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.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)

From: [personal profile] rushthatspeaks

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)

From: [personal profile] rushthatspeaks

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)

From: [personal profile] kore

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.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

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 Date: 2017-01-30 03:26 am (UTC)
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

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.
sovay: (Rotwang)

From: [personal profile] sovay

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.
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)

From: [personal profile] staranise

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 Date: 2017-01-30 08:53 pm (UTC)

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