Aron Ralston? He had to have been an idiot getting stuck in that canyon the way he did. That’s all I could figure at the time. Even if you kick it hard as a test, you don’t put your weight on some chintzy chockstone. Clan of half-naked desert spawn who call this region of southeast Utah home pretty much concluded he must have been some big-dick mountain climber hung with ropes and jangling gear that would never allow him to grasp the heart of this country the way we do. Too much shit to carry. Too much reliance on things that have been machined. We know what we are, trust me, spacemen with our packs and our silent little alcohol stoves made out of Coke cans stuffed with fiberglass insulation. We know how to strip down, but not without comforts, our jammies and chocolates. We go light, but not too light. I figure that’s the best we can do, and, from there on, it’s gravy. A group of us has been soloing and tag-teaming out here for a couple decades, first-class nimrods apprehending this landscape. That’s why this guy rankled us. This was our territory. What was he thinking, leading the bone-headed adventure crowd our direction? Of course he was an idiot, had to be.
I have started this review on the inside of a candy box torn open in a theater, stadium seats and a booming sound system, pen scratching in the dark on waxy-thin cardboard. It’s the movie — “127 Hours” — about Aron Ralston chocked by a boulder in a slot canyon, spending a little more than five days trapped before getting up the mad nerve to cut off his own arm and escape. Right away, I recognize nicks, notches and routes in the landscape. They had filmed high in the drainage of Horseshoe Canyon, a place I’ve been walking all my adult years. It’s studded by red buttes, articulated by countless shadowy drainages, and marched across by eerie rock art of ancient hunters and gatherers. They got the right place. This is where Aron did his brutal Houdini act, leaving his arm behind (later removed by the Park Service*). This also happens to be the very landscape I consider one of my homes. Last year, I worked from multiple points around the globe, and after each trip I came back to Horseshoe Canyon, its circular horizon distantly rimmed by the bat-winged La Sal Mountains, blue dome of Abajos, Henrys and the long, elegant rise of the San Rafael Swell, not to mention proud Book Cliffs and Roans closing the circuit to the north. Here I have chased my two little boys into slots, and sunk into my wife’s arms on sensual, bulbous rims, Navajo sandstone being the most carnal piece of geography on the planet. I come back to this region because it is familiar and grounding for an over-traveled soul.
Those I know who walk hard out here happen to love movies. After just about every wilderness trip, we would come back and pile into the Moab theater for some dazzling CGI flick. Even with such an honored pastime, I couldn’t get any of them to see this dramatization.
Dirk Vaughan, who from the beginning contended that the man’s mistake was not taking desert canyons seriously, blew out one of his usual tirades: “The dude’s a tech-head, solo climbs Fourteeners in winter, carries extreme clothes and extreme gear for extreme conditions. He gets out here in Canyonlands in shirtsleeve weather and a Kelsey guidebook to point the way and he let his guard down.
I heard him say it himself ‘I was on a vacation.’ Well, guess what, Canyonlands can kill you just as quick as a Fourteener in winter. Especially in shirtsleeves when you’re on vacation.”
His brother Devin just shrugged. Sure he’d watch, but he did not want to spend the $7 or spring for the drive.
The list of excuses goes on from person to person. I’m not giving my money to an idiot. I refuse to glorify stupidity.
But you see, I sort of had to watch it. They paid me. I don’t think I would have seen it otherwise, just a shrug. The money I got was not to actually see the movie, but to help with it. They wanted spots with a so-called expert explaining why this landscape exists in the first place. I liked the sound of that. Did I need the money? Sure. But I would have done it for free. I’m a whore when it comes to broadcasting what an awesome and twisted planet we live on, especially in a place where I have a decent grasp on local geomorphology. It was a hired production crew, desert-treading camera-folk, the kind of people I’d happily clamber around with any day. Camped in the upper arms of Horseshoe, we trundled our way across red-sand slopes and magnificent vistas, Island in the Sky brimming to the east as we hiked down toward Aron’s canyon. An excuse to wander about and get paid, I loved this job.
The slot where poor Aron had to butcher his way to survival opens like most of them do: suddenly. A cap-layer undercuts and the drainage falls into erotic bends of Navajo. Just about every slot canyon in this country has some sort of gatekeeper wedged into its entrance, a blown-out car or memorable constellations of chockstones. This one has an S-log jammed into place. Down from the S-log and along the first straightaway are knobby boulders like asteroids fallen in the path, sheaves of flash-flood debris pushed up around them. As we crawled and climbed under and over them, the crew with the cameras wanted to hear about flash floods, sandstone and erosion. Hands waving, I told them how this place came to be: boom, boom, boom.
