It's the looming question that consumes you as soon as you see the cover photo of Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Author Aron Ralston is perched on a rock, brandishing his prosthetic right arm, which he's fashioned into a climbing tool. The flap explains, for those who didn't see him on CNN, David Letterman and in newspapers in 2003, that Ralston, after being pinned by a rock in a Utah canyon for five days, cut off his own arm to save himself.
The book follows the 27-year-old Ralston into Blue John Canyon and details his six-day entrapment and his ineffectual attempts to lift, push and break apart the huge stone that's fallen on and flattened his right wrist. He runs out of food and drink, and eventually must consume his own urine. In one (literally) rock-bottom moment, he carves his own epitaph into the wall. And then there's the gruesome yet euphoric climax, when Ralston forcibly breaks his arm bones and saws through tendon, arteries and nerves with a dull, dirty knife. And sets himself free.
The book, which took Ralston about a year to complete, is riveting, surprisingly funny and very well written. Each chapter begins with a relevant quote -- wisdom from divergent sources such as Lance Armstrong, Horace and the String Cheese Incident. The detail, though, is what fuels the narrative: Ralston vividly recalls every glimpse at his watch, every raven flying overhead, every painful, astonished thought leading up to the amputation. "When there's an intensity to the experience, there's an intensity to the memory," he explains.
Alongside the painstaking moments in the crevice are richly told tales of Ralston's prior adventures. After quitting his job as a mechanical engineer, he became an expert outdoorsman. The book finds him trekking along mountaintops, precipices and canyon floors around the world. Here, a bear stalks him; there, an avalanche buries him. He is always close to falling, being crushed or losing one appendage or another. The flashbacks provide relief from the intense pinned-arm drama, but also put Ralston's doomed Utah trip in perspective: "I wanted to show that I wasn't in over my head," Ralston says. "This was something that was relatively low-exposure for me."
So a lot of bad luck and a touch of bad judgment left Ralston without an arm and, for a time, quite depressed. After his dramatic rescue and exhilarating reunion with his frantic family, he found himself convalescent and full of narcotics. "It was like, 'This was the life I cut my arm off to save?'" he remembers. "It was really bad." But then the letters started coming: from people inspired, people congratulatory, people full of hope for him and themselves. Hence the book. "I knew the power of the story to affect other people. It needed a legacy."
The legacy will continue with a documentary, set for release in 2007. And, of course, with many more adventures for Ralston, even if that means no more books for us. "My priority is spending time in the outdoors," he says. "Sitting in front of a computer is the last thing I'm all that psyched about."
So it seems his answer to that looming question -- if it were posed again -- would be yes.