The Road goes ever on and on; Down from the door where it began;
Now far ahead the Road has gone; And I must follow, if I can;
Pursuing it with eager feet; Until it joins some larger way;
Where many paths and errands met; And whither then? I cannot say.

[JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings]

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Cutting An Arm Off

Never have I been so desperate for someone to cut his own arm off.

Having had a bit of a run of reading adventure/disaster sorts of books over the last couple of years (it all started when my ex-boss lent me a copy of Into Thin Air), I’ve just finished reading ‘Between A Rock & A Hard Place’ by Aron Ralston.

Let me just do a quick compare and contrast between this book and a few other well known stories:

Into Thin Air/The Climb: Few people reading these books would be familiar with the ins and outs of climbing something as big as Everest, therefore it’s all good and interesting to have lots of description about the logistics and the issues of such an expedition. Then there’s all the description about the acclimatisation exercises and the health issues. Then there’s a big storm and lots of description about how that affected lots of people. Then there was the aftermath.

So, there was a huge amount of material to be included in the books. Neither book was particularly long (my copy of Into Thin Air: 288 pages), and both were packed full of interest and action.

Whilst Into Thin Air has received much criticism, I found it to be an incredibly gripping read (and of course, I had to follow it with The Climb just to get a different angle on the events).

Touching the Void: Again, the lead up to how the accident happened was entirely relevant to the accident and there was plenty to describe. The climb itself was an interesting subject. Then there was the accident which was followed by days of all of the various problems that Joe had to overcome in order to get himself back to camp and to survive. Then there was the aftermath.

The book was remarkably short considering the story it told (199 pages – no room for waffle at all), and it shared with the Everest books the attribute of having plenty of material to fill it.

Then there’s Rock & A Hard Place. I don’t think I’d be ruining the story for anyone (as I’m not going to say more than is on the back cover) to summarise the story as follows: A chap goes for a 10 mile walk in the wilderness without so much as telling anyone which county he’s going to be in; he gets half way when a boulder falls trapping his arm against a canyon wall; he sits there for five days and very nearly dies; on the fifth day, he amputates his own arm and gets rescued.

Without wanting to belittle what he went through, given that he was trapped in one place and fundamentally had only one problem to contend with (i.e. how to free himself), that’s not an awful lot of story, yet the book is longer (342 pages) than the other books that I’ve named which had ten times the story to tell.

So, how did he fill the spare space? He described various other trips he had made in his life – most of which stories only went to show (in my opinion) that the chap has a great ability to behave either stupidly or recklessly (not that either trait had any bearing on the accident that ensued – it really could have happened to anyone).

Let me stress again that I don’t want to belittle what Aron went through and the strength of character that led to his survival. The relevant parts of the book showed that what he did was amazing. I don’t deny that most people probably wouldn’t have come out of it alive. He most definitely had a story to tell; my problem was that the story wasn’t a very long one – and the book was.

It’s taken me an absolute age to drag myself through its pages (why didn’t I just abandon it as a bad job? Husband had already read it and told me that it improved. He was right: the last fifty pages were quite interesting).

And so I found myself, by day three of the unfortunate events of Aron’s trip, just desperately waiting for him to cut his arm off, which would indicate that I was getting to the end of the story and that I could move on to read something more interesting.

Of course all of that is entirely subjective. Others will have hated Into Thin Air, some will love Between a Rock. Please don’t let me put you off from reading any of them…


  1. Gayle,
    on Into Thin Air, I agree and most people will that the way the story has been told is gripping. After all the author is a pro writer, and it should be that well (try reading Into The Wild, or see the up and coming movie, it to is well written and enjoyable). Most peoples problem is that the author tries to lay a lot of blame on Bukurov(sp?). Which was wrong as he was a hero in all the events that happened.

  2. I must be the only person who, in reading Into Thin Air, completely failed to notice any significant negativity about Boukreev. It was only when I read The Climb that I appreciated the impact of Krakauer's book on Boukreev (and apart from setting the record straight, The Climb turned out to be a good read in itself).

    Really must get hold of a copy of Into the Wild sometime - I've heard quite a few good reviews of it - but as you say Darren, he should write a good book given that writing's what he does for a living.