Jeff Walden's Reviews > 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

127 Hours by Aron Ralston
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's review
Mar 18, 2012

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bookshelves: survival, outdoors, nonfiction, mountaineering, climbing, mountain-biking, received-as-gift
Recommended to Jeff by: family, through a Christmas present

This book relates the story of Aron Ralston's several days living, as best he can, in a canyon with his hand caught between a rock and a stone wall, escaping only when he amputates his hand, walks several miles while severely dehydrated to an emergency helicopter he hadn't known would be there, and eventually manages to survive. Interspersed with that immediate story are accounts of his past outdoor exploits. By his own telling his middle name is practically "Carpe Diem" (although more in a devil-may-care sense than a laudatory seize-your-opportunity sense): he lives for the moment and braves risks both necessary and entirely avoidable.

The story itself is compelling enough; that it actually happened (although whether Ralston is always a reliable narrator is an interesting question) makes it all the better. It's pretty rare that you can get real accounts of people in survival situations like this, especially with such detail (whether always fully accurately remembered or not) about their mental state. (That Ralston carried a video camera was doubtless an immense help in reconstructing this.) 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place is not the sort of book that'll change your life, but it might make you think a little bit more.

On the point of thinking, I see Ralston as having made two mistakes. Throughout Ralston more or less unflinchingly portrays himself as willing to take any risk, whether smart or gratuitously stupid, in pursuit of outdoor accomplishments. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that. However, once other people start getting dragged into it, and you trigger a multi-day, multi-state manhunt, the fallout is your responsibility. So I have two complaints about the lessons he should have drawn from this which do not appear in the book.

First, he may have been a little too carelessly fast in his rockhopping in the canyon where he trapped himself. He portrays himself as having been the victim of an unfortunate rock-slip that had probably not happened many times before, and only happened this particular time through bad luck. Maybe that's the case, maybe it's not. The "reliable narrator" question raises its head here. (Also, speaking personally, I don't have experience with what he was doing to evaluate whether it was safe, unsafe, or somewhere in between.) But if he had no backup plan if something were to happen, that sort of carelessness isn't acceptable. I think he should have made clear that if one is going to do something without accompaniment, in a remote area, one must be more careful as a result.

Second, he portrays (through Ranger Steve's reporting on the causes of the accident, pp. 326-328) the accident as being the result of bad luck: "This was someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time, an extreme case of bad luck. It's just bad luck." It may well be true that this was a case of bad luck (in fact I'm inclined to believe it probably was). At the same time, Ranger Steve (and Ralston by implication) seem to think that not telling someone where you're going, and then something happening, is just how it happens sometimes. I'm sorry, but no, it's not. It would have been easy for Ralston to have told someone where he was going and what he planned to do before he left -- even if it was just a quick phone call from the trailhead where he left his truck. That he did not do so doesn't make him morally culpable for the accident -- that may well have been just an accident. But it does make him responsible for having put himself in a situation where the only means of escape required self-amputation, for having caused such worry among the people who cared for him without giving them the tools to track him down in case of emergency, and for having tied up rescue resources answering the entirely mundane question of where in a several-state region (!) Aron Ralston might have gone. If someone had known exactly where he was, perhaps he still would have lost the hand and portions of his arm. But there's a substantial difference between being rescued by a helicopter that only just happened to arrive at the right time, and being rescued by a team that walks along the path they know you'd planned to be on, expecting to find you, or evidence of you, in a very particular location. It should be a no-brainer: tell people where you're going, and when you're going, when you're doing something that might be dangerous outdoors. This is outdoors 101.

Anyway. This book's about a four in terms of satisfaction. But it lacks some introspection on what was done wrong, and it fails to reach conclusions which it should have reached, to convey the correct lesson about how to responsibly go adventuring in remote places. So for that, I'm going to ding it an extra star.

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