rachelmanija: (Books: old)
rachelmanija ([personal profile] rachelmanija) wrote2017-01-29 12:37 pm

Between a Rock and a Hard Place, by Aron Ralston; approaches to risk

This is the memoir of the guy who went climbing in an isolated part of Colorado without telling anyone where he was going, had an 800 lb boulder fall on his hand, and was trapped in a narrow canyon for six days with one day’s worth of food and water before he finally saved his life by amputating his arm with his multi-purpose tool, then climbing out and hiking for miles.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I saw this book when it came out, but never picked it up as I assumed that it would be a poorly-written “as told to” with a magazine article’s worth of content telling the story I bought the book for plus a book’s worth of boring padding about where he grew up, who he dated in college, etc. rmc28, who gave it to me, assured me that it was not that. She was correct. Thank you very much! It is indeed very good and I liked it a lot.

I was pleasantly surprised by what a good writer he is. He’s also, at times, a genuinely original thinker. He was a mechanical engineer, and he didn’t just sit there under the boulder, he devised several MacGyver-esque mechanical solutions to get himself out, including a remarkable system of ropes engineered to try to lift the boulder off his arm. They didn’t work due to 800 lb boulder vs. ropes without pulleys operated by one man stuck in one position and only able to use one hand, but it was one hell of a good try and makes for fascinating reading.

This originality comes through in other places too, like when he speculates that the “life review” memories that sometimes flash through people’s minds in extremis are a last-resort backup system to fight-flight-freeze, and are there to provide motivation to make one final effort for survival on behalf of their loved ones or their possible future, when otherwise people might just give up and die. I never thought of it that way before, but it’s a fascinating idea and he convinced me.

The only point where the book falls flat is at the very end, where he visibly sees the end in sight and rushes through “Recovery sucked but I was back rock-climbing two months post-amputation and I went on Letterman and my family is awesome and I learned important life lessons from the whole thing, bye!” in about two pages.

Otherwise, it’s a well-constructed, thoughtful, page-turning read, with lots of suspense and surprises. If all you know is the news accounts, there was a lot left out; at least, there was a lot that I hadn’t known. For instance, why he waited so long to cut off his arm; it turns out that the obstacles went way beyond the obvious and into seemingly not even being physically possible, as did how/why he finally did it.

Ralston can also be pretty funny, sometimes in a dark way but also more casually. There’s some beautiful nature descriptions. The depiction of how one’s mind works under imminent but prolonged threat of death is extremely well-depicted and absolutely accurate to my own experience and what I’ve heard from others. If this isn’t something you’ve experienced yourself but you want to write about it, his book would be an excellent resource.

Obviously, it contains an account of an amputation (not that long but quite vivid). Also a color photo (easy to avoid if you read in paper copy— it’s toward the end of the second photo section).

Getting back to the original news story, I suspect that a lot of people had the same two thoughts I did when it first came out: “Holy shit, that guy is hardcore,” and “Why the hell didn’t he leave a note saying where he was going?”

People who enjoy risk for its own sake tend to divide into two groups. There are the ones who take meticulous precautions to decrease the risks that they can control, and spend a lot of time contemplating “What should I do if…?” so when they need to take action on a split-second’s notice, they won’t waste precious time thinking, “What should I do?” or rush into foolhardy action.

Those types of people, by which I mean me, find it very annoying when non-risk-takers call them reckless, because in their minds, they are the opposite of reckless. When they hear “reckless,” they don’t think of NASCAR racers or bomb defusers. They think of Aron Ralston. Not because of the boulder, which could have happened to anyone. Because he didn’t leave a note.

The other type of risk-taker is impulsive, doesn’t take extensive (or sometimes even basic) precautions, and trusts in their skills and strength to get them out of trouble. At best, they’re jaw-droppingly badass; at worst, they’re living out their own personal Jackass. Based on his own book, this is indeed Aron Ralston. At least, it was at the point when the boulder fell on his hand. (He becomes much more level-headed once it is literally impossible to not spend some time sitting and thinking.)

