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.
A while back I reviewed a memoir by Lynne Cox, a record-setting endurance swimmer. The entry contains a fantastic set of comments recommending books and articles and media on the topic of mind-body experiences and pushing one's physical/mental limits.

One of the most interesting was on the Barkley Marathons, an extraordinarily challenging wilderness endurance run which is also extraordinarily weird. The entrance fee used to be a flannel shirt, but now it's a license plate from anyone's car but your own. This wonderful article is the best introduction to it.

It’s no easy feat to get here. There are no published entry requirements or procedures. It helps to know someone. Admissions are decided by Laz’s personal discretion, and his application isn’t exactly standard, with questions like “What is your favorite parasite?” and a required essay with the subject “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run In the Barkley.”

This LJ entry has a fascinating account of the Barkley by a guy who got so exhausted that he literally forgot where he was and what he was doing. Comments have some personal anecdotes of similar experiences, along with one of mine at the end.

This documentary is best watched after reading the article, as it minimizes explanation in favor of experience. It's quirky and rambling and fun, and has several satisfying narrative coups. One is when, about fifteen minutes in, it gets around to explaining some of the Barkley's more eccentric and difficult characteristics, in an understated manner with diagrams. They are so outrageous that I burst out laughing. Another is the origin of the name, which doesn't come up until near the end and neatly sums up the charmingly WTF nature of both the founder and the entire thing. The last is a question that kept not getting asked, and not getting asked, until I finally gave up on it. It's asked at the very end. The answer is perfect.

Right now, due to horrendous health problems, it's very questionable if I will ever again do anything more strenuous than walking a couple city blocks. So I'm glad I pushed my physical/mental limits while I could and wanted to and enjoyed it. Had I known what was coming, I might have done more. Probably not a lot more, because I was already doing everything I really wanted to do. But maybe a little more, just for the memories and to have no regrets rather than very few. But had I known what was coming, it would have depressed the hell out of me, so it wouldn't have been worth it. I'm glad I didn't know.

But even at my physical peak, I probably never could have done the Barkley. I don't think I ever had the level of athletic potential to be accepted - I was always more impressive in terms of spirit than in physicality. Technically speaking, I was not only not a world-class athlete, I wasn't even in the top five in my own dojo. Even if I'd somehow gotten into the Barkley on the basis of sheer mental fortitude, a lot of it involves finding your way around, and my sense of direction is wretched. Finally, I already had a sport. To train for something like the Barkley, I would have had to give up or cut way down on karate to devote myself to running, and I loved karate but I've only ever mildly liked running.

But if I could wave a magic wand and make all those obstacles disappear, I would love to try the Barkley.

It's one of the most hardcore tests I've ever heard of for some odd stuff that I am or was unusually good at. Obviously I don't have physical endurance in terms of stuff like training all day any more, but I used to have a fairly impressive amount for an amateur. It involves sleep deprivation, and I'm good at that. I've worked around the clock quite a lot in my life. I've gone entirely without sleep for at least 72 hours multiple times. My functioning degrades, but less than average based on what other people were doing under the same circumstances.

Most importantly, it's a test of persistence. That is something I still possess. I've met lots of people who are better than me at every other thing I'm good at. I have never met anyone who's better than me at not giving up. I am pretty sure I'm world-class at that one. If there's something I really, really want, and there's no reason to quit beyond that it's hard and giving up would provide quick gratification at the cost of the thing I really, really want, I have never quit.

The Barkley intrigues me for an odd motivation mentioned in the film: people run it because it's something they can fail at. It's a challenge for people who've never failed at certain things, and so don't know what their limits really are. The flip side is that maybe, if they can find a thing they could fail at, they'll be able to know for sure that they are limitless.

Is there anything that could make me think, "This is miserable, I know I'll get something I really, really want if I keep going, I'm physically capable of doing so and no harm will come to me if I do, but I'd rather give up and get some sleep?" And then actually make me give up, rather than have that thought and keep going?

I don't know, because nothing ever has. Not even this entire last year and a half, which as some of you know has been as tough as the Barkley but nowhere near as fun, and which often made me very seriously consider giving up. But I haven't.

So if I could, for all senses of could, I'd run the Barkley. I would probably spend the entire time limit wandering lost around the very first loop, like this guy:

Julian is a “virgin,” one of fifteen newbies who will do their damndest to finish a loop. He has managed to escape the designation of “sacrificial virgin,” officially applied to the virgin each year (usually the least experienced ultra-runner) whom Laz has deemed most likely to fail in a spectacular fashion—to get lost for so long, perhaps, that he manages to beat Dan Baglione’s course record for slowest pace. At the age of seventy-five, in 2006, Baglione managed two miles in thirty-two hours. Something to do with an unscrewed flashlight cap, an unexpected creek.

That is great. It's such a magnificent failure that it loops around into success. He may have only got two miles, but he kept at it for thirty-two hours. I respect the hell out of that.

I think I could match that level of sheer stubbornness.

If that's true, I'd like to know it. I'd like to find out if it is true. And I like to do difficult things because they're difficult as long as they're also in some weird sense fun, and unlike, say, climbing Mount Everest, the Barkley sounds both extraordinarily difficult and fun for certain weird values of fun that include most of it being painful and miserable. (I don't know if there are two groups of people, those who do difficult things because they're difficult and those who don't, but there are definitely two groups of people, those for whom the last clause of that sentence makes sense and those for whom it doesn't.)

So here is what I ask you: if you could (assume that for all senses of could, you at least could have gotten in and had some sort of shot) would you do the Barkley? Why or why not?

If you wouldn't have done that specifically, is there some specific difficult thing - climbing a mountain, doing boot camp, taking the bar exam - that you haven't done or couldn't do in real life, but have imagined doing? What is it? Would you do it if you could? Why?
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