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Essay 127 Hours Film

Writing Lesson Plan Using 127 Hours

SUBJECTS — English Language Arts

Age: 14+; MPAA Rating -- Rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images (for disturbing content and some language); Drama; 2010, 94 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

Note to teachers: Students love adventure stories, especially tales about young people and most especially when the stories are true. Still, students are often reluctant to read what many times can be a long build-up to the action they crave. Aron Ralston's book is ruminative and informative in its effort to explain how he managed to survive. Most young readers will want to skim the details about his outdoor adventures, the hikes, the climbs, and the description of terrain that is mostly unfamiliar and desolate. They will want to go quickly to the moment when Ralston falls and thus skip the reflection, fear and inspiration that finally leads him to cut off his arm and free himself mere hours from certain death.

In anticipation of such reluctant readers, this lesson plan uses valuable information that Ralston conveys in his book to inform a more thorough understanding of the film. Ralston's self-examination and the philosophical journey he experiences during his 127 hours of entrapment deepen the message conveyed in the movie and may provoke some students to read the book itself.

If administrators or parents balk at screening the film at school, or if there is no available class time, take advantage of the fact that most kids will have seen the movie and that, for those who haven't, Ralston's story can be described in a few short sentences. Thus, the description of the chapters and the assignments in the Student Handout can be benefit to students who do not watch the film.

Description of the Movie: Adapted from Aron Ralston's book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, this 127 Hours details the harrowing time Ralston spent trying to free himself after a shifting bolder pinned his arm against the wall of a remote slot canyon in the Utah desert. The film's high energy beginning defines Ralston's character and is in stark contrast to the isolation and silence that mark the young outdoorsman's time trapped without hope of rescue. Flashbacks and clever use of video taping move the story forward and reveal important life-lessons.

Rationale for Using the Movie      By addressing ideas presented in the book before showing the movie, students will be led to examine how an individual can call upon his past in order to maintain composure in the face of doom. Each reference to one of Ralston's chapters described in the Student Handout introduces an idea that helps readers understand the young man who gathers the courage to cut off his arm and walk away from certain death. Suggested assignments are designed to encourage students to write freely in response to the information given and to empathize with the attributes of character that served Ralston so well. Then, as students watch the film, they will be able to see how ideas they have considered and written about are described visually.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide:     Students will exercise their writing skills on a subject that interests them. They will consider and discuss the values that enabled Ralston to survive his ordeal.

Possible Problems: Any fear associated with confinement can be exacerbated by watching this film. The scene in which Aron frees himself by breaking bones and cutting through flesh is graphic and medically accurate. It may be disturbing to some students.



1.   Review the film to make sure it is suitable for the class. Obtain appropriate administrative or parental approval.

2.  Read the Student Handout set out below and select chapter summaries and assignments suitable for the class. Modify or delete sections as appropriate. For a version of the handout in word processing format, click here. Students may not have had each of the experiences referred to in the prompts for the journal entries. One way to address this is to let them pick five or six to which they can respond. Print and copy the modified handout.

3.   The lesson plan suggests that the teacher or a student who is a good reader or who is interested in drama read a quote from The Odyssey out loud to the class. If this task is assigned to a student, give the student advance warning and a copy of the passage so that he or she can practice.

Presentation of the Lesson

1.   Ask if any student has seen the film and select one to introduce it to the class. When that student has finished, ask if anyone has something to add. If none of the students have seen the movie, then provide a short description of Ralston's experience. An example is set out below:

This film is about a young man, an expert hiker, who went out alone to a remote area in the Utah desert. He didn't tell anyone where he was going. As he walked down a slot canyon, which is a deep narrow rift in the earth with steep rock walls on either side, his path was blocked by a large boulder. When Ralston tried to climb over the boulder it shifted and pinned his arm against the wall of the canyon. Ralston couldn't get out and he couldn't get help. He spent five days trapped between the boulder and the canyon wall. For much of the time Ralston thought he would die. He had a movie camera with him and recorded his good-bys to family and friends. After five days, Ralston discovered a way to break the bones in his arm. In a last ditch effort to survive, he cut away his flesh until he had severed his arm from the rest of his body. Ralston then stumbled out of the canyon and fortunately encountered a family that was hiking on a nearby trail. When he saw the family, Ralston collapsed. Help was summoned and Ralston was air-lifted to a hospital.
2.   Tell students that:
  • In the front of his book, before he starts to describe himself and his experiences, Ralston quotes three verses from Homer's The Odyssey; this is the passage in which the enchantress Circe describes the dangers that Odysseus and his crew will face after they leave her island;
  • Through these verses Ralston describes the risk of adventure, preparing the reader for the idea that there are people who love adventure for the sake of adventure itself.
Then read, or have a student read, the passage out loud to the class.