When I first heard his story on the news, after my first uncharitable thought, I figured maybe he’d gotten lost and people were searching the wrong area, or he normally told someone where he was going but just hadn’t that one time. Nope, it was exactly like it sounded like: he went climbing in a dangerous and extremely isolated area alone, without telling anyone where he was going. Moreover, getting trapped with no one knowing where to search for him (or even when he was supposed to be back) was not an isolated incident, but the latest and most dramatic of a series of wilderness accidents either caused or exacerbated by his own actions.

But here’s what makes his book interesting: I’m just repeating what he says himself. Without either bragging or breast-beating, he recounts his history of recklessness, how he kept getting into accidents which he was then able to extricate himself from because he really was strong and brave and skilled, and how that reinforced his belief that he could do anything and get himself out of anything.

To write a good memoir, you have to let go of the desire to make people like you, and be honest about yourself to the best of your ability. Ralston’s memoir feels very honest. He was a bit of a privileged hipster dude who did a lot of reckless stuff, some of which affected others as well as himself, and kept on doing it out of ego and a lack of belief in his own mortality. But he’s aware of that dynamic. And that’s a big part of what makes his memoir, which cuts back and forth from the bottom of the slot canyon to his life up to that point, unified and compelling rather than padded and dull. It’s not a random collection of anecdotes, it’s a character portrait leading up to the ultimate in-character story.

Back to those two types of risk-takers, death by stupidity is one of my ultimate horrors. I have never doubted my mortality. I totally believe that the world has teeth. Death is inevitable, but I don’t want to meet it thinking, “Why the hell didn’t I leave a note?” I take precautions largely so when I do, I’ll at least be able to think, “This could have happened to anyone.” If my car gets trapped in the bomb zone (this has actually happened), I want to be able to say, “I underestimated how far that was likely to extend, next time I’ll park farther away, but it was an easy mistake to make and the majority of us made it, including our team leader.”

But what’s that really about? Ego. I want to feel good and look good to others (as opposed to wanting to be liked), just in a different way from the reckless kind. I want people to think, “She went in with her eyes open and did everything right, sometimes life just hands you the short straw.” Ralston wanted people to think, “Man, what a badass, that guy lived to the fullest and followed his dreams without fear.” Neither of us were motivated to avoid the slot canyon and the boulder, we were motivated to avoid thinking badly of ourselves and imagining others thinking badly of us once we were sitting at the bottom. We just had different ideas of “badly.”

But that’s not why he was climbing mountains and I was going to crime scenes, it’s just how we approached the question of personal risk. The actual “why” was how it all felt to him, and that sounds a lot like how it all felt to me. He liked adrenaline, he liked nature, he liked using his body skillfully and pushing it to the limits, and he liked being the guy who lived dangerously. He was doing some stuff to show off, but that was mostly the careless parts; climbing itself was something he did because he loved doing it.

It’s hard to feel lucky in more than a very abstract way when you’re in the bottom of a canyon with a boulder on your hand. But there’s worse things to regret than not leaving a note. He could have never climbed at all, and kept his hand and skipped the trauma. But then he would have skipped his entire life.

No matter how hard we imagine it and wish they would, God and the Devil never come down to offer us a deal: your life if you devote the rest of it to good works and always leave a note, your life for your right hand, a takeback on the entire boulder incident if you also take back all the climbing you ever did. In real life, all we can do is evaluate what we would have chosen if there had actually been a choice. It always seems to come down to your actual life with the worst parts included, or an entirely different one with both the worst and the best parts left out. Ralston says he’d have taken the life he did live, exactly as it was.

