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'127 hours' hiker rhapsodizes problem-solving for CMU grads

| Monday, May 16, 2011, 12:00 p.m.

Aron Ralston, the hiker forced to amputate part of his arm after becoming trapped in a Utah canyon, stressed the importance of turning "boulders into blessings" while addressing graduates of Carnegie Mellon University yesterday.

"Yes, it hurt, but I did not lose anything that day," the CMU alumnus told the crowd of nearly 4,000 graduates in CMU's Gesling Stadium. "I gained a sense of what's important to me and what's extraordinary in me."

Ralston, 35, is the author of the memoir "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," which inspired the 2010 Oscar-nominated film "127 Hours." In 2003, Ralston went hiking alone in Utah without telling anyone of his whereabouts. He fell into a canyon and became trapped by a dislodged boulder that crushed his right arm.

Nearly six days later, the dehydrated and sleep-deprived Ralston opted to amputate his own forearm to survive.

Holding the lectern with a metal prosthetic, Ralston, who graduated from CMU in 1997 with a degree in mechanical engineering, told the crowd of his unconventional decision five years into his career as a corporate engineer with Intel. He quit his job to pursue his love of the outdoors.

"My parents were reluctantly supportive," he said. "They told me before I could ever sleep on their couch, I had to get health insurance. That's my first piece of advice: When the time comes to quit your job and follow your dreams, do it. Just make sure you have health insurance."

Ralston said the day he became trapped by the half-ton boulder, he "turned to the analytical problem-solving skill I gained at CMU."

"Step one: define the problem. That was the easy part. There was this big rock," he said, garnering laughter. "The next step was to gather information, come up with possible solutions, prioritize them and try one."

He combated hypothermia by wrapping his climbing rope around himself. He rationed his food and water. When those ran out, he resorted to drinking his own urine.

"It helps you keep things in perspective," he said. "When you think things have gotten bad, just remember: If you didn't have to drink your urine today, it's not that bad."

Ralston, who recorded his experience on camera through messages to friends and family, stressed the importance of nurturing relationships.

"When I was on the brink of death, I didn't eulogize myself with my life accomplishments. I turned to my loved ones to say thank you," he said.

Knowing he might bleed to death, Ralston used his knife to cut through his arm. The blade stopped at the bone.

"I realized I wasn't trapped by the boulder, I was trapped by the blade," he said. "That leads me to my third piece of advice: If you're going to carry a knife, make sure it's sharp."

Using the boulder for leverage to snap his bone, Ralston pulled himself out of the canyon, rappelled 65 feet and walked seven miles to rescue.

Although Ralston disobeyed commonsense rules by embarking on a long hike and not alerting anyone of his plans, the new alumni agreed the lesson he learned from the experience was more important.

"He was quite candid about his experience," said Marya Spring Cordes, 42, who received a master's in fine arts and directing. "It was refreshing."

Today, Ralston is a wilderness advocate and the only person with a disability to climb all 59 of Colorado's highest peaks and ski from the summit of Denali, North America's tallest mountain. He also is the first amputee to tow a raft through the Grand Canyon.

Photo Galleries

CMU Graduation

CMU Graduation

Carnegie Mellon University graduation ceremonies in Oakland Sunday, May 15, 2011.

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