Story and Photos by Brett Sutteer
Aron Ralston’s’ book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, made it on the NY Times Bestseller List, propelled him onto the talk show circuit, and finally into the homes of millions along with Tom Brokaw’s Nightline. As a the owner of a climbing and canyoneering guide service who guides in Bluejohn Canyon where Ralston was pinned, I have a vested interest and closeness to his story—yet I could not bring myself to purchase a copy of his book. Naive kids overestimating their skills and underestimating Mother Nature is a story repeated here in Moab seemingly on a weekly basis.
Having spent the last 25 years as an outdoor professional and desert goof-off, I’ve known quite a few friends who bit the dust doing what they love—one moment they were bouncing down a mountain with a silly grin on their face then, SHAZAM—they’re an angel, asking “whoa, what happened!?” A lot of folks who don’t spend time in the outdoors are missing an appreciation of the sheer power of gravity, which can ravage a perfectly beautiful and unsuspecting creature in a matter of seconds. In many ways nature was kind to Aron Ralston. The young adventurer who was forced to amputate his right arm wasn’t squished like a bug but only pinned in place forcing him to turn off the tunes and take inventory of his life up to that point—something that we all should do before making our New Year’s resolutions.
I felt a renewed sense of obligation to read the book after receiving a call from a guy in London who was thinking of making a film about Aron’s story. But even after meeting the upbeat and modest film director, Danny Boyle, I doubted the sensibility of repeating this story with a Hollywood twist. However, they hired me as a guide, not a consultant.
Later, while accompanying Danny and the ever-humble Aron Ralston to the “hard place” on a hot day in August, I got to hear Aron explain his ordeal first hand and matter-of-factly with Danny. The director and a couple of the producers posed thought-provoking questions, bringing out the details of a very human experience: “Why go downstream when there was danger in rappelling while so delirious?” “What did it feel like to walk out of the canyon and into the brilliant sunlight for the first time?” Their questions piqued my own curiosity and Aron’s responses were honest and grounded—displaying none of the naïve bravado I had assumed would be present.
Next, the writer, Simon Beaufoy, who adapted Aron’s story along with Danny Boyle, flew all the way in from London to see first hand the Aron’s entrapment site. After the 20 minute helicopter flight from Moab to Bluejohn Canyon, we quickly descended to Aron’s rock where Simon confidently and enthusiastically declared “I’m going get that rock an Oscar!” I watched Simon, an old climber himself, make quick work of the dark narrows down-canyon and thirty minutes later we were back in the chopper and Simon was on his way back to England. His enthusiasm was contagious and I found myself marveling at how quickly the process was moving and more than a little curious as to how they would pull this off.
As winter descended, the desert of southern Utah received an unusual amount of snow and cold temperatures. But each week I’d get another call, with another team needing to see the “rock and a hard place.” Multiple times the art department needed access in order to map the canyon and match paint chips so that they may have the tools to construct another canyon in exact scale inside an old furniture warehouse in Salt Lake City. They brought in a high-dollar camera, called a LIDAR, to create 3d images of the canyons’ features which could then be run thru a computer program from which foam blocks could then be machined to the exact dimensions of the canyon and its rocky contents. On another trip, a crew hiked in heaters to melt the 20-plus inches of snow so that rubberized latex could be smeared onto the rock in order to capture the water-polished texture and cross-beddings of the sandstone. After the latex dried it was then peeled off and taken to the Salt Lake set to mold the surface of the fake canyon.
The unusually cold winter presented another challenge: fog. Short winter days with high humidity and low temperatures meant the helicopter pilots became increasingly nervous about flying—and landing—with such fickle visibility. On one occasion we had two groups of five and only one A-Star helicopter shuttling us to Bluejohn from Moab. After we’d all seen the “RalStone” my group was flown through the clouds and fog to scout a canyon near Lake Powell and dropped off. The pilot then returned to the other group to transport them back to the Moab airport.
Unbeknownst to us the fog had closed in around Moab as daylight faded and the pilot, unable to see the airport landing pad, vainly flew in circles, fuel gauge on empty while the airport staff, using hand-held radios, stood outside trying to steer him in by sound! After a close encounter with some nearby power lines, the sun broke through for a split second allowing a glimpse of the tarmac and a safe landing. Once grounded, the pilot refused to go up again.
My group, after having done our snowy canyon scout, was happy to find a lonely paved road just dry enough for us to lie on, giving our legs a break from a long day of hiking in snow boots. As darkness began to fall, I knew our pilot was not coming back for us, so to keep everyone warm and busy we began the 27-mile walk to Hanksville. We suspected that someone would be coming to pick us up, but without any communication devices, we had no guarantees. I imagined most Oscar-winning directors might begin to get concerned or downright pissed off at this point, but in a proving moment Danny Boyle, boyishly cheerful, seemed to be relishing the opportunity to live his own epic desert adventure!
As my role with the film changed from location scout to safety rigger, my job was to minimize such epics. The narrow slot canyon of lower Bluejohn, a.k.a. “the Rock n’ Roll Section”, is only about 200 yards long and 120 feet deep at its deepest point. In order to prepare the canyon for the 80 or so people to be crawling in and around that section we had to assess all the potential hazards and remedy them. So while attached to a rope my crew jumped, pried, rocked and kicked everything, looking for any sign of movement that indicated a liability. We dislodged few blocks and logs and a few that looked loose were surprisingly well stationed. However, a few feet downstream of the RalZone there was a refrigerator sized boulder stuck in the low ceiling overhead that was so loose and threatening we had to tape a sign with a skull and cross bones that said “DO NOT TOUCH” on it. To have pried this one out would have loosened a couple of Hummer-sized boulders above possibly causing them to collapse into the narrow corridor, altering the look of the part of the canyon to be included in the film.
Cleaning the canyon of loose rocks and debris prior to the crews’ arrival meant we had to hike 3 miles into the camp a few days before the crew arrived. A couple of production guys were there overseeing a crew of 7-8 high school boys on spring break constructing the Big Camp. While loading our gear into a net to be flown in we inquired about bringing food and drinks but were told there was “plenty of food down there.” As it turned out there was a lot of food but all of it junk food! For nearly three days we ate licorice whips, peanut butter crackers, rice crispy treats and sun chips three meals a day!
This Hollywood disconnect from real life is often apparent in its retelling of outdoor epics, where the contrived embellishments blow it for the real outdoor enthusiasts. In Danny Boyle’s retelling it is the slot-canyon-slide-through-into-a-clear-blue-pool segment. While scouting some canyon locations that were less remote than Bluejohn Canyon, Danny spied an arcing sliver of glowing orange light at the top of a 2 foot wide slot. He knew he had to use it. This is where the creative part of creative license eventually came in. Later that evening in Danny’s hotel in Moab he began showing me dozens of photos he’d cut out of magazines, eventually focusing on a cave cenote (a natural spring pool) in Mexico. He asked if we had anything like that around Moab. “No,” I replied “but it looks a little like the Homestead Crater near Heber.” “Really? We must see it tomorrow!” He scouted it the next day, loved it and now that scene stands as the other quintessential scene in the movie, realism be damned!
Though I never did read Aron’s book, I certainly gained an appreciation for the story, or, more accurately, for the perspective of story telling. As early spring begins here in canyon country there has already been one rescue in Bluejohn—the first since the film was released in November 2010 and also the first since Aron Ralston was pulled out of there in 2003. The 127 Hours story, in capable hands, made a film quite a few people liked. But I still doubt the virtues of retelling a story that essentially champions poor choices.
The volunteer Search and Rescue team for Bluejohn Canyon is nearly 150 miles of curvy paved and dirt roads from the Bluejohn trailhead—far enough away to allow time for all of the unprepared, naïve adventurers to create their own epic tales. Unfortunately for them, the film’s already been done.
Sidebar: As the owner of Moab Cliffs and Canyons, Brett Sutteer knows from whence he speaks. Specialists in vertical adventures, all their trips are physically active, though different trips accommodate different levels of fitness and mental challenge. Almost all are geared for families and the first-timer, so you can expect Cliffs and Canyon guides to give you plenty of information and examples beforehand, building confidence to enjoy the activity skillfully. They guide in many slot canyons in Wayne and Emery counties and around Bluejohn where 127 Hours was filmed – southern Utah’s San Rafael Swell country and the Robber’s Roost area. Colorful and exotic names like Zero Gravity, the Poison Springs Canyons of Arsenic, Constrynine, Slideanide, the North Wash Corridor (Morocco Canyon and Merry Piglet) and the Maidenwater Canyons down the Ticaboo Road.
If you book Moab Cliffs and Canyons for a guided trip, you can stay in one of several fine motels in Green River and Brett or your guide will meet you there. Take time to visit the John Wesley Powell River History Museum located on the banks of the Green. River runners, mountain bikers, hikers and canyoneers have been patronizing Ray’s Tavern for beers and burgers for years. Yet another Utah treasure.
Info for hiking, lodging, guide services:
Sanrafaelcountry.com or 888/564-3600
Cliffsandcanyons.com or 877/641-5271
San Rafael Country Adventures – 435/799-5300
Hondoo.com or 800-332-2696