Customer Reviews: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
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on September 10, 2004
I agree with the last reviewer. The fact that Aron Ralston used poor judgment, i.e. hiking alone and not telling anyone where he was, only makes his story more compelling. Hasn't everyone made a huge mistake that leads to a painful, regretful plight?

Calling the media sensationalistic,in this instance, is just plain silly--amputing one's arm in order to save one's life IS a sensational, highly unusual event. I don't think the media or Aron is making it anything more than what it was. The charge that Aron is self-promoting is just as ridiculous. After you read the book, you will see that Ralston is a humble person with great integrity and strength. He is simply telling his own, true, unbelievable story. Bottomline, this book is incredibly well-written, moving and not to be missed.
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on December 17, 2010
I'm not sure who these reviewers are who have such pity for Aron Ralston, or who think he's a "dumbf--k" for his risk-taking, or who think he hasnt learned something of crucial importance from his experience at Blue John Canyon. Either they missed the point of this incredible story, or I did. Given how deeply this book touched me, I'd say it's a safe bet that it wasnt me that missed the point.

The story of his saga in the canyon is retold in this book in often excruciating detail, to the point where I sometimes found my hands clenching, my heart pounding, my eyes welling with tears as he reminisced, hallucinated, struggled with things that seem to me the very core of being human - in particular, discovering a greater appreciation for the people we love.

I would recommend this book to all but maybe the most squeamish of individuals, and even then I would suggest sucking it up and reading it anyway. This story is inspiring in so many ways. Totally worth reading.

Aron, if you're reading these reviews....thank you. Your suffering was not in vain, my friend. And i thank you for sharing it with all of us.
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on September 13, 2004
This is a wonderful book by a clearly remarkable individual. Ralston successfully intertwines prior experiences with his accident in Utah, to give the reader tremendous insight into the many wilderness experiences that shaped him.

At times, the book gives fairly detailed technical renderings of mountaineering experiences, and these passages can be difficult. However, these sections can be easily 'skimmed through' by the non-mountaineer, and most probably savored by those with more hiking/climbing experience.

What makes this book valuable to every reader, including ones who may never face seemingly insurmountable physical challenges, is Ralston's -Joseph Campbell inspired- message of "follow your bliss." It will be the unusual reader who does not finish this book feeling as if they must closely examine their own life, and the course it is taking.
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on May 22, 2007
I saw the Dateline NBC special about Aron's ordeal when it aired 3 years ago. I was stunned, as I'm sure everyone who saw it was, and I made a mental note to read this book. But here it is, 2007, and I've only just now gotten around to it.

I don't think this book is all good or all bad - I share many of the same opinions of the others who have reviewed it. One thing I will say is I don't think it's possible to be completely objective and review the BOOK alone, separate from "reviewing" Aron as a person. But when someone writes their autobiography, I think they put themselves out there for judgment, so I won't attempt to make that separation.

First, the writing style. Yes, there are many instances where the descriptions are incredibly overwritten, where you can almost see his conscious effort to make his writing seem "poetic." And his penchant for $2 vocabulary words couldn't be more annoying. But for me there was a huge difference between the writing in the "background" chapters (overwritten and over-detailed) and the writing about the entrapment itself, which is nothing short of vivid, stunning, and remarkable. His ability to put you right there in that canyon with him is amazing. He really is a very good storyteller, and I found myself very intrigued and delighted on numerous occasions to read the unique ways that he describes things.

As others have said, there is way too much technical detail, particularly when he's recounting his past outings. In those passages I found that even with pages of description, I still had a hard time picturing exactly what he was talking about because I'm not a climber (or a skier, or a white-water rafter, or a canyoneer, or a rappeller or a...).

The background chapters do get annoying, and one does get the sense that he's relishing the opportunity to brag to the world. Make no mistake about it, his ego is enormous. But I also understand the necessity of those chapters. People can say that the book should have just been an account of the entrapment, but you couldn't have fully gotten into the head of this guy without knowing his past. He definitely could have used a better editor, though. Those chapters are just too long and too detailed.

Now to Aron. When you read the book you find out that he has faced numerous life and death situations prior to what happened in Blue John Canyon (most of which are not "bad luck" but rather his own risk-taking and poor decision-making). And the interesting thing about him is that he seems to genuinely feel the fear and terror in those moments when death is imminent. But it never seems to stop him from going back for more. That's why reading his story didn't make me think, "wow, this guy really lives life to the fullest." Rather, I felt like I was reading the sad story of someone who is as addicted to adrenaline as a heroine addict is to his drug. I think that Aron will undoubtedly die in the middle of one of his "adventures," but I don't think he'd have it any other way. It makes me wonder if this guy will ever be capable of feeling "alive" via the simple pleasures in life, or if he will always have to be hanging off the side of a mountain or riding raging rapids to experience true joy. It's kind of sad.

