49 pages 1 hour read

Aron Ralston

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Between a Rock and a Hard Place is a 2004 adventure and survival memoir by American mountain climber Aron Ralston. The narrative focuses on Ralston’s near-death experience when his arm became stuck under a boulder in a canyon in Utah, where he remained trapped for five days until he amputated his arm. Dealing with profound existential themes, the book garnered critical acclaim and became a New York Times bestseller. A 2010 film adaptation titled 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle and starring James Franco, garnered six Academy Award nominations.

This guide refers to the 2005 Atria Books edition.

Content Warning: Drawing on the source material, the guide refers to thoughts of death by suicide.

Summary

In 1987, 12-year-old Aron Ralston moves with his parents from Indiana to Colorado. He soon overcomes his initial fears and takes to skiing and climbing. During the 1990s, while studying engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, Ralston pushes himself to new limits physically, climbing his first 14,000-foot peak and serving as a rafting guide. After graduation, he rewards himself by planning a monthlong road trip to several national parks, but he ends the trip early after a challenging encounter with a bear.

In 1997, Ralston sets a goal to become the first person to solo climb each of Colorado’s 59 14,000-foot peaks during the winter. Meanwhile, he takes a job at Intel and starts an adventure club with some of his coworkers. He finds a mentor, Mark Van Eeckhout, who helps him train. In addition, Ralston leads others, such as his sister Sonja, on memorable trips. His adventures aren’t without risk, however; he nearly drowns in a river on one trip and loses valuable fuel during a winter storm on another.

In 2002, wanting to devote more time to his outdoor activities, Ralston quits his job at Intel and moves back to Colorado. That fall, he takes a job as a salesperson at an outdoor recreation store. He also resumes his solo winter climbing project, contracting serious frostbite during one climb and nearly falling while retrieving his pack on another. During a ski trip, he invites two friends to ski through a bowl-shaped area with him, and their actions trigger an avalanche. Everyone survives, but those two friends stop spending time with Ralston. In March 2003, after competing in a grueling backcountry ski race, Ralston increases the frequency and intensity of his climbs to train for a planned trip to Denali in Alaska.

When a planned winter climb is cancelled due to adverse weather, Ralston takes an impromptu trip to go canyoneering in southern Utah but fails to provide a detailed itinerary to any of his friends or family. After a day of biking, Ralston sleeps in his car. The next day, Saturday, April 26, he sets out on a planned 30-mile combined biking and canyoneering loop. Along the way, he meets two young women, Kristi and Megan, whom he befriends. They separate at a fork in the canyon but plan to meet up later.

As he continues alone through the remote Bluejohn Canyon, Ralston passes over and under several boulders trapped between the canyon walls. When he moves over one such boulder around three o’clock in the afternoon, it falls, and he falls with it. When the boulder settles, his right arm is trapped between the boulder and the canyon wall.

Ralston spends the next 127 hours trapped in place. He works toward three methods of escape: digging through or breaking the boulder, moving the boulder, and amputating his arm. First, he repeatedly attempts to chip away at the boulder using his multitool and other rocks, but he makes little meaningful progress. Next, he uses his training as an engineer and his climbing equipment to rig up a system of ropes and anchors, but the boulder remains in place. Finally, he experiments with makeshift tourniquets and considers using his blade to cut through his arm, but his squeamishness and the impossibility of cutting through bone dissuade him from continuing.

Estimating that a rescue party would arrive on Thursday or Friday at the earliest, Ralston rations his water supply, drinking only a sip or two every few hours. In addition, he conserves his urine, which he begins drinking after depleting his water supply on Tuesday morning. Ralston reflects on his life thus far, including his regrets and greatest memories. From time to time, he records messages for his family and friends on his camcorder.

Nights are particularly difficult. Unable to fully recline or relax, Ralston alternates between fidgeting to stay warm and leaning into his climbing harness, which is anchored to a crevice.

As he tires due to sleep deprivation and dehydration, his thinking becomes fragmented and erratic. He hallucinates visions of family and friends; he also experiences out-of-body sensations. He thinks constantly of his favorite beverages. On Wednesday night, feeling that he’ll die soon, Ralston carves his name and expected death date into the canyon wall.

Midway through the week, Ralston’s roommates, coworkers, and family begin to coordinate a search effort with the police. Because they lack specific information about Ralston’s route, it takes until Thursday morning for a park ranger to identify Ralston’s vehicle at the Horseshoe Canyon Trailhead. From there, two helicopters and several search-and-rescue teams are called to scour the nearby canyons.

On Thursday morning, Ralston has an epiphany when he realizes that he can break the bones of his arm against the boulder itself using his bodyweight. That done, he cuts the remaining tissue of his arm off despite intense pain. Finally free, he’s overcome by a moment of ecstasy before he shakily proceeds down the canyon, even rappelling down a 65-foot drop.

Several miles further, and after drinking his fill of muddy water, Ralston encounters a family of hikers visiting from Holland; two of them run for help while the third assists him. A helicopter arrives and carries him to the hospital in Moab, Utah, for preliminary treatment. Overnight, he’s flown to the hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he undergoes treatment and reunites with friends and family.

Over the next few months, Ralston makes a significant recovery and even resumes his solo winter climbing project. His story makes global news and provides inspiration to others. Despite the pain he endured, Ralston insists that he wouldn’t do anything differently, even if he could.

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