When we reached the spot where Aron did the deed, we dispersed. Seems nobody even thought to film here. I stuck around for a while. I put my hands on the smooth, bluish rock that had lodged against his arm. It had a little bit of carbonate mixed with local sandstone making it harder than the surrounding substrate. About the size of an old television, it had been dumped in here by flash floods from about 40 feet up. I recognized it as the kind of chockstone I would have put my weight on, testing it first with a kick as Aron did, then a light hop down, giving it a second of full body weight before landing and moving ahead. I would not have expected the boulder to pivot and drop like wedge on top of me.
With fingertips, I traced chip-marks Aron had made with his dull knife blade where he tried to whittle the sandstone around the boulder, only to discover it caused the immovable object to settle more firmly. In the movie, the brave actor spends most of the film’s 94 minutes lodged against this very rock, or one just like it, moving through physical and psychological montages that always bring him back to here. To accomplish this claustrophobic task, film crews worked both in the canyon itself and on a Salt Lake City stage set they built from laser-mapped topography. There are times, sitting with a candy box unfolded on my lap, that I cannot tell canyon from stage set. Close-ups and bedding planes in Navajo sandstone are carefully filmed in situ, the real thing. After so many shittier and shittier movies made in the Southwest, finally, thank you. Even the sound of fingertips idly brushed along a rock wall sound perfect.
Oh, there is some crap in the movie, no doubt. Jumping into a luminous pool of blue water with two hot party chicks? Give me a break. The only women I’ve ever seen at this end of Horseshoe may be beautiful, but they are damn crusty by the time I get to them. Second of all, that kind of blue water you only find at the mouth of the Little Colorado or down Havasu, but not in Utahan hinterlands. Any standing water in one of these canyons would be red like blood and tomato soup, and shadowless, so that if you actually cannonballed into it, you would impale your rectum on the pike of an unseen boulder.
That’s pretty much it for gripes. The rest of the movie is startlingly close to home. There’s not a drumroll for the boulder when it falls; it just happens, like it does when a boulder actually falls. The actor himself displays the confusion, fear and self-ridicule I might expect from the situation. Having drunk my own urine in the past, I found the portrayal of Aron’s experience distastefully similar to my own.
I remember sitting on that boulder of his, looking up at the crack of the sky. It is right where the canyon deepens into dungeon-like shade. You can reach your arm in and feel the coolness pooling down there. Aron stopped by that same day, curious about what the film crew was up to. He sat on the very boulder he had hugged for those desperate days, comfortable on its lumpy top as he talked about his experience, waving his left hand around as his prosthetic claw on the right waved with it. When I asked about the effect of light while he was down here, he commented on how strangely beautiful it had been, unceremoniously describing light pouring down the walls to the bottom where it landed for only 15 minutes a day. He did not talk about discordant terror or the futility that must have seemed crushing. On day three of being trapped, he was still taking scenic pictures; it was that striking down here.
A man with a spiel, no doubt, Aron showed unexpected vulnerability. I was surprised by his candor and attentiveness. He asked many questions about the boulder itself, about its mineral composition, and queried me repeatedly through the day as to the nature of hydraulics and erosion. His were more or less the same questions I once asked of this place, the ones I continue to ask, watching the sun rise through the La Sals day after day, drinking rain and snowmelt off the rock. Of all the moments and seasons I have witnessed in this country, I was glad this particular episode happened to Aron and not me. It many ways, he was a better man for it than I.
I judge the same from the movie — no tricks or agonizingly false dramatizations, just a man on a mission through a canyon, stupid like I’ve been so many times, not telling anyone where I was going, but in ways better prepared than me. He had a date with a boulder and was fortunate enough to cut his way out from behind it and live to tell the tale. I sit through the entire movie captivated, and eventually stop writing on the candy box, just watching the experience, a new story from an old and familiar landscape.
Craig Childs lives off-grid in the West Elk Mountains of Colorado. He has written several books, the most recent, “Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession.”
* The first and most-definitive story about the Park Service’s expedition to retrieve Aron Ralson’s hand was penned by Vince Welch in Mountain Gazette #124.