Between a Rock and a Hard Place tells the story of Aron Ralston well, and leaves the reader with plenty to mull over when the last page has been turned.
Harrowing survival stories never get old, at least to those with the luxury of an armchair perspective. Aron Ralston’s canyoneering nightmare in Blue John Canyon is not recent news, but this was the first time I carved out time to buy his book and read it. The story itself is simple. Aron Ralston, an experienced mountaineer, takes an impromptu trip to Canyonlands without leaving a detailed itinerary. While traveling through a remote slot canyon, he is dramatically trapped by a boulder when it shifts and pins his right forearm to the wall. Aron spends nearly a week in the canyon, attempting to improvise ways to extricate his arm, leaving messages for family on his video camera, and even scratching RIP and a date into the canyon wall. Miraculously, he figures out a way to amputate his right arm, hike/rappel out of the slot and find help 7 miles away. This shouldn’t come as a spoiler since the book jacket and cover photo of Aron, alive, with a prosthetic arm, reveal as much. For those who want to know if the book is worth reading, it is. It’s not Krakauer, but it’s well written (more so than this post), and the survival story is riveting.
Beyond the Story
Between a Rock and a Hard Place is difficult to review because it simultaneously strikes a chord in this reader while summoning up an equal temptation to criticize. Perhaps “review” is the wrong word, “response” is better.
Responding to Red Flags
Half the book recounts many of Aron’s other adventures, how he became an adventurer and the types of adventures he had. Candidly, most of these tales are all disclosures of misadventures recounting close calls, bad decisions and near disasters. After a few dozen pages of such tales I began taking notes – mainly out of curiosity. Here’s the list:
- Long’s Peak: Ignored advice of experienced climber, made multiple reckless glissades.
- Arkansas River: Ran whitewater in kiddie rafts. Also, ran regular rafts under new moon (pitch black) with dangerous water conditions and friends on board.
- Grand Tetons: Unprepared solo excursion in the snow, stalked by bear.
- Mt. Humphreys: Solo ascent into winter storm. Ski poles tethered on backpack sparked from lightning, and Aron was forced to crawl off ridge on belly.
- Havasupai: Rock climbing in sandals, falling
- Colorado River: Jumped into confluence, saved from drowning by two strangers
- Pyramid Peak west face: took a precipitous fall
- Mt. of the Holy Cross winter solo: Lost in snow, slept exposed, spilled majority of fuel, triggered cornice avalanche
- Long’s Peak solo: Dropped pack with crampons near summit, saved by self-arrest when he slipped on way down
- Capitol Peak winter solo: Froze hands and self-treated frostbite
- Resolution Peak: Pressured two friends to ski unstable snowpack, triggering Grade 5 avalanche which nearly killed them
- Bell Cord Couloir winter solo: Narrow misses from falling ice, blind ascent onto ice wall, lost glove, refused to turn back when opportunity was available
- Crestone: Redirected falling boulder away from his head
- Pearl Pass solo night ski: Stuck in whiteout and snow cave
- Reading while driving
Taken individually, these mishaps could be attributed to miscalculation, fatigue or any other number of human weaknesses. As a body of work, these misadventures raise red flags pointing to recklessness. In fact, moments before telling his fellow skiers “this sucks” and leaving the safety of the Resolution Peak ridgeline, one of them had just finished telling Aron, “I don’t do climbs like that” – in reference to one of Aron’s dangerous solo misadventures. Shortly thereafter, all three were buried beneath a Grade 5 avalanche. The other two, grudgingly followed Aron into the bowl. According to the book, neither has since wanted to speak to him. Despite Ralston’s track record of mishaps Ranger Steve Swanke stated (correctly, I think):
This [Aron’s rock climbing accident] was someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time, an extreme case of bad luck. It’s just bad luck.
It’s now 2013, Aron’s Blue John Canyon disaster happened ten years ago. He’s had his share of critics and scrutiny, and I don’t intend to second guess what happened. Not telling anyone where he was going was a big mistake, obviously. The element of intrigue with the book and interviews I’ve seen is his lack of regret. Even regarding the avalanche, Aron states, “rather than regret those choices, I swore to myself that I would learn from their consequences.”
In full, Aron’s associate on Resolution Peak stated:
I can’t be excited for you , Aron. I don’t do climbs like that. But I think it’s great for you — as long as you’re happy.
Attributing the daring of Ralston, and others like him, to machismo or stupidity is a mistake. As an accomplished pianist, successful engineer, and thoroughly trained Search and Rescue member, Aron displays high intellect. He is articulate and well-informed on the geology of the nature he explores. What drives his risk taking? The book gives clues:
…I learned about the concept of deep play, wherein a person’s recreational pursuits carry a gross imbalance of risk and reward. Without the potential for any real or perceived external gain — fortune, glory, fame — a person puts himself into scenarios of real risk and consequence purely for internal benefit: fun and enlightenment … Suffering, cold nausea, exhaustion, hunger — none of it meant anything, it was all part of the experience. The same went for the joy, euphoria, achievement, and fulfillment, too … Expectations generally led to disappointment, but being open to whatever was there for me to discover led to awareness and delight, even when conditions were rough … ‘It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.’
