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.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

One thing this is reminding me of is when I first read Margaret Atwood as a teenager in NM and found a lot of her descriptions of nature familiar -- not the deep bush stuff, but just the general awareness of how vulnerable you are as a matter of course. And she saw it as an American/Canadian divide (understandably!) but to me it seemed more rural/urban. It's a little hard to put into words -- not so much stuff about risk or being reckless, but an awareness of how easily things can go pear-shaped and what you need to be aware of living in that kind of environment. Just, how nature itself isn't hostile or out to get you, but has to be taken on its own terms, respected in a way? Something like that. It's something I really don't feel in cities, or even a lot of suburbia, because there so much of the risk is humans and what they do. But in a way a grizzly isn't out to get you, and someone thinking they could tame it, like Treadwell, isn't seeing it for what it really is. ....feh, I am not putting this well and mixing up the concepts.
recessional: a photo image of feet in sparkly red shoes (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional

I think Atwood framed it as American/Canadian because we tend to have more of the awareness even in urban areas because our urban areas aren't . . . that urban?

Like it can be hard to get across just how much EMPTY SPACE Canada has, and how CROWDED WITH PEOPLE the US seems to us in comparison, how hemmed and fenced and civilized it is? And the people who are from places where, for the US, there is a lot of wild land are almost worse, because they can't quite believe that no really it's a lot emptier and a lot more up here. (In the space on the drive from my hometown to my gramma's place that my family used to do every summer in which there are literally no towns and in fact no gas stations, to the point where the highway has a sign that says "next gas station [blah] km away MAKE SURE YOU FILL UP HERE", I found eight towns in the same distance in North Dakota. For comparison.)

You don't have to go very far at all outside of even Toronto to hit Wild Howling Wilderness Which Will Eat You Alive, and Toronto is literally our largest city by quite a BIT. (Which is why most of the tourists who got lost or killed were often Americans or Europeans, and why we short-handed to that because there were so many more of them - there's actually a problem we sometimes have where people come up from the US thinking they have Wilderness Experience and then hit our Wilderness and discover it's . . . More.) (Note that I say "up"; we do not tend to have this problem with Alaskans. *solemn*)

So in some ways it is an urban/not-urban divide, but in some ways, to Canadians, almost all of the US is urban. And especially was so when Atwood was writing that, decades ago when we were even less urban than we are now. (I think now there are people in Toronto and Vancouver who count as "urban" on that divide, but in the mid C20, possibly not so much.)
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

That does actually sound a lot like NM, down to the emptiness and "last gas for xx miles, fill up here" signs -- it's very sparsely populated, although probably not like where you were. And you really can just go to the bare outskirts of town and just start walking up into the mountains, even in Albuquerque, regular day hiking. It's something like the fifth biggest state and forty-fifth in terms of population density.
recessional: a photo image of feet in sparkly red shoes (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional

*looks it up* 6.6 people per square km, according to wiki!

Whereas BC, which has the second biggest city in Canada (the one I'm in) and is up from the national average. . . is 4.8 persons per square km. (My favourite Canadian fact is that the Northwest Territories have a population density of 0, because it's fewer than 0.01 person per square km and we don't measure smaller than that. People live up there! But. XDXD) And 40% of that population lives in a relatively small area down in the south-west corner (known as the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island).

So yeah not totally dissimilar, true! But in terms of Atwood, and the time she was writing (when that density was all lower, all around), when she was thinking of the divide she would've been thinking of Canada-at-average vs America-at-average, and back then I can't think of anywhere, Toronto included (again, our biggest city) that it wasn't like that.

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