I believe him. He still climbs.
naye: a photo of old books (books)

[personal profile] naye 2017-01-29 09:01 pm (UTC)(link)
That's a really compelling write-up of the book - I'm particularly taken by his idea that the "life flashing before your eyes" thing is to motivate survival. Very interesting. And I suppose if I wanted to try to understand that particular take on life and risk and danger, it would be a good place to start! Because it's so far removed from how I live my life and make my choices that I just don't grok it, even reading about it.
naye: a woman in a red dress reaching towards the sky (min röda dräkt)

[personal profile] naye 2017-01-29 09:22 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks for the rec!

Adrenaline junkies of all stripes can be fascinating - watching free soloing vids and documentaries about people who climb Everest for the hell of it. But I can't grok it? It's just so far outside the realm of my experience and preferences.

(I still occasionally get terrified towards the top of indoor bouldering walls for no reason except it trips some primal switch going falling is death! and my brain can't override with facts like how soft the landing will be and and honestly there's not even a body-length between my toes and that mat. This despite never having hurt myself in ~5 years. I do better lead climbing but yeah. That's where I'm at!)
Edited 2017-01-29 21:22 (UTC)
princessofgeeks: (Default)

[personal profile] princessofgeeks 2017-01-30 01:32 am (UTC)(link)
I loved Swimming to Antarctica.
recessional: a young brunette leaning back and smoking (personal; it's death or victory)

[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-29 09:10 pm (UTC)(link)
Hnh.

See I've personally known what seems to be a third type, which are the people who leave the note because, while they do in fact still want to go climb the canyon and enjoy the adrenaline rush, would still like to be rescued if things go wrong, and are pretty much indifferent as to what others think of them one way or the other. It's just that leaving a note is a near-zero-effort way of making sure that they not only get to climb the scary crazy canyon today, but also are that much more likely to do it again later, and also other extremely fun things.

And like sure they'd probably still have fallen and had a huge injury and maybe even had to get the arm taken off because it was just too damaged, but they probably wouldn't've also had to lie there starving and near dehydrated for six days and take it off themselves before hiking out.

That particular kind of directed, practical, specific caution doesn't seem (to me) to take much out of the best parts out, but at least heightens the chances of the worst parts being less bad. And also at least cuts down on one's choices to flirt with Risk resulting in huge costs to people who don't get any of that benefit.

(It may or may not be relevant that probably two thirds of these people are military in some way, but the other third isn't.)

Which sort of for me circles back to, I feel like again there is a third choice, where I could in fact have the best parts of my life while, with actually quite minimal changes in terms of those "best parts", have (for instance) skipped the sexual assault PTSD. I mean I can't literally, because time doesn't work like that, but.

/somewhat unfocused rambles.
recessional: a quote from Discworld that is too long to go in the description box. :( (personal; the tao wouldn't be what it is)

[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-29 09:49 pm (UTC)(link)
...I think I'm having a minor autism (which is to say my brain is hitting a block where something seems obvious/self-evident to me and I'm having trouble seeing how it isn't) with that one in that you don't get to choose that either, so the thought exercise becomes. . .not particularly meaningful?

One has the life one has. In terms of actual reality, one doesn't get to change what happened in the past, period - what happened happened. So the idea that the question need be framed in that kind of absolute dichotomy seems even more artificial than most absolute dichotomies?

And it wouldn't matter except a lot of the time I seem to see the absolute dichotomy in question used as a way of minimizing or justifying the bad parts of a sequence of events, which Ralston seems to do - like that he had EITHER to be exactly as reckless and thoughtless as he was, and thus suffer the really huge consequences, OR he'd've been a mouse at home and had none of the good experiences. Ergo his bad experiences (and - and this is the part that I kinda side-eye him specifically because you mention that he mentions it - their consequences for other people) are justified/necessary/worth the good experiences.

Since he has no more chance of having the option of going back and becoming a mouse at home with none of the good experiences, it seems very artificial to frame it that way, when you could easily go with "if I could do it over again, I'd've left a note." (Or "I'd've reevaluated this SPECIFIC risky experience and gone with another one instead". Or whatever.)

