Between a Rock and a Hard Place
There was a period of my life when I spent a lot of time in the
mountains of Colorado, skiing in winters and hiking in summer.
Adventure to me was finessing the black diamond ski trails or
hiking to a mountaintop in summer following these same trails
uphill. I would watch many of my friends dip under the ski area
boundaries to charge the unfettered powder in the woods or listen
to them share stories of their three-day treks into the woods
alone. I envied them, but I was wise enough to know trips like this
would only spell trouble for me. I was not athletic enough to zip
beyond the safety line, but I always stood in awe of those who
would go beyond the boundaries to unknown challenges, relying on
their athleticism and innate skills.
Aron Ralston is one of the people who jumps the rope, who sees a
mountain as something to climb, not just photograph, and who takes
himself to places where he relies on his innate skills to survive.
When I started reading BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE I realized I
knew men --- and women --- from my past who are like him.
For those of you who wonder who Aron Ralston is, you will know if I
tell you this one line --- "he's the guy who got stuck in the slot
canyon in Utah and cut off his arm to survive." Hearing this, I am
betting that most of you recoil, wondering how someone could do
that. Your second thought is probably something like, "I could
never do that." Many of you will then say, "I cannot read that book
since it's gory." I have heard these lines from people all week
when I told them I was reading this book.
To be honest, I was thinking the same things when I heard about
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE --- and even when I picked it up. I
also thought that here is a another book about a news celeb that
will be more of the same story I have read already. I could not
have been more wrong. From the first page I found myself drawn into
this book, unable to put it down. The story is deep and profound.
It's not just about what physically happened to Ralston, though
that is what we are all tuned into since that's something we all
can understand. (I am betting that you each have looked at your
hand or forearm at least once reading this.)
Instead the focus is much more spiritual, as he talks about what he
learned about himself as he lay trapped for six days. The Aron
Ralston who went into the canyon is not the Aron Ralston who
emerged. While he left a chunk of his forearm and his hand behind,
he came out with a greater understanding of life and living than
ever before. He describes what happened at the moment that he lost
his hand as a rebirth. Those who read along with him will
understand why. Trapped, he was forced to address why he lived life
the way he did --- with a constant running for new adventure.
While the story of these dark six days in the canyon are detailed
and are what drive the book, the extensive backstory that Ralston
writes about other trips and his growing up flesh him out to
readers. There are clues along the way to why he was there --- and
why he would survive. He writes with incredible detail, placing the
reader into the cavern beside him. Clearly he "thinks like an
engineer" as he uses each bit of his equipment to ensure his
survival. He focused on what he needed to do to survive at each
step along the way. One photo in the book shows readers what he had
with him. Looking at these tools the story of his survival becomes
even more incredible.
At one point while reading this book I was out on my deck after the
sun had dropped. Like Ralston I was dressed in a t-shirt, shorts
and a baseball cap. As the went into the 60s I started shivering
and quickly went inside to grab a blanket. Ralston did not have
that luxury. When the temperatures dropped into the 50s, he wrapped
ropes around his legs and fashioned arm warmers from the baggie his
burritos were wrapped in. He clearly addressed each event of his
captivity like this as challenge/solution.
All this is not to say that Ralston thought himself to be wise.
Over and over again he chastises himself for being "dumb" for
setting off on a trip like this without telling anyone where he was
going. Blame is placed squarely on his own shoulders. Being a mom,
or a parent for that matter, and picturing Ralston's mom getting
the call that he is missing, and seeing her take charge the
subsequent rescue operation that is launched, will rivet you to
those pages. You can see sitting in her house and saying, "Hold on.
We're coming, Aron, we're coming. Just hold on." He says time and
again that he regrets what this experience did to her.
The most brilliant writing takes place on the pages when he decides
to sever his arm and then details his trip out of the canyon. You
can feel yourself running with him. The fact that after the
amputation a six-story rappel and a seven-mile hike stood between
him and survival will give you pause.
The book ends with Ralston talking about his new adventures. He
still is climbing. He still is setting challenges for
On the last pages of the book he says, "were I to travel back in
time, I would still say 'see you later' to Megan and Kristi and
take off into the lower slot by myself. While I've learned much, I
have no regrets about that choice." Reading this I know he is not
just saying it. He truly believes it. He sees this time as a
spiritual experience and readers will see why.
One more note. Last Friday night I watched the two-hour documentary
that Tom Brokaw did about Ralston on "Dateline" with my two sons. I
am not sure that I have seen many pieces that moved me more. Six
months after the accident Ralston and Brokaw returned to the canyon
where he had been trapped. In a piece that was extremely emotional,
people saw where Ralston had been. At one point he notes how
"pathetic" it was.
My boys were glued to the television. When it ended I asked them
what they thought. My little one, who clearly was headed to the
attic to check out his dad's climbing equipment and I know will
give me a fair share of sleepless nights with his own adventures in
the future, said, "Never go anywhere without telling at least one
person where you are going to be." I have a feeling someday when he
is a lot older than nine, Ralston's adventure will haunt him and
get him to make a call that he might not have made otherwise. If he
takes just this much away from this story, Ralston hit him with
something I am glad he passed along.
Reviewed by Carol Fitzgerald on December 22, 2010