There is only one character in this book, and that character is, you guessed it, Aron Ralston. Between a Rock and a Hard Place is Ralston's account of his ordeal pinned to a canyon wall by a half-ton chockstone in Blue John Canyon. He alternates between chapters telling of the delirium of those five days and the choices he must make, and a sort of "how I came to be the way I am" recounting of his life story. The irony of the book reveals itself to the reading pretty early on. A seemingly random accident, with a one-in-a-million rescue, has been fated for this kid his whole damn life. I call Ralston a "kid" (even though he was my age when he had this accident) because he shows time and time again that he has learned very few lessons from his great experience of the world.
Let me get some of the problems with the book and Ralston out of the way, so I can eventually say something nice. Aron's a bit of a 90s douche of the highest order. He loves Phish and String Cheese Incident. He quotes the Matrix movies and Fight Club and Eastern philosophy. He writes from a thoroughly egotistical point of view - not spending enough timing concerned with anything but his own enjoyment of the world and his own survival. I mean, I can relate to that, but it's not intriguing to read Ralston's account of his search and rescue when he often uses hyperbole to express other people's emotions and actions. Come on, man. We know your mom was really worried, but you sound a little silly trying to explain just how much she cared and how scared she was. I believe you.
When writing about his winter fourteener project - an attempt to solo climb all of the mountains 14000 feet or higher in Colorado - he sounds like a typical priveleged mountaineer, full of bravado with no reason to risk his life. He's a bored child in a huge playground. I guess I should reserve judgement on that particular matter, but I can't overlook his reckless endangerment of friends and strangers alike on some of his outings. While on a hike with two guys he meets south of the Grand Canyon, he jumps foolhardy into the ragin Colorado River and nearly kills himself and endangers his two companions who save him from the current. Later on, the same year of his accident, 2003, he skis down a slope in Colorado against the better judgement of himself and his friends and then beckons them to follow. When the avalanche nearly kills one of his friends - Mark, a search and rescue expert, who expressed his ambivalence about Aron's fourteener project - Aron admits that he's done wrong and acted foolishly, but we're not convinced that he'd do it any differently if given the chance.
So, I don't especially like the guy, but I did find some redeemed bits in his book. I found his detailed account of the ordeal in the canyon to particularly revelatory about the decay of the human mind and body in such situations. Ralston is intuitive and highly resourceful as a survivalist (if not as a writer) and his very specific descriptions of his attempts to break the chockstone or lift it from his arm are intriguing. His intensity and will to live shine through in his observations. This is a man who wants to live, but knows he will, in all likelihood, die if not for a great amount of skill and luck. For most of the time of his entrapment - 5 days - he plans calmly and conserves energy and water and uses his obviously futile activities as ways of distracting himself from his misery, or warming his body against the cold nights. He tries, but fails to amputate his forearm. It is only in an act of desperation, an upsurge of primal energy that he realizes the only way he can free himself, to break his own bones with a rock, that he is able to survive. What does this say about man, and nature? We must be beasts, in order to live, sometimes.
We feel Aron's thirst, his need for a margarita, his revulsion at drinking his own piss. What is not convincing is his final assertion that this ordeal was all for the best, in the end. Did he learn a deep lesson about appreciating his friends and family or, like so many other mountaineers and extreme sport enthusiasts, has he just garnered another scar, another tick on his record, another bragging right, another brutal scrape with death?