3.   Describe the journal assignment.

4.   Distribute the student handout that you have reviewed and that you may have modified.

5.   Have students read the handout and complete the assigned journal entries at the end of each chapter either as in-class work or as homework.

6.   Show the film without interruption or chunked.

7.   Use the discussion questions and/or some of the journal topics to stimulate class discussion.

8.   Assign a summative essay at the end of the discussion.

9.   Collect the journal entries and the essays.

By the spring of 2003, Ralston still hadn’t quite completed the challenge. And now the snows were starting to melt, he’d have to wait until the following winter to pick up where he left off. 'Those mountains contain some of the deadliest snowpack in the world,’ Ralston says. 'And I don’t say that for self-aggrandisement but just to say that’s where I was at in my life when I walked into that Utah canyon back in 2003.’

On Saturday, April 26, without telling anyone his plans, Ralston packed his hiking boots, a hydration system, his backpack, climbing equipment, and, notably, a pocket-sized utility tool, put his mountain bike in the back of his truck and drove almost five hours to a remote part of Utah.

According to retired National Parks Service ranger Steve Swanke, people call the tiny town of Moab the 'end of the world’. 'Well, imagine going to the end of the world and then travelling for two and a half hours more. That takes you to the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead where Aron Ralston began his journey. It’s in the middle of nowhere.’

Ralston was only planning to go day hiking and maybe do some rappelling so he could explore the slot canyons. He’d taken a gallon of water with him – plenty for such a short trip. He’d be back in Aspen by nightfall.

In Boyle’s characteristically slick and fast-paced film, we see Ralston, played by James Franco, cycling through the breathtaking landscape of red sand and shadows. He meets up with two girls out hiking and takes them swimming in an idyllic, tranquil pool hidden in one of the canyons.

But it is after he leaves the girls to continue his hike that disaster strikes. Ralston had left his bike and continued on foot into Bluejohn Canyon. According to online climbing discussion forum summitpost.org, the canyon requires technical rock and canyoneering skills to negotiate. But Ralston was more than capable.

'I was accustomed to being in far, far riskier environments,’ he says. 'So I thought going into that canyon was a walk in the park – there were no avalanches, it was a beautiful day and I was essentially just walking.’

But suddenly, Ralston slipped and fell down the chasm, dislodging an 800lb (360kg) chockstone boulder, which is much harder than sandstone. It crushed his arm and left Ralston pinned against the canyon wall.

He made several futile attempts to chip away at the boulder with his utility knife – but it was already fairly blunt and this just made it worse. That first night, as darkness descended on the Utah canyonlands, Ralston realised just how alone he was.

'If you want someone to show up and help you if something bad happens, you’d better tell someone where you’re going. And of course I wanted someone to know – but I’d made a choice and it was a choice I was going to have to live with.’

But living through this was going to be far from easy. Ralston says the boulder was crushing his wrist so tightly that everything up to his fingertips was numb. 'It’s called compartment syndrome – when the nerves and blood vessels are pinched, so that the tissue goes into necrosis and dies,’ he explains.

He began stabbing the blade of his knife into the dead skin of his thumb. Hisssssss. He could hear the air escaping from the decomposing digit.

'I realised early on that I was going to have to cut my arm off to get free but there was also resistance: I didn’t want to do it,’ he says. 'But by the second day I was already figuring out how I could do it, so in the film you see that progression: trying to cut into the arm like a saw, finding the tourniquet, then the realisation that the knife was too dull to get through the bone. That despair was followed by a kind of peace; a realisation that I was going to die there and there was nothing I could do. It was no longer up to me. All I could do was see it through to the end.’

After five and a half days inside the canyon, out of water, delirious and hallucinating, Ralston had an epiphany. 'I felt my bone bend and I realised I could use the boulder to break it. It was like fireworks going off – I was going to get out of there.’

Ralston managed to use his body weight to violently bend his arm until the boulder snapped his forearm. He then ingeniously used the attachment from his hydration pack – a bendy rubber hose that you use to suck water out of the pack – as a makeshift tourniquet, and began sawing and cutting through the remaining cartilage, skin and tendons with his multitool.