Another thing that comes through very clearly about Aron is that he is extremely intelligent and talented. Not only does he have incredible outdoor accomplishments, but it's also clear that he is a very talented engineer, as evidenced by his thought process while he's trapped and the various tactics he designs and tries for getting out. Plus, he plays the piano and as we see in this book, he's a much better than average writer. It would seem that he's a true Renaissance Man. But as the saying goes, there's a fine line between genius and insanity. Which side is Aron on? Well, I guess you can decide for yourself.

It's not entirely clear whether Aron "gets it" at the end because after the rescue there's only a few token pages dedicated to what happened later. Personally I would have preferred much less backstory and more about his recovery, and life and thoughts after the accident. But he wrote this book relatively soon after the ordeal, so maybe the benefit of more perspective will change him. If he's not dead first.

I'll probably hang on to this book but if I ever pick it up to read it again, I'll definitely skip the "I'm the greatest outdoorsman who ever lived" chapters. Bottom line, read this book. You won't regret (or forget) it.
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on September 10, 2004
Aron's story is intelligent, sincere, warm and at many times, funny. As amazing as the story of his ordeal is, what is nearly as amazing is that something this well-written was created by the person it involved, not a ghost writer. It is nothing short of fine literature, not to mention an obviously compelling story.

Aron inspires us all. He shows us that a motivated person can save himself, and that the force of life can beat unbelievable odds against the force of death.
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on October 10, 2005
I feel like an 800-pound boulder going in to write anything less than an overwhelmingly positive review of "Between a Rock and a Hard Place". How many people have said they'd give their right arm to have their memoirs reach the bestseller list? Well, outdoorsman Aron Ralston actually did that. Who, then, am I to judge his writing style?

There's no listed ghostwriter, and you can believe Ralston did structure and write the whole book himself. A Carnegie Mellon grad with five years as a mechanical engineer, and well versed in outdoor literature, Ralston comes off as a talented writer (one would hope, however, that he'd avoid the inevitable trap of making his next book a thinly veiled roman-a-clef about a trapped rock climber). However, the book is bogged down by two authorial -- if not editorial -- decisions:

First, the writing style is very technical, and therefore dense. I'm not an outdoorsman; probably the most extreme things I've done in my adult life are to climb the Diamond Head on Oahu, which really just involved walking up a lot of stairs; and an extremely little bit of caving outside of Rapid City, South Dakota. Although Ralston cites to Jon Krakauer as a writing inspiration, he lacks Krakauer's ability to make the extraordinary seem achievable. I felt I could climb partway up Everest after reading "Into Thin Air". After "Between a Rock and a Hard Place", I didn't even think I could ride a bicycle again.

Second, the alternating chapters. I understand the structure of the book: in order to tell his whole life story, while keeping the suspense going, Ralston only describes his ordeal in odd-numbered chapters. The balance of the book leads us first through his outdoors life, and then through the rescue effort that hastened his escape from Blue John Canyon and saved his life. I found myself fidgeting during the earlier anecdotes. While the black bear pursuit and the snow avalanche were gripping adventures, the rest of the tales really didn't add much to my enjoyment of the book -- and see again my complaint about the overly technical writing. Ralston climbed over 40 mountains before the rock climbing accident; he describes every single climb, and I couldn't tell any of them apart when he was done.

I've already recommended this book to others. I admire Ralston's attention to detail, his clinical look back at his own mental state during six days of captivity, and his sense of humor -- the line about his left arm on the book's final page is remarkable. I don't know if I'd be able to go back and watch the videotape I'd made of myself, had I been the one pinned under that boulder -- and Ralston has clearly watched that footage multiple times. This is clearly a man of extraordinary emotional strength. However, his book could have been shorter and perhaps a little more user friendly -- and that's absolutely the worst you can say about it.
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on October 5, 2005
This book is the story of Aron Ralston, a youngish hippy who became trapped in a sandstone slot canyon while hiking in a remote area of Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah. As he was hiking solo (without having told anyone where he was) through the lonely Blue John Canyon, a boulder fell onto his arm, and trapped him there for six entire days--with no warm clothing, and very little food and water--until he discovered how to break the bones in his trapped forearm, sever his arm's skin and muscles and tendons and veins, and escape his horrible trap without his right hand.

It's a gruesome, suspensful story, and an amazing adventure, but the book could have been been much shorter, much more concise, and much faster-paced.

