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)
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[personal profile] princessofgeeks 2017-01-30 01:32 am (UTC)(link)
I loved Swimming to Antarctica.
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[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.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 12:32 am (UTC)(link)
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.

I would agree with that actually. I don't buy the idea of taking back all the climbing in exchange for no accident false dichotomy in particular, I think. I knew people in SAR who probably would have been considered adrenaline junkies, and their opinion of people like this guy was....not kind. With him, his pattern of behaviour, and I don't mean to sound harsh, goes way beyond not leaving a note. Yeah, there's no way of staving off disaster, there's no absolute fail safe, but he was acting way beyond reckless IMHO, and repeatedly -- Jon Krakauer talks about some similar behaviour of his as a young man in Into the Wild, IIRC. And you can get hit by a bus crossing the street, or wind up getting stranded in a surprise whiteout blizzard just driving home from class in the early evening, which happened to me several times in Santa Fe.
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)
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-30 12:22 am (UTC)(link)
ha, yeah, that makes sense.

When I really think about it, there is, at the very least, a self-image aspect to it -- I think of myself as a prepared, careful person, and I've got a vested interest in doing what I can to maintain that; like you said, I really hate looking back on it and realizing there was something simple I could've done but didn't.

I'm definitely not saying I'm not motivated by social concerns in a lot of areas; it's a natural human impulse and I'm not immune! I've just never really thought about this as being one of them.
kore: (Default)

[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.
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-30 12:28 am (UTC)(link)
Eeeeyeah. And it's the difference between Grizzly Man dude and the people I've seen manage remarkable accord with grizzlies (for example) and ability to get quite close while filming/etc, in that the degree of basis in reality and how "nature" actually works.

It's honestly weird for me being down here on the coast (PNW) still in that those are really not super-important things to do here: you're basically never more than a couple hours' walk from SOME kind of building with a phone, cell-coverage is everywhere, the highways always have people on them, etc etc etc: having "oh crap I broke down" supplies'll probably make you a bit more comfy but tbh even if you do break down you'll probably never grab them. Whereas where I grew up, our automatic back of the car stuff was Winter stuff, for sure, but it was still there.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-30 12:36 am (UTC)(link)
Heh, when I lived in Illinois I developed a reputation as the person in the office you'd ask if you needed a screwdriver, jumper cables, etc, because I had all of that stuff in the trunk of my car and nobody else did. Coming from Alaska, of course, it was second nature to carry all of that around even when I was living somewhere that had a town every few miles. How could all of these people not have a heavy winter coat in their trunk?!
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-30 12:38 am (UTC)(link)
And Illinois is not different enough of a climate for me to break the habit, totally. YOU COULD STILL GET STUCK IN THE COLD HERE!!!

I don't have a proper Trunk Kit here because of just how not-that-important it really IS, where I drive now, but it still itches and I need to get one settled out just so it'll stop itching! XD
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 12:41 am (UTC)(link)
I don't have a car in Seattle, but even when I lived in ABQ which was MUCH less extreme than Santa Fe, I had flares in the trunk of my car. Did I ever use them? No, I never even had so much as a flat tire (for all the time I drove, I never even got a ticket, haha). But by God they were there, along with blankets and enough water for a couple of days and a little bit of nonperishable food, because everyone grew up hearing those stories about the woman who was stuck in her car for three days after a blizzard and survived by drinking melted water as it trickled through the window, or whatever. Or the people who went hiking out in Joshua Tree with a bottle of water and died of heat stroke. It just gets drilled into you.
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[personal profile] loligo 2017-01-30 03:06 am (UTC)(link)
I grew up in Michigan in the late '70s, early '80s, right on the border between suburbs and farm country. And all of that stuff was everyday common sense! Our cars always had water, blankets, snow shovel, extra gloves, etc. in the trunk. Pretty much anyone who ever left their house in the winter had a story of getting stuck in a snowbank on a country road, and even if you could pretty much be guaranteed that someone would be along in an hour or so, who wants to sit in a snowbank that long if you can dig yourself out?

