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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Aron Ralston. Atria Books: New York, 2004.354 pages, with 16 pages of color photos. $26.00

This is the book about the guy who cut his arm off, by the guy who cut his arm off. His name is Aron Ralston, and he’s alternately gritty and dorky, inspiring and annoying. The fact that you already know the story is the first crux for this narrative: Aron goes canyoneering solo, gets his hand stuck and suffers, cuts off his arm, and walks out. The second crux is for the author to stretch this grisly incident into a book-length tale. How well the writing meets these challenges depends on the reader. If you’ve picked the book up for alpine adventure, you’ll be disappointed, but if it’s fortitude and resolution in the wilderness you seek, this is your book.

Ralston’s first chapter describes the hike and then the tumble with a chockstone that shackled him to a remote canyon wall. The shock of not getting free is agonizingly well described, and we settle in with Ralston for a long, cold desert night in his “glove of sandstone.” But now the writer reaches back into his past, stretching the incident into a full 300-page book, and it’s here the reader begins to feel the washboard road rattling the suspension of narrative. He’s in his mid-twenties, and while his life has been interesting, he’s not exactly Ulysses. Ralston brings us through his youthful exploits in the mountains, including some rookie suffering we all recognize: postholing pointlessly for miles—and some we probably won’t—chasing a bear who took his food in the Tetons. We travel with Ralston through various mini-epics, a major life change from an engineering career to living in Aspen, and arrive at his goal of climbing all Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in winter.

There is much to like in this enthusiasm, and much to admire in his re-invention of himself as an endurance athlete. However, for you climbers there are apt to be some awkward moments, as Ralston stretches chilly days on basic peaks into long drama. He’s hiking snowy summits, and rambling along ridgelines with one eye on his website and one eye on his stopwatch. Our narrator becomes that recognizable figure: the frenetic, gear-store geek, fixated on abstractions like “fourteeners,” and painfully eager to share the video and the jpegs from his latest escapade. That gets a little old.

Of course, they say character is fate, and it’s the very momentum of a young man’s hyperenergy, an engineer’s attention to detail, a neophyte mountaineer’s bad decisions, an egoist’s self-regard, and an endurance athlete’s appetite for punishment that tumbles him into trouble and then enables him to survive. Ralston, you see, is his own perfect storm. That’s what saves him and ultimately saves this book.

What I like about Between a Rock and a Hard Place is Ralston’s strong writing skills, his self-deprecating humor, and his ability to share lessons from his accident without preaching. We have to tolerate the title as a pun too obvious for a publisher to forego. Ralston reminds me of Joe Simpson, without the technical ability but with the inclination for accidents, because he never presents himself as a hero, never shapes his story into a Christian allegory, and retains a sense of humor no matter the mess he’s in.

Ralston’s ordeal itself is strikingly well told, and the book becomes powerful as his frustration becomes responsibility, and ultimately psychological transformation: “You created this accident...you have been heading for this situation for a long time.” The excruciating dismemberment is only part of his story. Ralston’s sandstone prison is a venue for life-altering contemplation, and even if his guiding texts are lyrics from Phish or lines from The Matrix, the reader is privileged to witness a stirring change as this young man has the strength to learn about himself, about love for his friends, and about motivations for outdoor accomplishment healthier than altitudes and firsts.

American Alpine Journal readers will find this a Pop-Tart of a book: not really fresh or really filling, but tasty in the right spots and warming evidence of one persons ability to take a terrible situation and mold it into something constructive and uplifting.

Jeffrey M. McCarthy