For the first half of the book, the author repeatedly interrupts the flow of the narrative to flash back to previous camping and mountaineering trips he'd taken. No doubt this is to show he's an experienced outdoorsman, and not just some foolhardy kid that headed off into a canyon alone, but what it ends up feeling like (despite him attributing the idea for the antilinear structure of the story to Quentin Tarantino) is a long and monotonous list of EVERY CAMPING TRIP HE'D EVER TAKEN, when what I really wanted to hear about was him being stuck in a canyon with a boulder on his arm.

He also talks a lot about all the hippy jam band concerts he'd been to--Phish, the String Cheese Incident, other such awfulness--and even goes as far as quoting irrelevant Phish lyrics for PAGES. If you, like I do, think these bands suck, and that most of their fans are unwashed stoners, then his repeated talk about this aspect of his life can seem a little alienating. The quotes at the starts of each chapter are often pretty dumb as well, ranging from "The Matrix III" to Horace.

Halfway through the book however, things pick up, and what had been a one to two star book improves drastically. Instead of alternately telling about his camping trips, he begins telling about the rescue efforts going on to find him. That's much more interesting, and even touching to see how affected his mother and friends are.

The story's tense gets a little weird here, telling something that happened at the same time as Aron's entrapment (which is told in present tense) in past tense, and the chapters describing the conversations of his worried friends and family feature nothing but dialogue-strictly-for-the-sake-of-exposition type dialogue. It's very clunky.

His escape and rescue however are terrific: jubilant and touching, as is his reintegration back into real not-trapped-beneath-a-boulder life. It's even kind of funny at times, such as when his sister asks him, "Hey Aron, do you need a hand?"

Overall, this is an amazing story; however, it could have used a lot more editing, a lot more focus on the actual story, about a hundred fewer pages, and honestly, a ghostwriter.
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on April 1, 2007
You really hate to dislike a guy who lives life to the fullest and had to saw his arm off with an inch-long blade. But for those with an eye to subtext, dislike is precisely what you'll find yourself experiencing not long into the second or third chapter. Forgive me Aron, but you're kind of a d-bag. Like many others, I found myself skipping forward with increasing speed past the uninteresting biographical excursions and self-flattering anecdotes, until I was full-bore just looking for the part where he cuts his arm off, desperate for some kind of stimulation. Unfortunately, the payoff is lacking.

Most galling about this book, even more so than the autobiographical filler (one quickly gets the sense that Aron's wringing every drop out of his life in case he never gets to write another book), is the fact that the experience fails to even budge him out of his self-centered perspective. I don't fault the guy for thriving in dangerous situations (I envy him), but it's clear that the only thing he took away from his plight was another testament to his status as The Greatest Most Important Person in the World. By the time he's videotaped himself going through an insane laundry list of locations to scatter his ashes over, started barking orders to the rescuers who are doing everything they can to help him, and assured us several times by the end how right he was about everything all along, there's a good chance you won't have a shred of empathy for Aron left. The man had to drink his own piss and yet didn't learn a thing about humility.
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on July 11, 2007
The story seems compelling: an unfortunate hiker has his arm pinned by a boulder and must cut off his own arm to rescue himself. It is a terrible thing for anybody to lose part of a limb (indeed, ask any of the many Iraq War casualties), and we like to look for some positive outcome from such a loss. I read this book because I was curious what changes such an experience would cause in one's approach to life. I was left disappointed and angry.

Aron Ralston survived what should have been a life-changing experience, yet came away from it the same arrogant, self-centered boy as before. The reader hopes and prays that the tiresome egotism of the early chapters is simply a literary device, designed to set the stage for Ralston's transformation. Instead, the egotism remains the constant in his life, both before and after his accident.

Although Ralston claims to have had a revelation while pinned behind a boulder -- finally understanding it is not what you have done, but how you have lived -- this revelation is discarded the moment he survives. Once healthy again, Ralston returns to stupid, dangerous activities (e.g., solo winter ascents) with no consideration for those he loves. He has learned nothing. He was given the opportunity to make a major change in his life. He ignored the chance to mature and act responsibly, and returned to reckless behavior that only puts his family and friends at risk of heart ache.

Ralston begins his story by documenting his many stupid mistakes that almost cost him his life. He makes winter ascents of Colorado peaks without spare outer gloves. He pushes himself to the point of hallucinating, putting himself and his partner at risk. He goes solo canyoneering and mountain biking without a first aid kit. He ignores advice of a park ranger and goes hiking in inappropropriate snow conditions, and almost is attacked by a bear. He puts himself and friends at risk skiing in areas with a high risk of avalanche. Despite his supposed training in search and rescue, his ignores the first rule (always let somebody know where you are going and when you should be back). Yet, Ralston seems baffled when his mother doesn't want to hear the details of his latest in a long series of scrapes with death. Perhaps she cares about him. Perhaps she wonders why he insists on always doing things the dangerous way. Perhaps she wonders how he can do these things to her.