I was arguing with my kids about this last month. Their schools don't send the kids out for recess if the weather is below freezing, so they balk at wearing heavy coats in the winter when they don't need them for recess. (I have a huge beef with the recess thing. I realize that because we have a lot of winter days *above* freezing here at the south end of Illinois, there are lots of low-income families who don't spend their limited funds on heavy winter gear. But I would rather the school have a huge closet of loaner gear than keep the kids indoors!)

Anyway, they were complaining, and I was insisting that they at least bring their coats in the car, and they were like, "Mom, exactly what do you think is going to happen?"

"The car could break down!"

"So we'll go to the nearest building. It's buildings all the way to school."

"But they're probably closed at this time of day!"

"So you have a cell phone."

"JUST BRING YOUR COAT BECAUSE I SAID SO."

My daughter dreams of moving to Alaska someday. I'll have to tell her that people who don't keep a coat in the car get turned back at the border.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-30 03:13 am (UTC)(link)
I'll have to tell her that people who don't keep a coat in the car get turned back at the border.

Hahahaaaaa. Yes! It is a little-known fact but we do. XD Even in summer. It is Alaska, after all!

That reminds me of a story a friend told me once, about a time he and his dad drove from Alaska to somewhere in the Lower 48 states in the winter. There was a blizzard in Washington and when they hit Snoqualmie Pass, in the middle of the state, there was a trooper checkpoint where they were stopping cars, asking if they had tire chains and winter gear, and turning them around if they didn't. And he and his dad were like, what are we going to do? We don't have chains with us! Well, they got up to the front of the line, showed their Alaska driver's licenses, and the trooper didn't even ASK. Just waved them through.

(He said the actual driving conditions turned out to be pretty easy and they didn't need chains at all.)
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 12:48 am (UTC)(link)
It's honestly weird for me being down here on the coast (PNW) still in that those are really not super-important things to do here: you're basically never more than a couple hours' walk from SOME kind of building with a phone, cell-coverage is everywhere, the highways always have people on them, etc etc etc: having "oh crap I broke down" supplies'll probably make you a bit more comfy but tbh even if you do break down you'll probably never grab them. Whereas where I grew up, our automatic back of the car stuff was Winter stuff, for sure, but it was still there.

OH SAME. And I remember after the New Yorker article (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one) and the HUGE panic here about the possible Big One, I was like...."but this is the West Coast. You just live here with that kind of risk, yeah, it's probably not going to happen, but it's something you think about." I mean, I was here during Nisqually in 2001, and even before that there was the huge one in '65.

Joan Didion had a line in one of her books about how living in California during the fire season meant she kept a bunch of family photo albums and other stuff and it's just what you do -- something like "you keep the snapshots in a box near the door, ready to go when the fire comes."
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-30 01:03 am (UTC)(link)
I tend to think that the thing about the big earthquake fear is that there really is nothing you can do. Bad weather in either direction you can prep for and it'll probably make a big difference; whether or not the ground rips apart under your feet, on the other hand, well it either will or it won't and there's not much you can do as an individual human being. More that whole municipalities/etc can do, for sure, but not much for you as a human.
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[personal profile] mildred_of_midgard 2017-01-30 01:27 am (UTC)(link)
I lived in Los Angeles for about a decade, and prevailing wisdom was to keep a few days of food, water, flashlights, and ready cash stocked up in case you survived the Big One but local infrastructure (electricity, water, gas, etc.) was out of commission. Considering how often I lost electricity without an earthquake, this seemed reasonable.

A couple years ago, this habit carried over naturally to keeping a stock of same in my house in Massachusetts in case of an electricity-destroying blizzard or another great blackout.

Mind you, I knew people who also had this habit of preparing for the Big One in Arizona, which is vulnerable to power outages in California.
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-30 01:29 am (UTC)(link)
Yeah, that's always in general been the recc for Big Earthquakes, but the massive subduction-zone slip (on par if not bigger than Japan's that caused the last tsunami/etc) tends to scare people in a way that previous discussions of quakes haven't, and my general sense is the sheer Can't Do Anything of it is why, especially down south where they don't have the entirety of Vancouver Island nicely in the way to break the tsunami before it does to them what theirs did to Japan.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-30 12:41 am (UTC)(link)
it was just something you did in that environment, as routine.

