When I met Aron Ralston, the man whose heroic misadventure in a Utah slot canyon is the basis for the movie 127 Hours, it was in 2004 at an event for his book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. As an experienced canyoneer and a professional guide to the slot canyons near Utah’s Zion National Park, I was spellbound by Ralston’s terrifying story. He had been trapped by a boulder and lost part of one arm through self-amputation in just the kind of place that I explored all the time.
The question posed by 127 Hours is the same one I started asking when I met Ralston seven years ago: “How strong is your will to live?” Leaving the theater after seeing the movie this fall in Santa Barbara, my thoughts plunged back to a recent close call, and in the process, my personal answer to that daunting question became clear.
Being trapped by a boulder is far from the only way to get in trouble out there. Sudden rainstorms and flash flooding can be just as dangerous. One afternoon, I was soloing the dark, undulating Zion slot canyon called The Subway when a strong wind blew in carrying with it the unmistakable scent of rain. The first sharp clap of thunder that exploded overhead echoed down the canyon walls like a freight train. I felt my heart pound and my muscles tense.
The smell of rain turned to a downpour, and the dry red ground became a muddy slick within minutes. I thrashed my way through willows, trying to get as far downstream and out of the narrow canyon as possible. I needed to get out of the canyon immediately. I crisscrossed the rocky creek carefully, running whenever I encountered solid ground. It was in one of these sprints that I tripped over an exposed root and fell heavily in a face-first body slam to the rocky clay. Picking myself up, I realized that I had been close to panic. As I huddled under the safety of an enormous overhanging wall, drank some water, and took a few deep breaths, I considered the seriousness of the situation. It was already raining hard, I still had more than 4 miles to go to reach the exit, and even if the pending flash flood wasn’t deadly, I could still easily be trapped here overnight.
Somewhere under that controlled panic, I came to terms with my mortal condition. Finding that I was unafraid to die, my pleading prayers for deliverance turned to gratitude, and life had never had more meaning.
It was time to make my move.
Suddenly I felt dialed-in. I was acutely aware of everything—the cold raindrops hitting my skin, the earthy aroma of sagebrush in the rain, and the coarse, slippery mud under my hands as I clawed up the steep bank. I felt the individual thump of each heartbeat telling me exactly what pace would keep me from fatiguing too soon. Underfoot, hundreds of juvenile toads scrambled to avoid my feet.
“Southwestern toads,” I thought, unable to escape my training as a wildlife biologist, even now …
I made it out safely with a wide-eyed grin of relief. Now, thanks to Danny Boyle’s wonderful film, and the natural beauty that is southern Utah, I feel like my long period of self-doubt has ended. Like Ralston, the canyons are where my mind has registered the most vivid moments imaginable, and where, in the face of fear and death, I have come to terms with my mortality. I’ve run with the river gods, spoken with Pacha Mama, and even glimpsed God himself.
Perhaps I know what made Ralston do it, after all.
Melanie Webb is an S.B.-based fitness trainer and adventure leader. She organizes custom backpacking adventures all over the world and conducts regular Alpine Fitness Retreats at the Sundance Resort in Utah. For more information, contact Sol Fitness Adventures at soladventure.com or 722-4599.