Skip to main content
Original Issue

Indoor Adventure

In a harrowing do-it-yourself book, Aron Ralston recounts the tale of his desperate self-amputation


by Aron Ralston

Atria, $27

Of all the 27-year-olds who might have had their arm crushed and pinned against a canyon wall, Aron Ralston was unusually well-prepared to handle the situation. He was no slacker out wandering the woods. An experienced outdoorsman, he didn't panic, rationed his water and made intelligent choices. And when the desperate hour came, and he saw that the only way to free himself from the half-ton rock was to cut off his right hand, he figured out how to accomplish the task with just a pocketknife. Now, when it comes time to tell his tale, he shows yet another skill: Ralston knows how to write.

Not that anyone's going to mistake him for Hemingway, but Between a Rock and a Hard Place (which Ralston produced without the aid of a ghostwriter) is much more than the quickie as-told-to book this sort of sensational material usually generates. That's only fitting, because Ralston reveals an appreciation for the genre of outdoor writing. Almost immediately after being trapped, he used his left hand to scratch a quote from respected guidebook author Gerry Roach onto the offending rock: GEOLOGIC TIME INCLUDES NOW.

Really, though, Ralston can't help but succeed here; his story is simply too amazing. It's riveting to be inside Ralston's head as he tries to think his way out of the canyon, solving the puzzles to help him get through five sleepless days and nights. Pinned in a standing position, he creates a rope seat to rest his legs. To stave off hypothermia, he makes himself rope pants. And after his water has run out, in a state of sleep-deprived delirium, Ralston comes up with his final piece of ingenuity. He figures out that to amputate his arm, he first has to break it.

If there's a problem with this book, it's that Ralston strays too often from his main story, interspersing his narrative with chapters on his other outdoor experiences. Some are compelling, but most are destined to be leafed through by readers eager to get back to the canyon. The one benefit of these digressions is the way they illuminate how Ralston's wilderness past allowed him to remain calm when caught in a trap that would have caused most people to crumble. The moment that he finds his freedom is both gruesome and inspiring. As a tale of survival in isolation, this really is one for the books. --Bill Syken