Just got through watching 127 hours. The film by Danny Boyle digitally immortalized the unbelievable, yet true story of Aron Ralston, a hiker who got stuck in a canyon and after five days of thinking he was going to die, finally cut off his arm and ran for help. The movie is based on Aron’s book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” a title which no doubt some publisher has been dying to put into print.
I had read the book ages ago, just after I read an excerpt of it in “Outside Magazine,” one of my favorite magazines! Seeing the movie reminded me of another book excerpt I read in “Outside,” this one by Jon Krakauer called “Into the Wild.”
Krakauer (one of the greatest writers living today) details the life and death of Chris McCandless, who set off on a two-year trek to Alaska and ended up dead in an abandoned school bus near Denali National Park.
Aron’s book is written as a first-hand survival perspective. It’s often tough to read but you get the idea. There is no doubt that Aron had the sort of steel will we all would want to have in an emergency but just aren’t sure is there. For Chris, all we have are the impression others have of him and his own cryptic writings. Even though Chris died more than a decade ago, there are still those who speculate he allowed himself to die, his death was a foolish accident or that he was schizophrenic and died because of it. No matter, Chris is not your typical wild guy adventurer non-survivor story.
Sitting here listening to Danny Boyle’s hard-driving soundtrack for 127 hours I’ve been contemplating the contrast between Chris McCandless and Aron Ralston. Both were trapped in impossible circumstances yet one survived and one died. Aron cut off his arm to live, while Chris died in a bus alone in Alaska. And even though Aron is an amputee he continues to climb. Yes, their trapped scenarios were different. Aron trapped by a boulder, Chris by a river (and some say his own ignorance). But I can’t help thinking that personality may have played a part in Aron’s survival.
Born Adventurer vs Soul Searcher
When you read the two books you get right away that Aron and Chris are not of the same ilk. It seems that Aron was born an adventurer. To say he was an overachiever was an understatement. A mechanical engineer at Intel Aron, also played the piano and went to Carnegie Mellon and double majored in French. A Coloradoan, he had a demon-like drive to climb. A year before his accident he quit his job at Intel to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers. This is a common goal among overachievers in Colorado. It’s no small feat to climb 53 mountains all over 14,000 feet, but plenty have tried it. He went climbing alone, not because he wanted to get away from society, but because he wanted to command the world around him. He’s often quoting as saying he chose his fate and he was the master of it in then end. When he left for Utah that day of the accident, Aron, was no meek poet, seeking the meaning of life, he was a warrior electing to conquer life.
Chris on the other hand was often described as “existential,” and having a Thoreau-like zest for nature and life. He was intense and private yet kind enough to pick up a homeless man in D.C. bring him to his parents home in suburban Virgina so the man could live in his parents Airstream. He seemed to be driven to go to Alaska for no other reason than to separate himself from everyone and be one with the universe. Test his skills sure, but use more of his brain than his brawn. Too say he was a deep thinker is crass but it’s also true. Chris was soul searching, a seeker of life, not to conquer it but to understand it.
Each man had a goal. Each man had a plan. One man did the unspeakable and lived. The other made a bad choice and died. I can’t help but wondering, if Chris had been stronger, would he have survived.
What Does it Take to Survive?
That question is impossible to answer. But to begin you have to know how Chris died. There is some dispute about this but it seems after being dropped off near Denali National Park Chris got trapped by the Alaskan winter. His plans for hunting his own food went awry when he couldn’t preserve the meat. By Spring he was ready to cut his time in the Alaska wild short but was trapped by an overflowing river he could not cross. Some theorize he ate poison berries that caused starvation and he died. Others said he was just ignorant about life in the wild and essentially killed himself. Later, after his death, Alaskans were quick to point out alternative routes Chris could have used to get around the rushing river that trapped him in the woods inside that bus.
One trapped by a river. The other by a boulder. One survives. One dies. Some would probably say it’s ridiculous to compare the two but I maintain that even in his recklessness Aron was careful. He had a good map, a great knowledge of the area where he was going, the right gear and as a search and rescue volunteer a good idea of his future fate. Though I can’t know for sure, Chris seemed to have only a cursory knowledge of life in the wild of Alaska, he didn’t know enough to feed himself or have an escape route. To put it crudely Chris just wasn’t aggressive enough about his survival.
We will never know why Aron lived and Chris died. Such is for the God and the inhabitants of the celestial to unpack. But my hunch is the will to live can spur us all to do the impossible and those who aggressively nurture that will have a better chance of survival.