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.
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naye: a photo of old books (books)

From: [personal profile] naye

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.
recessional: a young brunette leaning back and smoking (personal; it's death or victory)

From: [personal profile] recessional


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.
naye: a woman in a red dress reaching towards the sky (min röda dräkt)

From: [personal profile] naye

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 Date: 2017-01-29 09:22 pm (UTC)
recessional: a quote from Discworld that is too long to go in the description box. :( (personal; the tao wouldn't be what it is)

From: [personal profile] recessional

...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 "" moment from.
cloudsinvenice: woman resting her head on her hand, thinking (Default)

From: [personal profile] cloudsinvenice

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!
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)

From: [personal profile] luzula

...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 Date: 2017-01-29 10:45 pm (UTC)
king_touchy: gold crown with jewels on white background (Default)

From: [personal profile] king_touchy

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.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

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 Date: 2017-01-29 11:33 pm (UTC)
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

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.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

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

From: [personal profile] recessional

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

From: [personal profile] recessional

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.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

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)

From: [personal profile] sholio

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.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

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?!
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

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

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

From: [personal profile] recessional

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
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

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)

From: [personal profile] kore

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

From: [personal profile] recessional

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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