If reading about it is making you feel queasy you may find Boyle’s movie too much to stomach. Each time Ralston’s character attempts to sever a nerve, Boyle uses a loud metallic sound to emphasise the excruciating pain he feels. It fills the cinema and you’re forced to look away.

But Ralston says Boyle has handled it perfectly. 'Severing the nerve severed a direct line to my brain. The central nervous system is right there. It’s graphic, but I think it’s appropriate,’ he says. 'You couldn’t show any less of it and still understand what I went though. Without having to belabour it, the actual amputation lasted over an hour. So I think three minutes on film is just right. It was actually very euphoric for me and audiences have cheered and clapped.

'In the film, Franco laughs maniacally because he’s broken his bone and that’s how it was. I had this huge grin on my face as I picked up that knife to start this horrific thing. It was traumatic but it was a blessing to be able to get out of there.’

Ralston says the process of amputating his arm meant he endured both the extremes of pain and absolute elation, because, he says, he knew that he was closer than he ever had been during his ordeal to being free. He describes the moment when he walked out of the canyon as being reborn, 'because I’d already accepted I was going to die’. Ralston used the small point-and-shoot camera he had with him to take a picture of the rock and his severed hand 'as a kind of “screw you, I’m outta here”,’ he says.

He then made a makeshift sling, and incredibly managed to rappel down a 60ft cliff face to the floor of the canyon. Ironically, this would have been the one and only technical aspect of his entire trip. And Ralston managed it after amputating his arm and being deprived of sleep for five days. Covered in blood, he began marching out of the canyon. A family out hiking found him and called the emergency services.

Captain Kyle Ekker of the Emery County Sheriff’s Department said Ralston’s family and friends had reported him missing the previous day. Although he hadn’t told them where he was going, they were convinced he had gone hiking in that county. 'We started checking the southeast corner of the county and we were just lucky that we came across his truck at the trail head of Horseshoe Canyon.’

Steve Swanke was at work early that morning when he got a call saying a hiker was missing. 'We sensed a great deal of urgency. We threw resources at it real quickly. By 3pm that afternoon we had him located, accessed, and in the helicopter, down into the hospital and stabilised. I wasn’t surprised he survived – he had a strong body, a strong mind, he was in his element and he was technically savvy. He also had a very strong will to live.’

Rescuers tried to keep Ralston awake for the 12-minute flight to the hospital in Moab. When they got there he stunned them by walking into the emergency room on his own.

Since the accident, Ralston has been back to Bluejohn Canyon 10 times – with friends, news crews and with the producers of 127 Hours. They even shot some of the film there.

Understandably, the road to recovery hasn’t been easy. At first, Ralston was determined to carry on challenging himself. Using a special prosthetic arm, he tried ultrarunning (ridiculously

long running races) extreme mountaineering and whitewater rafting. And he was finally able to complete the challenge he’d set himself before his accident. But, Ralston claims, he began to adopt a sense of invincibility; that if the accident in Utah hadn’t killed him, nothing could. 'I realised somewhere along the way that I was just headed back to that same spot in the canyon where my life was on the line,’ he says.

In 2006, Ralston lost three friends to suicide and he says it was a wake-up call; he felt he’d been given a second chance. He wanted to put more time into the non-profit work he’d started, taking disabled veterans climbing; helping troubled youngsters; preserving Colorado’s national forests and wilderness areas. But he also realised it was time to settle down.

'I’d fallen in love with a woman but she broke up with me and I was devastated. Six months later, I went into a suicidal depression from the break-up of the relationship, but I resolved to not do what my friends had done. And so I reached out for help,’ he says. 'Then, in the early winter of 2007, I was at a pub in Aspen watching a friend’s band play and I met this woman, Jessica. She bought me a beer, we started talking and the next day we went hiking.’

They married in August, 2009 and now live in Boulder, Colorado, with their young son, Leo. Ralston says his wife played a huge role in his healing. 'And that’s where I’m finally at today – my life is about being with my family,’ he says. 'This is what’s important.’

At the end of the film, you see the real Aron Ralston together with Jessica and Leo, sitting on a sofa, with the canyon behind them.

Ralston says it’s funny, but even though he didn’t know them at the time, they’re the reason he was able to get out of that canyon alive. 'We have these very fundamental desires for freedom, for love and for connection. And that’s what got me out.’

  • '127 Hours’ is released on January 7

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