Routine - yeah, exactly. It becomes second nature; you don't even really think about it. Like I was saying in another comment below, it probably makes a big difference that living in an environment like that, you often see news stories about massive search and rescue efforts, know some of the first responders, and so forth, so it's not just abstract; it really hammers home both the risk and the effort/expense that it takes to find somebody when something goes wrong.

And yeah, with Into the Wild and Grizzly Man - same. It's not that they deserved to die, it's just hard to get past the sheer "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING" of the whole thing.

The summer I worked in Denali Park as a seasonal worker for one of the hotels, 1997, was also the year that book Into the Wild came out and became a bestseller. At that point, it hadn't yet become a big problem for tourists to show up looking for the bus (apparently that's a pretty big thing now, which has resulted in a number of people having to be rescued in the area); however, what was HUGE that summer among the park's seasonal workers was hiking out there THEMSELVES as a sort of pilgrimage to check out the bus. The park's seasonal employees primarily of outdoorsy 20-ish guys, so you can see why that would be a thing, but those of us who weren't interested did a lot of boggling at the Darwin Awards nature of it.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 01:01 am (UTC)(link)
And yeah, with Into the Wild and Grizzly Man - same. It's not that they deserved to die, it's just hard to get past the sheer "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING" of the whole thing.

Yeah, I think that particularly about Grizzly Man, because he DID know about grizzlies and he did know the dangers, but he saw himself as this exceptional grizzly whisperer, and well no, Mama Nature just does not work that way. It was kind of like Siegfried and Roy but on a huge scale. Wild animals are not pets! Nature is not a park! -- and with him in particular it seemed bound up in proving how special he was, the rules everyone else had to live by didn't apply to him, or even that there shouldn't be those kinds of rules period -- cf all his clashes with the NPS. McCandless seemed more like a kid who just really didn't know what he was getting into at all.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)

[personal profile] rushthatspeaks 2017-01-30 02:12 am (UTC)(link)
One thing that fascinates me about McCandless is how invested a set of people who write about him, including Jon Krakauer, are in him not having been a dumbass. Like, Krakauer has spent a lot of time attempting to prove that one of the wild plants McCandless ate poisoned him, and that the book he had which said it was okay was wrong, and There Was No Way He Could Have Known. And I'm like, look, maybe this is true, and maybe the book was misleading, but what does it do to prove that you're right about this? He's still dead. His death was still both preventable and tragic.

But Krakauer has gotten into actual in-print feuds about it. There seems to be this need that some people have for this kind of death not to be attributable to any error on the part of the person who died, and I don't understand it at all. I mean, I don't think any less of McCandless for starving to death! It sucks that he was unprepared, but... sometimes people get in over their heads? That just happens sometimes?

Oddly, I think in a way that Krakauer et al. live in a world that's somewhat kinder than the one I live in, because there seems to be an element of 'if you do it Right you will always be fine', along with 'and if something bad happens because you did it Wrong, it's your fault', whereas I'm more along the lines of well, sometimes when you do it wrong you get lucky and sometimes when you do it right shit happens anyhow.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)

[personal profile] rushthatspeaks 2017-01-30 02:45 am (UTC)(link)
Yeah, exactly.

And then with Krakauer specifically, and possibly with some of these other writers (though it sounds like not Ralston) the whole thing also gets exacerbated by survivor's guilt. Krakauer has absolutely done shit just as stupid as anything most of these people who die in the wilderness ever did (although, to be fair to Krakauer, nothing as stupid as the guy from Grizzly Man), and Krakauer is not only alive but thriving. This is his career, talking about the people who didn't make it, people come to him as an authority about this, so he's defending himself and also defending the dead, and I think there's a lot of identification there, and that he needs them to be blameless or at least to have done everything they could so he can feel better about his own past.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 03:06 am (UTC)(link)
But he would have lost his hand regardless, because that was a freak accident that could have happened to anyone.

Hmm, wouldn't he have been rescued earlier if someone had known where he'd gone? I don't think he would have necessarily lost his hand.
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[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-30 03:25 am (UTC)(link)
The Krakauer feud/was-McCandless-an-idiot thing is AMAZING, and at this point it's been going on for 20 years and people have developed obsessive levels of devotion to their point of view, on both sides. There is a McCandless cult, basically, for whom McCandless is their Wilderness Messiah and how dare anyone speak ill of him. (These are the people who tend to show up at the bus on pilgrimages and then need to be rescued. At one point the state was either going to remove the schoolbus, or had already done it -- I forget how that turned out -- so they could stop sending helicopters out there to rescue lost hikers.)