It just seems like a really false dichotomy to me, is all.


...and I recognize that this may be way more nit-picky or whatever than is sensible (maybe it isn't? I'm into "I can't tell", but I know this is a failing) so like feel free to ignore, I just wanted to clarify where I was having my ".....hn?" moment from.

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sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-29 11:33 pm (UTC)(link)
FWIW, my brain parses note-leaving the same way yours does, as a common-sense measure roughly on par with checking to make sure you have a spare tire and a full tank of gas before going on a long drive, or making sure you have two days' worth of food in your backpack if you're going on a two-day hike, as opposed to stuffing a granola bar in your pocket and calling it good.

... I mean, I can kinda see it in terms of what Rachel is talking about, but making sure you have enough gas for the drive is less about wanting to avoid the social embarrassment of running out of gas along the way, and more about wanting to get there in the first place.

I wonder if it has to do with both of us having grown up in a similar kind of environment. I don't know if your experience was this way, but my general experience with Arctic/sub-Arctic rural culture is that it's very much expected that you won't just hare off for the hills without telling anyone where you're going, and people kinda think you're an idiot if you do. (tbh which has always been a problem I've had reading about people like the guy Rachel is talking about -- I get intellectually why people do that, but there is a part of me that thinks of it as something akin to going out in the rain without an umbrella and then being shocked you got wet.)
Edited 2017-01-29 23:33 (UTC)

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[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 12:21 am (UTC)(link)
Yeah, I grew up in New Mexico right at the foot of the mountains and had a lot of friends at my college who volunteered for SAR, and hikers were always encouraged to sign a register, or leave a note, or just tell people where they were going, because then if they did get lost, SAR would be able to narrow down where they were. I never got stuck in the wilderness, but I got completely used to carrying a couple of gallons of water, spare blankets and some flares in the trunk of my car when I lived there, and so did most people I knew. It had nothing to do with what people would think of you, it was just something you did in that environment, as routine.

(tbh which has always been a problem I've had reading about people like the guy Rachel is talking about -- I get intellectually why people do that, but there is a part of me that thinks of it as something akin to going out in the rain without an umbrella and then being shocked you got wet.)

I had that problem with the guy in Into the Wild, and Grizzly Man. I don't think either of them deserved to die obviously, but they were interacting with their Ideas about Nature rather than Nature itself, and it's like just being in it is risky enough. When you live in that kind of place you don't have to wander far away to get hypothermia or get seriously dehydrated or get caught in a severe snowstorm.

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cloudsinvenice: woman resting her head on her hand, thinking (Default)

[personal profile] cloudsinvenice 2017-01-29 10:29 pm (UTC)(link)
That's interesting; I was just talking to a friend about my inability to watch the film of this (somehow I managed to buy the DVD in a charity shop without realising that it was the guy-has-to-cut-his-arm-off one), but I think I would find the book manageable. And I'm fascinated by people's ingenuity in the face of seemingly impossible situations (I liked Apollo 13) - I love the fact that, not only did he figure out the arm thing, it wasn't even the only idea he came up with!
king_touchy: gold crown with jewels on white background (Default)

[personal profile] king_touchy 2017-01-29 10:48 pm (UTC)(link)
I just watched the film over the holidays and enjoyed it very much. Yes, the actual amputation was a very difficult scene, and I had to look away, but it wasn't long.
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)

[personal profile] luzula 2017-01-29 10:45 pm (UTC)(link)
...that is a very literal title.

I don't feel like a risk-taking person, mainly because I don't get adrenaline thrills from it, but sometimes other people perceive me as being a risk-taker. And I guess I am, sometimes? Like, this summer I went hiking in a remote and rugged area by myself, where I didn't meet any people for days. I went there because there were rare plants in the area that I wanted to see, and also I enjoy hiking. I had my cellphone and there was coverage, so I could've called if I broke my leg. Of course, I guess I could've broken my phone and then my leg, but I didn't want that risk to stop me from doing something I wanted to do.

