You can tell by the title of his book, Between A Rock and A Hard Place, that Aron Ralston has a pretty solid sense of humor. Ralston is the hiker who came staggering out of the Utah Canyonlands last year minus his right arm, which he had to amputate himself after being pinned to a canyon wall by a loose boulder for five days, with only a negligible amount of water and two convenience store burritos for sustenance. Ralston’s account of his ordeal is an interesting examination of the forces in his life that led him into the canyon in the first place.
Before his ill-fated hike, 27-year-old Ralston could have been any one of the countless young men and women who end up living in places like Missoula, working at minimum wage jobs in order to live in a scenic, laid-back place that allows for easy access to big-time outdoor recreational activities. He had gone to college and gotten a degree in engineering and then snagged a good job working for a computer company after graduation. On weekends, he was a devoted mountain biker, skier (downhill, cross country and backcountry telemark), canyoneer and rock and ice climber. On occasion he’d take his vacation time to follow bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident when they went on tour; sometimes those trips took him as far away as Japan. Increasingly dissatisfied with the restrictions his straight job placed on his time, Ralston quit and moved to Aspen in order to have a centrally located access to the variety of outdoor activities he thrived on. He lived in a house with multiple housemates and worked with like-minded souls at a retail job in a mountaineering store because it gave him the freedom to pursue his athletic passions.
Once settled in Aspen, Ralston pursued his favorite activities like the devil was chasing him. He set himself a goal to climb each of the 59 peaks in Colorado with an elevation of 14,000 feet or more and set about to reach it. When he wasn’t climbing, he was biking, skiing or hiking. By Ralston’s account, he also trailed quite a bit of disaster in his wake: At one point, he describes nearly perishing in an avalanche with two friends. Elsewhere in the book he describes another incident, in which he almost drowned in an Arizona river as a result of bad judgment. There are other near-calamities and, in the end, it doesn’t seem all that surprising that Ralston would end up by himself, in a rarely traveled desert canyon, trapped by a boulder, having left no word of his whereabouts with either friends or family and without adequate food, water or clothing. Ultimately Ralston realizes that in order to survive, he’s going to have to use his knockoff Leatherman multi-purpose tool to cut his own hand off.
With Between a Rock and A Hard Place, Ralston is the newest entrant into what has become a very popular genre of nonfiction literature: the adventure disaster story. The gold standard in this niche is the work of Jon Krakauer. Krakauer, author of the bestsellers Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, is a storytelling genius; there are few writers working today who can match his prowess. Krakauer’s style is to take the central story and spin elaborate, spellbinding digressions off of it. He then loops back into the main narrative for a while before going off on yet another irresistible path. After many years and many books, Krakauer has the chops to hold the interest of the reader in a viselike grip, even if the reader’s initial interest in the subject he is tackling is minimal.
Between A Rock and A Hard Place is Aron Ralston’s first book, and it is largely a good read. His boulder predicament is horrific and fascinating, but the story loses some of the tension when the author emulates Krakauer’s style. Ralston’s digressions from the main story are too extended, and during these passages the reader just wants to get back to Aron in danger, in the canyon. A more linear narrative might have worked better.
There are also times when Ralston’s engineer mind seems to be doing the driving in his descriptions. They become far too fussy and technical for the layperson, which also takes some of the juice out of the story. To Ralston’s credit, the book is not lurid, and his evident human decency and good humor shines through on every page.
He may be a rookie writer, but Aron Ralston is resourceful and brave. And the cool-headed way in which he handled his own calamitous situation is completely admirable. In the end, the book is both a cautionary tale and an uplifting one. The good-natured Ralston is the classic definition of an optimist: a man who has made lemonade out of life’s lemons. In Between A Rock and A Hard Place, he tells the reader that after losing one arm he had a markedly better finishing time in a downhill skiing race, and he jokes that he is considering getting rid of the other one. The cover of the book shows Ralston perched between two rocks in Canyonlands with the sun rising behind him, proudly displaying the super-high-tech prosthetic—designed with the help of a climbing equipment manufacturer—that now stands in for his missing limb.