found peace. Aron was ready to accept death. 

Canyon tape: "So again love to everyone. Bring love and peace and happiness and beautiful lives into the world in my honor. Thank you. Love you."

On the morning of his final day trapped inside the canyon, Ralston knew what he had to do to survive. He had to cut off his arm that was pinned by the heavy boulder.

That would be followed by a 65-foot rappel, and one more seemingly impossible task. With one arm, bleeding profusely, starved and dehydrated, close to shock, Ralston would have to hike seven miles out of the canyon in the direct midday sun. Then there would be an 800-foot vertical climb to the trailhead and his truck. The nearest hospital was a several hour drive. 

As he summoned his strength for the seven-mile hike that lay ahead, rescuers were converging near his truck, at the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead.