127 Hours is not so much a disability narrative as it is the fast-paced, gruesome tale of Aron Ralston’s survival, based on his autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Ralston, a mountain climber who made headlines in 2003 with the story of his escape from being trapped by a fallen boulder in a remote canyon, was forced to cut off his arm with a dull multitool.
Ralston was always an active outdoorsman, but, like many young men, gave little thought to his own safety or the concerns of loved ones. He rushed off for a day of canyoneering in Canyonlands National Park in Utah one weekend without telling anyone where he was going, and guides a couple of lost girls through narrow rock formations. He continues on alone into Blue John Canyon, where he slips on a large loose boulder that falls after him, trapping one arm against the canyon wall. Ralston attempts to yell for help, to budge the boulder with his shoulder, to chip away at it with his knife, to use his engineering skills to rig up a pulley system, but all to no avail. Food and water in short supply, his choices quickly narrow down to life with a disability and death.
Ralston does not seem to fear the life of an amputee so much as the pain of accomplishing the amputation; indeed, during some hallucinogenic sequences he has premonitions of his future life, including a young son. He also gets some practice performing activities of daily living with only one arm, and quickly learns little tricks like attaching a lifeline to his cheap but suddenly precious multitool.
Ralston prepares by wrapping a tourniquet around his lower arm well in advance of the makeshift operation, but holds off on executing his plan until rescue seems all but hopeless. After the excruciating pain and blood loss, he still has to escape from the canyon and find other people, and somehow has the presence of mind to keep his gear with him. He stops only to take a picture of the bloody limb he’s leaving behind.
The first hikers he meets are intimidated by the site of the pallid man with the dripping sling on the verge of collapse, but shakily get him some water and a helicopter life flight.
Afterward, the real Aron Ralston is depicted immersed in clear blue water, a strong swimmer with one arm. He’s married with a young son, just as he predicted. He’s still out there biking, climbing mountains, and shimmying down canyons, but from now on he’ll always tell his family where he’s going.