Suffering as fun may sound like a bluff, but many adventurers and athletes share this mindset, including myself. Personally, suffering isn’t intrinsically fun, but what it can represent and often reveals is rewarding. Suffering up a wind-blasted, icy ridge can represent courage and discipline. It can reward with physical fitness, a sense of accomplishment, unparalleled scenery and the promise of discovering something new. This is infinitely preferable to pining away at a safe desk job. Aron mentions how Chris McCandless, the subject of John Krakauer’s Into the Wild made a lasting impression. One letter from McCandless read:
So many people live with unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence their is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.
Ralston responds to this passage by stating, “I wanted to taste that joy, to experience that passion for adventure, to cast away the security of my job and let my spirit roam.” Admirably, he followed through on this desire, getting education on outdoor living, gaining experience and quitting his comfortable engineering job. At the core, Aron Ralston’s misadventures were all part of a spiritual quest — a quest for joy and happiness. Joy and happiness seem diminished without real potential for suffering and disaster.
Meaning: A Realization
Conscious beings (at least the ones taking advantage of such powers) are vexed by a felt need to attribute meaning to our endeavors and our existence. Who are we? Why do we matter? Aron Ralston isn’t the only one who finds himself most alive in the outdoors. He admires Krakauer’s books, and so do I, because they resonate. A feature about Aron on Dateline NBC, indicates how the two Krakauer books (Into Thin Air and Into the Wild) end in heartbreak and destruction. So why would anyone aspire to similar escapades? Krakauer ably unpacks the psychology of young men like Ralston, McCandless and himself in Into the Wild (Read the book, it would be unjust to attempt a summary). These (generally) should be understood as quests, not wrong-headed stunts. In the book, Ralston recounts a comment from his friend Rob Cooper, “It’s not what you do Aron, it’s who you are.” According to the book, this created consternation and Aron spent time attempting to refute the axiom:
I would attempt to refute him. In my view, we define who we are precisely by what we do. We find our identity in action. If we do nothing, we are nothing.
Trapped in Blue John Canyon, facing imminent death, Ralston remembered the conversation with Rob and had a breakthrough:
Rob was sensing in the accounts of my adventures an unspoken request for his approval. More a reassurance than a challenge, his reply told me that it didn’t matter to him what I had done or achieved. He deemed me a friend because of who I am — as a person, not as a climber, a skier, an outdoorsman. My confusion at his assertion had shown how right he was…Rob, along with everyone else I cared about in my life, would either respect me for who I am — as in how I treat others — or they wouldn’t.
Performance-based personalities are shocked to hear statements like Rob’s which rings with grace. I suspect Aron’s comment about being respected, or not, for how he treats others doesn’t fully capture what Rob was meaning. True friends value and love each other, apart from my deeds. Were one to go off the deep end, the other would still love even if that meant different actions (ie: tough love). Stuck in a canyon alone, one of Aron’s primary concerns was for people and his relationships with them — people and relationships mattered most. A realization very similar to that of McCandless nearing his own last days, “Happiness is not real unless it is shared.” Aron describes his “abject loneliness” in the canyon as “hell”. Jeopardizing relationships through extreme risk may be the clearest trespass of “deep play” advocates.
…Michelle opened the front screen door to find my mom involuntarily rocking back and forth on a stool at the kitchen counter, clutching her heaving stomach and sobbing in grief-stricken terror.
Aron Ralston has many admirable qualities, not the least of which being honesty. Readily disclosing mistakes and poor decisions takes integrity, especially in our critical age. Before concluding, I’d like to note a few other positive qualities: True to personal values Whether or not I may agree with the particulars of Aron’s worldview (what he attributes meaning to), he is to be commended for wholeheartedly pursuing the life he perceives as authentic. Quitting a high paying job to pursue a dream takes courage. Expecting to die in the canyon, Ralston concluded:
I have fulfilled my purpose in life by exploring so much of the world, bringing myself happiness and inspiring others with my adventures. I have met my calling at every opportunity and lived an intense and dramatic life.
Training The ingenuity required to survive and escape from the canyon reveal Aron’s fortitude, but also his thorough training. He had a decent amount of gear and the knowledge to make it out alive. This knowledge spared him during other ordeals and was acquired through hard work such as Search and Rescue volunteerism. Playfulness Calling this “exuberance for life” on a recent video, Aron seems to have a childlike quality. This natural curiosity could explain how he seems to shrug off regret and remain optimistic where others might crumble. Even facing death, he retained a sense of humor when bidding farewell to his arm.
In His Own Words: What Aron Ralston Learned from Blue John Canyon
My accident in and rescue from Blue John Canyon were the most beautifully spiritual experiences of my life, and knowing that, were I to travel back in time, I would still say “see you later to Megan and Kristi and take off into that lower slot by myself. While I’ve learned much, I have no regrets about that choice. Indeed, it has affirmed my belief that our purpose as spiritual beings is to follow our bliss, seek our passions, and live our lives as inspirations to each other. Everything else flows from that. When we find inspiration, we need to take action for ourselves and for our communities. Even if it means making a hard choice, or cutting out something and leaving it in your past.
My initial reaction to this book was critical, Ralston seemed to have it coming. However, after some contemplation, I can give him the benefit of the doubt and commend the book as worth the read. His extreme risk taking can’t be endorsed, but it can be empathized with. I admire Aron Ralston.
Information! What do you think? Have you read the book, what was your reaction to it? What can be learned from this adventure? Is the movie any good? Please share in the comments below.