Book #16, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, by Aron Ralston

Begun: 3/6/11
Finished: 3/8/11
Format: Kindle
Rating: 4.5/5

Yes, it’s almost six o’clock in the morning as I write this blog post and I’ve just finished this book having not been to bed yet.  Why am I writing this blog post now instead of grabbing a few hours’ shut-eye before I have to go to work?  I couldn’t tell you.  Perverse sense of closure?  Intense desire to increase my book-progress tally?  Maybe I’m just crazy.  It’s been suggested before.  But one of the reasons I stayed up reading was because I feel like crap and can’t sleep.  I think it was something I ate.  Might as well finish the job right. [Note – I wrote the post at 6 a.m. but am posting it later in the day at a more reasonable hour.]

After seeing “127 Hours” (excellent movie) I became interested in the real story behind it.  I remember hearing about it at the time, we all did, but that was eight years ago.  It led me first to the 90 minute Dateline special Ralston did with Tom Brokaw, and then to Ralston’s book.  I didn’t know what to expect.  The extremely obvious and cheesy choice of title didn’t bode well (no surprise here that the filmmakers chose to re-title the film).  Also, no co-author was listed, so either Ralston had written the book himself (always cause for caution when a non-writer undertakes such a task) or he’d had it ghostwritten.  Again, none of these were encouraging signs.

I was pleasantly surprised.  The book is quite artfully written, but not in a ghostwriter way.  I’m putting the odds about about 95% that Ralston wrote the book himself with assistance from a good editor.  The narration is at once both guileless and self-conscious in a way that I don’t think a ghostwriter could duplicate.  Ralston is surprisingly eloquent about his ordeal and his own motivations.  He’s a very appealing narrator, relating the events of his life that led him to that canyon with frankness and a refreshing lack of braggadocio.  He talks with pride about his considerable feats of outdoorsmanship and mountaineering, to be sure, but like they say – it isn’t boasting if you can back it up.  This is a guy who once went on an extreme mountaineering expedition in which he summited four-plus mountains taller than 14,000 feet…in a row…in 48 hours…without sleeping…in the middle of winter.

Ralston doesn’t paint too rosy a picture of himself, though.  He talks honestly about the risks he’s taken, the things he regrets, and doesn’t shy away from admitting the bad choices he’s made and the mistakes that cost him.  He is humble in the face of his previous brushes with death.  Just a few months before his accident he and two friends were caught in an honest-to-God avalanche, and in a part-funny part-terrifying story, very early in his career as a mountaineer he was alone in the Tetons in waist-deep snow where he was stalked by a bear for twenty-four hours.  He talks about why he was so driven to seek adventure and solitude, what his motivations might have been, and one gets the sense that he’s spent considerable time soul-searching about why he does what he does.

And the guy’s just fun.  I mean, he’s lived a life most of us can only fantasize about, chucking a corporate job to go work in an outdoor outfitter’s in Aspen so he could dedicate himself more fully to his passion for mountaineering, skiing and hiking.  Hearing him rattle off all the awesome trips he’s taken and places he’s gone with his endless roster of friends and co-workers, not just outdoors adventures but concerts and beaches and wacky funtimes, you can’t help but wish to be among these people who live this kind of bohemian existence, following their favorite bands to Japan and taking off for a week to go hike to waterfalls.

Of course, the freak accident that cost him a limb is a bit of a downer.  But Ralston acknowledges that maybe some part of him had been wanting to be tested like this all along.  The situation he found himself in was a confluence of rarities.  He did usually tell people where he was going, that boulder hadn’t moved in probably millennia, and he wouldn’t be missed for a long time.  His description of his experience is interspersed with his biographical history and an account of how and when he was declared missing and how the search was going back home.  He relates the details of his six day ordeal unflinchingly and with a refreshing lack of hyperbole.  This is how it was.  This is what I did.  This is how I felt.  It’s nearly impossible not to imagine yourself in that situation and wonder if you could have done what he did, what he had to do.  I came away from this really marveling that he actually lived through this.  It is truly amazing given how egregiously the odds were stacked against his survival.  If he’d waited any longer to self-amputate, he’d have been too weak to live through it, but if he’d done it sooner, he wouldn’t have lived to get out of the desert — he only lived because a helicopter was already on site searching for him.

The book is a real page-turner.  The only thing that keeps me from giving it the full five stars it that at times some of Ralston’s accounts of his pre-accident mountaineering adventures drag on a bit.  For those of us who aren’t mountain climbers, one peak’s like another.  He tends to ramble a bit about those experiences, which is understandable given that that’s his whole motivation, but for us it’s a bit hard to connect with.

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