And then there are the "McCandless was an idiot" people, and like you pointed out, the hardcore version of this is essentially "he got what he deserved" which -- no! Nobody deserves to starve to death in the wilderness at the age of 22 or whatever! Granted, you can always do things that make it a lot less likely. But like you said, that wasn't who he was, and lots of other people ALSO do that kind of thing and survive. If he'd walked back out of the wilderness again three months later, everyone would've thought he was totally hardcore.
Edited 2017-01-30 03:26 (UTC)
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[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 02:36 am (UTC)(link)
Like, Krakauer has spent a lot of time attempting to prove that one of the wild plants McCandless ate poisoned him, and that the book he had which said it was okay was wrong, and There Was No Way He Could Have Known.

Ohhh, the whole wild potato seed thing, and what poisoned him was a toxin! an alkaloid! no it was an amino acid! (I might have gone on, a long while back, on a Krakauer reading jag, and the Everest tragedy reading jag, and a McCandless reading jag, what an I say.) Krakauer's whole thing is that McCandless was poisoned, he didn't starve to death, and if he hadn't eaten the seeds he would have walked out and be alive today, which....just no. I really don't think so, he was just too isolated and starving and he couldn't have gotten out.

I think one reason Krakauer got weird about it is not just that Krakauer tends to get weird about these kinds of things, but in the original article that got expanded into the book, he theorized that McCandless mistook the sweet pea seed for the wild potato seed and ate that, so it was his own ignorance. Krakauer also had a similar problem when he very quickly wrote the original Outside article that Into Thin Air was based on, when he claimed he saw a guide (Andy Harris) alive long after the guy had probably walked off a precipice and died. He also really goes off on the Russian guide, to the extent they had numerous feuds online and in print too.

Oddly, I think in a way that Krakauer et al. live in a world that's somewhat kinder than the one I live in, because there seems to be an element of 'if you do it Right you will always be fine', along with 'and if something bad happens because you did it Wrong, it's your fault', whereas I'm more along the lines of well, sometimes when you do it wrong you get lucky and sometimes when you do it right shit happens anyhow.

Yeah, that gets really emphasized re Into Thin Air, because he wrote what became the definitive account very quickly and blamed the Russian guide and Fischer in it, and with McCandless there were a whole lot of people who judged him very harshly and basically said he was this airheaded hippie and it was totally his own fault &c &c. I actually feel a little sympathy for McCandless, because when I was a seventeen-year-old Tolstoy-reading high school dropout I wanted nothing more than to get a used van and travel by myself around America and go hiking a lot, and I think it's a really common fantasy a lot of kids have (they typically wind up going to college instead). He just absolutely wanted to force his dream to become reality, and he was living in the dream, he was all wrapped up in the idea of being a modern anarchist Thoreau or whatever. It was like he wanted to sever all his human ties, just disappear into the wilderness and become part of it. And he sort of did, just really really not in the way he wanted.
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[personal profile] sovay 2017-01-30 07:04 am (UTC)(link)
Oddly, I think in a way that Krakauer et al. live in a world that's somewhat kinder than the one I live in, because there seems to be an element of 'if you do it Right you will always be fine', along with 'and if something bad happens because you did it Wrong, it's your fault'

I don't find that kinder at all. That way lies theodicy and Job.
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[personal profile] staranise 2017-01-30 08:52 pm (UTC)(link)
This is such a fascinating discussion!

I'm remembering a fight I had, oh, years ago, with a friend's husband, who is the exact kind of person to adore Krakauer and McCandless and all that--the fight was about mountain climbing, actually, since he was reading all about local mountains he wanted to ski-hike up, and I was of the opinion that mountain climbing is a dumb pastime because it's so resource-intensive, and rather than proving that the people who do it are Brave Independent Can-Do Sorts I was appalled by the huge expense of SAR for them...

