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Book Review: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

On February 28, 2011, in friends of 2.8, by Agency 2.8

127 Hours, based on Aron Ralston’s New York Times bestseller, Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Editors Note: Given that 127 Hours was nominated for six Academy Awards, we thought we’d revisit this story in case you have not picked up the book.  Aron is a close friend of Agency 2.8 so we are thrilled at the nods from the film Academy, but more importantly that he survived this trying dilemma and has continued on to contribute to his passion, the great American outdoors through his work with the Wilderness Workshop.
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This heroic memoir by mountaineer Aron Ralston takes the reader through an excruciating tale of survival that became world-wide news in May 2003, when Ralston self-rescued himself after being trapped by a boulder in Blue John Canyon for five days, by amputating his own arm. He takes us, in his own beautiful prose, not only through the frank tale of saving his own life, but also the events in his past that made him the man he is today—a man that was strong enough to give himself the ultimate gift of a new life.

The opening of Ralston’s first book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place sets the ominous tone of danger right from the beginning. Those who have seen the Canyonlands of Utah will relate to the winding canyons and windswept landscape that Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch called home during their days as outlaws in the Wild West. Back in 1899—when the infamous Blue John Griffith was last seen—and still today, arid desolation makes the area known as Robber’s Roost, a reluctant host to life.

Ralston, however, is no stranger to adverse conditions. He is determined to do what no one else in history has done: climb all of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks—59 in total—solo, and in the winter season. Being one of many people to have climbed all 59 peaks during normal climbing season, he will be the first to climb them alone in the winter having completed 47 already. Describing this pursuit, Aron describes adventures to the most extreme environments the continental U.S. has to offer including solo ascents of Colorado’s Long’s Peak, the Maroon Bells, and Capital Peak.

The 27 year-old mechanical engineer knew that life had more to offer than his comfy cubicle at Intel, and in 2002, made the decision to end his career at the corporate semiconductor giant, and begin a new life of adventure. In this pivotal year, Ralston accepted his calling as a “rubber tramp,” a lifestyle inspired by the obstinant voice of the beat generation, originally characterized by the adventures of Neal Cassady in Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The Road. That year, Ralston marked the beginning of his new vocation of adventure by climbing the highest peak in North America, Alaska’s Denali. He also left his home in the desert of Albuquerque, New Mexico for Aspen, Colorado—to the epicenter of his obsession, Colorado’s high country.

Taking the reader through a detailed—almost minute by minute—account of the fateful days of entrapment, he reveals the thoughts and emotions captured on video as last will and testament, as he was imprisoned in geologic time.

Aron’s frank encounter with death was not what he expected. Spending his recreational time trekking up mountains or tethered to sheer cliffs, he anticipated his eventual end to be accompanied by a fall, and the sound of a crushing exhale to be his last moment. Instead he was involved in a drawn-out, introspective struggle. He describes that it was like having dinner with death, with the chance to talk for 5 days, with the final thought being, “Well, that’s it, then, I guess its time to go.”

But he did not go.

He relates the brutality of each night in the canyon as “nothing short of hell.”

Despite the common perception of hell as a crowded, infernally hot place—Milton’s Pandemonium—…I know better by now. Hell is indeed a deep, chthonic hole, but hot? No. It is a bitterly dark and unbearably cold place of lonely solitude, an arctic prison without a warden and but one abandoned inmate, forsaken even by the supposed ringleader of the underworld. There is no other spiritual energy, good or evil, on which to project love or hatred. There is only one emotion in hell: unmitigated despair wrapped in abject loneliness.

Perhaps the most touching moments of the book are when he dictates his last messages to friends and family as his last will and testament and brings the eerie concept of death home. The reader can feel the frustration knowing it will be more painful for his mother to hear news of his end, than the pain of an 800-pound rock on his hand or even the slow death of kidney failure due to dehydration. He conveys the miserable humility of going out on a trip with out telling anyone where he was going, a customary ritual of his and something he knows better not to do.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place is remarkably honest, detailed, and surprisingly humorous given the circumstances. One would expect Ralston’s articulate language to come from a seasoned journalist, like when Jon Krakauer made the transition from a contributing editor at Outside Magazine to an author. Krakauer then created some of the most defining literary works of the outdoor adventure culture with Into Thin Air, and Into The Wild. Ralston’s book will no doubt have a similar effect on the adventure community as Krakauer’s defining works did.

Life barely hangs by a string when you find yourself between Scylla and Charybdis, as in the Odyssey. According to Homer “Better by far to lose six men and keep your ship than to lose your entire crew.”

If there is any truth to the saying that “if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger,” then Aron Ralston is the strongest man alive right now. If you are interested in what goes on in the head of such a Herculean hero, pick up Between a Rock and a Hard Place. It’s the best thing you’ll ever do with your right hand.

A review by Jon Heinrich, originally published 9/25/04

Aron, we’re glad, glad, glad you’re alive!


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