There are many ways to immerse one self in the great outdoors, and there are many ways to test one self. Many a young person has thought that placing themselves in life-threatening situations is the ultimate test. Luckily, most of us outgrow this stage. We start to recognize the value of life. We start to recognize the devastation that our deaths would have on our family and friends. We mature.

There are many, many skilled mountaineers in Colorado. Many have the requisite skills to complete solo winter ascents, but most forego the activity because it is stupid. There are too many variables, and the odds of dying are too high. Ralston fancies himself a Super Man because he is dumb enough to go on winter solo ascents. Despite repeated narrow escapes, it never occurs to Ralston that he is being cavalier with his life, the lives of his friends, and the emotions of his family and friends.

The baffling thing about Ralston's history is that he never matured. He had plenty of occasions for reflection, and he had friends endeavoring to change his perspective. Yet, he continued on his own little self-centered journey. He wanted to be bigger than life, no matter what the cost.

Indeed, the bizarre thoroughness of his photo-documentation of his struggle attests to his dreams of grandeur. If he lived, he was going to be famous. If he died, he was going to be a legend. Ralston would have us believe that he was fighting for his life on the hike out, yet he never even considered leaving behind his video camera and digital still camera.

At some point in Ralston's effort to show that he was the prime mover in the many good times with his friends, he recounts making fun of 1980s music. I found this ironic, in that Ralston is the embodiment of the 1980s Me Generation. It is all about Aron, without any consideration for anybody else.

Do not buy this book. To do so is to encourage a reprehensible approach to life. To do so is to reward a selfish little child. To do so is to buy into a false hero. To do so is to support the extreme of self-centeredness. To do so is to cast a foreseeable event (based on poor preparation and a belief of invincibility) as an unavoidable accident. Do not buy this book.

Mr. Ralston was given an opportunity to see the light and to mature, but squandered that chance in exchange for celebrity. If he continues with his solo winter climbing, I fear that he will eventually pay the ultimate price for his contorted self-image and lack of judgment.
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on January 12, 2011
Aron Ralston's boulder, a chockstone on which he steps recklessly then carefully tries to dismount, is his metaphor. Ralston, a 27-year-old adrenaline-fueled philosopher was living zenfully, tripping across canyons, floating up mountainsides, and approaching his thirties with the aggression of an alpha wolf. Impressive in his knowledge and skill, he approached that boulder, knowing what the dangers of a loose chockstone were, yet not giving it the proper respect it deserves. He regarded as an obstacle over which he might step over, as he had in the past, forgetting his past narrow escapes.

When, on page 23, we read about the falling boulder and the trapped hand, the question comes to mind, what's to follow on the remaining 319 pages? A slow-motion account follows, of the rock loosening and tumbling between the crevice walls, and Ralston's moment-by-moment, instinct-by-instinct reaction. Time stands still, all is suspended. This is the space between Ralston's two lives, one before and one after the boulder.

What follows is an incredibly detailed and honest account of Ralston's thought process over the next 127 hours. He grasps at thoughts in his mental terrain--nostalgic, logical, meditative, desperate, regretful and torturous. Ralston has failed to leave an itinerary of his hiking trip with anyone, as he always has. He surveys and analyzes the tools in his backpack: an inexpensive multi-purpose tool, a Nalgene bottle, ropes, webbing, two frozen burritos, and various other pieces of equipment. With a video camera he has carried into the canyon, he films the key images of his circumstances, and turns the camera onto himself to record messages to his family and friends. He comes to regard the boulder as his trap, and his arm as the thing he would like to let go of, but his tools don't suffice. Only when he realizes his arm is gangrenous does he change his view of the situation. The arm becomes the trap and the boulder, the tool.

The story is structured in order of his thoughts, not in order of events. In this style of writing, Ralston is stylistically effective, as the time and place he occupies is stationary, and his past and future moments project themselves randomly on the canyon walls. His references to musical artists Phish and the String Cheese Incident are consistent with his improvisational writing and lifestyle. He does fill in some blanks with the accounts of his family, friends and co-workers, who gradually register that Aron is missing, and the various law enforcement and rescue units narrow in on his whereabouts.

Ralston portrays himself at times as arrogant, other times as humble. The soul-searching that occurs doesn't end when he is free of his arm, thirst, hunger and helplessness. He poignantly recalls the difficulty adjusting to his amputation, and describes his self-pity and a sense of overwhelming responsibility to respond as a hero to those who name him as such.
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