I also really enjoy tree climbing, and that has its risks too. But it's not the risks that make it something I enjoy--I do it despite the risks, and I'm careful about safety. But I'm also never afraid while doing it; I feel calm and self-assured and I'm not in the least afraid of heights when I know that I am safely anchored.
Edited 2017-01-29 22:45 (UTC)
princessofgeeks: (Default)

[personal profile] princessofgeeks 2017-01-30 01:31 am (UTC)(link)
*boggles*

thanks for this.
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

[personal profile] mildred_of_midgard 2017-01-30 02:16 am (UTC)(link)
All the discussion is reminding me of Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved which I found a fascinating and frustrating (in a good way) read, because you can see *all* the precautions they tried to take, and yet at the same time you can see everything going wrong, and you're facepalming and shouting "Noooo!" through the whole book like if you can just yell loud enough they'll hear you and Not Do The Thing.

Like, they had *three* direction-finding systems, any one of which would have allowed Earhart to find the island she was trying to land on! And yet something went wrong with ALL THREE.

The number of things that had to go simultaneously wrong is astonishing. It was Rachel-level luck.

The book itself is technical rather than psychological, so I'm not sure how much interest it would be to you, Rachel, but it gave me exactly what I wanted to know about her disappearance, and more than I'd hoped to get, given that she still hasn't been found. There was so much detail on the round-the-world flight and each of her takeoffs, landings, and stays that I felt like I was on the trip with her.
sputnikhearts: (Default)

[personal profile] sputnikhearts 2017-01-30 03:23 pm (UTC)(link)
Your writeup is one heck of a story in its own right. *applauding*

Now I really want to read the book - I'm not personally into Adventure, but I write characters who are, haha.
Edited (word choice) 2017-01-30 15:23 (UTC)
brainwane: The last page of the zine (cat)

[personal profile] brainwane 2017-01-30 03:32 pm (UTC)(link)
The ending of your review, about how leaving out some of the poor choices essentially means living a different life entirely, is really resonating with me today. Thank you.
orcofnewyork: (Default)

[personal profile] orcofnewyork 2017-02-01 02:31 pm (UTC)(link)
Your review was really interesting! I don't think I would like this book at all, but I really appreciate how you broke down the themes and logic behind it.

[identity profile] dhampyresa.livejournal.com 2017-01-29 09:55 pm (UTC)(link)
the “life review” memories that sometimes flash through people’s minds in extremis are a last-resort backup system to fight-flight-freeze

Ooooooooooooh.

[identity profile] lady-ganesh.livejournal.com 2017-02-08 03:20 pm (UTC)(link)
IKR?

[identity profile] http://users.livejournal.com/_profiterole_/ 2017-01-29 10:36 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, that's what 127 Hours is based on. I haven't seen it, though, it sounded too hardcore for me.

[identity profile] klwilliams.livejournal.com 2017-02-08 01:27 am (UTC)(link)
Yeah, I never want to win a Darwin Award. Though I've sometimes not left a note.

[identity profile] lady-ganesh.livejournal.com 2017-02-08 03:19 pm (UTC)(link)
His self-examination reminds me of Jon Krakauer's in Into the Wild, with less romanticism because he was the one directly paying the cost. It sounds good!

[identity profile] oiktirmos.livejournal.com 2017-02-17 01:31 pm (UTC)(link)
I want people to think, “She went in with her eyes open and did everything right, sometimes life just hands you the short straw.”
eyes open and did everything right I think is also ethically correct apart from what other people think.
I read Second Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr years ago. He had to cope with the guilt that one of his rescuers died. Others are at risk when we put ourselves at risk. Herr has done amazing things since.
https://www.media.mit.edu/people/hherr/overview/