And part of it is, yeah, my perspective has been warped by always being aware of how merciless the world can be. I don't need to step very far to be "aware of my mortality". I and the people I loved could easily end up in life-threatening situations just by doing afternoon chores. And we did; I nearly died when I was 14, and my godmother nearly died twice in the time I lived next to her. It wasn't hard.

(Although I suspect a lot of my irritation with mountain climbing was really sour grapes; if I were able-bodied I would love to run up and down mountains and Experience Nature. But that ability's been taken away from me and replaced with pain. So.)
Edited 2017-01-30 20:53 (UTC)
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[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-30 12:22 am (UTC)(link)
Possibly? It also occurred to me that there's an automatic sense, for me, that getting yourself into Ridiculous Danger is going to put other people at risk too - you get lost out on the mountain, someone else has to skidoo around in dangerous conditions to find you, you get stuck in the river someone else has to go out and get you, etc. Or for that matter, break the bank/waste a shitload of money getting the helo in the air to go search for you, and don't you remember the muni is BROKE right now? Etc. Which ISN'T universally true, but because it's an automatic equivalence in my head it hits a place of "not only are you a moron, you're a selfish thoughtless one with no consideration for other people!"

Which may well be due to extreme-ish type weather and isolation and so on being a very normal thing.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-30 12:34 am (UTC)(link)
Yeah, that is EXACTLY where my brain goes too. It probably helps that living in an environment like that, you regularly see news stories about search and rescue, so it really hammers home what a massive effort it is, how much it costs, and how many people are involved in it -- it's not just one dude who gets lost, it's a whole village that mobilizes to find him.
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[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 12:38 am (UTC)(link)
Yeah, I remember watching the SAR teams get called out at St John's, and there were something like twenty students from our school, and then other volunteers, and the State Police had already been called, and everyone had to go out with their kits and ropes and litters and radios &c &c. I mean the whole mission looks like this http://santafesar.org/for-the-public/how-does-a-sar-mission-start/

And that would happen REGULARLY. Most of the time it was tourists who just didn't know any better and would go up for a day hike wearing no jacket because it's very sunny in NM! and then the sun would go behind the mountains, and it would maybe rain, and they'd get lost and be in the dark and this would be fairly close to civilization -- much closer than arm guy -- but they were still in danger and isolated and needed help.
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[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-30 12:44 am (UTC)(link)
Hah. Here in Van it's the Grouse Grind - the dad of the last family I nannied for is a firefighter, and they do a good chunk of the basic rescue work (once you get ISOLATED it becomes the military SAR like everywhere else, but up on the close-to ski-hills/etc it's often the fire department), and someone would need to get pulled off the Grind about weekly.

It was evenly split between shit you couldn't do anything about (broken legs and other injuries, someone having a heart attack, etc) and cases where he'd come home and talk about "some IDIOT on the Grind" which were almost always someone who hadn't brought water, or the right kind of clothes, or went off the trails and got lost, or something.

Right around where I grew up we were preeeetty good because the outsiders who came in and didn't know what they were doing were usually hunters and usually hooked up with one of the guiding outfits - now THEIR stories of "oh GOD AMERICANS*" were hilarious - so mostly any SAR that happened was "bad shit happens", with the occasional "local person is Huge Moron, will be told off at length in local paper".

Get a few hours towards bigger centres, though, in places while technically further south practically speaking no less hostile, and you get wealthy people coming into ski and do winter sports constantly needing rescuing. And then half the summer needing rescuing because they think it's safe just because there's no snow on the ground. *throws up hands*

I gather Australia Very Frequently has the same problem in the other temperature direction with tourists. An Aussie friend of mine and I exchange stories about these things: ours are "it's colder than you think and you will die" and "THAT LARGE MAMMAL WILL FUCKING KILL YOU ARE YOU STUPID GET AWAY", where his are "it's hotter than you think and you will die" and "HAVE YOU NOT ALREADY HEARD THAT EVERYTHING HERE IS POISONOUS DON'T TOUCH THAT!"


