Between a Rock and a Hard Place
by Aron Ralston
Atria Books, New York, 2004
Have you heard of the movie 127 Hours? It was nominated for best picture last year, and it's a true story based on an incident where a young man from Colorado got his arm trapped behind a boulder while climbing down a remote canyon somewhere in Utah. He spent six days stuck like that before he finally cut off his trapped arm and hiked to rescue workers and lived to tell the tale. Sounded like an amazing story that I really didn't want to see, so I decided to read it instead.
Aron Ralston (the protagonist and author) is a good writer. He tells his own story in this book in a style that was apparently inspired by Quentin Tarentino movies. (Read the acknowledgments, people!) The first chapter is about his fateful hike and ends with him getting his hand caught. The next is back story. The third recounts his first full day in the canyon, and the fourth is another story from his past. And so it goes. Ultimately, this format is what made it difficult for me to finish the book quickly. While I found many of the stories from past hikes to be interesting, the chapters were pretty heavy in hiking-related details. And since I didn't feel like flipping back to the glossary every couple of sentences, I was a little lost as to the significance of using this piece of equipment or that specific climbing technique on a specific adventure. Plus, I was more interested in the story of the man in the canyon, and at times it felt these interruptions were only slowing that down. While I liked these chapters (for the most part) they did slow the momentum of the book, and one held almost no interest for me whatsoever.
A little over halfway through the book, the format changes somewhat. While still alternating subject matter, Ralston changes from going back and forth from past to present and instead focuses these even-numbered chapters on the rescue effort that is going on while he is trying to survive without food, water, or sleep. Once I hit this point in the book, I was almost unable to put it down (until I fell asleep, which was more a comment on my lack of sleep these past few weeks than it was on the book itself).
Overall, I'd recommend this book to anybody who's interested in the autobiography of a guy who survived six days in a canyon before cutting off his arm. It's quite grim and grisly at times, and the language can get harsh, but I think that's pretty understandable given his circumstance, wouldn't you? Ralston's writing is engaging and his reflections on his life and his family are stirring. You also find yourself cheering for Ralston's early attempts to extricate himself from the rock, even though you know they're obviously not going to work because you most likely think of this already as "The story where that one guy cuts his arm off." When he finally figures out the secret of his escape, I found myself ready to cheer out loud. Though it's good that I didn't, because my wife and month-old son were sleeping nearby. That to say, it's a book that will affect you. Or occasionally bore you. Or both, as in my case. Of course, if you're really into reading about scaling mountains, then this is probably your new favorite book.