*not entirely fair, mind, I know! but it was usually wealthy urban people from the US, which got shorthanded as "Americans"
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[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 01:15 am (UTC)(link)
Oh yeah, St John's is right by Monte Sol, which is a day hike you can do in several hours (about 7K feet I think), and the start of the Atalaya (7-9K feet) trail, and you can literally just walk up into the mountains in NM -- you just go to the outskirts of town and start going up, and there's all kinds of trails everywhere. So hiking/climbing/day hiking totally gets sold as a tourist thing. And there are plenty of tourists who just don't know how dangerous the weather can get even on a nice day, or how if you sprain your ankle alone on a mountain trail that can be a big problem, so the shorthand was "oh, tourists," instead of "oh, Americans." Which was unfair to the many out-of-state climbers who would come in and have a great time and knew what to do! but they weren't who we meant.
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[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-30 12:48 am (UTC)(link)
Yeah most of our stories were from a bit south where the ski-hills started, because the people coming up around where we were tended to hook up with guiding outfits (now THEIR stories were epic, let me tell you XDXD) but it was a regular on the news and there was sort of a general awareness that if you got your stupid ass lost or in trouble, someone was going to have to come rescue you and you were putting THEM at risk and cost and what the hell is wrong with you. And appropriate levels of community-applied shaming in your direction if you got back, and certain kinds of phrasing if you didn't ("went and got himself killed" being a favourite).

And I don't think of any of it consciously - like obviously now I am, but I mean in general - so much as it is kinda the sea in which my thoughts on this topic swim.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-30 01:06 am (UTC)(link)
This is all very familiar. XD

It is interesting to think of it in light of Rachel's post, though, because I never really thought about it in this way before, but the community-shaming aspect is DEFINITELY a thing -- probably in any group of people who live close to dangerous parts of nature; from what [personal profile] kore was saying it sounds like the Southwest is very similar -- and that almost certainly DOES play a role in the way you internalize it growing up. I mean, once you become an adult you tend to think of it in terms of practical considerations and habit, but being a kid and hearing the adults around you talking about "some idiot went and got himself lost again", or watching people you know get involved with SAR efforts, is certainly going to have an effect on the way you grow up thinking about risk, responsibility, and proper behavior vis-a-vis the wilderness.
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[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-30 01:31 am (UTC)(link)
Yes, this. For me the big thing is, I think, that I would in addition to everything else feel GUILTY about bringing someone out to rescue me, especially in ANY kind of risk situation - not just the sense of "I look stupid", but in the sense of "I have caused massive inconvenience/danger to SOMEONE ELSE oh god shoot me" kind of way.
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[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 01:45 am (UTC)(link)
I think one thing that really gets me isn't so much the community shame or feeling like I had been stupid (altho I really cannot understand how arm guy didn't even bring A JACKET?) but that this one person, by not leaving a note or telling other people where he was going, potentially got a whole lot of other people, the SAR volunteers and the professional searchers and so on, who placed themselves in jeopardy to help him. Even though those people were trained and all experienced in rescues and had their own supplies and so on, they're still volunteering to go into a dangerous environment and risk their own personal safety. This is why it's not recklessness so much for me -- I think a searcher said around the time the arm guy movie came out, that if SAR is out there during the night looking for him in the canyons, he could step through a slot too and be fucked himself. And that's something the arm guy story really didn't emphasize, something that's not in a lot of these stories, I think, that depend on the really exceptionalized view of the one individual saving himself by means of whatever. But of course he didn't just save himself -- he kept his head and was able to make a terrible decision and do it well, but he ran into that tourist family and then the family was able to tell the rescuers where to look. Even when someone goes off into the wilderness, isolated, to do the individual test-their-mettle thing, they're still part of the web of society, and they're having an impact on other people they don't even know. The other people chose to be in SAR, of course, but I think that's what would bother me, knowing I had basically demanded that other people put themselves at risk when they didn't have to, if I'd done something like WEAR A JACKET.
Edited 2017-01-30 01:46 (UTC)
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-30 03:28 am (UTC)(link)
Right. GUILT. THE GUILT.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 01:33 am (UTC)(link)
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.
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[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-30 03:27 am (UTC)(link)
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)

[personal profile] kore 2017-01-30 03:35 am (UTC)(link)
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.
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[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-30 03:43 am (UTC)(link)
*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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[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!
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[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.
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[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)
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[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.
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[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.
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[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/