kharcler's Blog

Some thoughts on Aron Ralston, mountaineer self-amputee
May 26, 2009, 6:24 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

In 2003, Aron Ralston was hiking alone in Utah’s remote Bluejohn Canyon when his hand was crushed and pinned by a falling boulder. After six days trapped in the canyon, Ralston resorted to breaking his arm and cutting off his hand above the wrist. Since then, Ralston has shared his experiences with Dateline NBC, Outside Magazine, the New York Times, and National Geographic News, to name only the few I’ve consulted. Ralston has also published a bestselling memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, excerpts of which are available on the Outside Magazine website.

I’m especially interested in Ralston’s perspective because I want to look at dominant hand-amputation in my paper. There are several issues that surface in Ralston’s first-person narratives, reflections, and commentaries that are unique to him and to this form of disability. I may not be able to flesh them all out completely here, but I want to keep these issues in mind as I look forward to molding some kind of related paper into shape.

First, does Ralston’s instance of self-amputation count as a disability? Ralston was able-bodied up until April of 2003, and since his amputation has continued climbing with the help of a custom prosthetic. His memoirs/interviews are pretty mum about his difficulties in becoming proficient in his use of the prosthetic. I think Wendell’s definition of the difference between disability and handicap–with the essential factor being the individual’s environmental context–useful here, where readers are intended to infer that there is no pre- vs. post- amputation difference in Ralston’s “ability to perform activities.” It’s interesting that there is no use of the word disability in any of the articles/interviews/biographies/memoirs I found online.

Second, how is social emphasis on individual responsibility for disability operating in Ralston’s situation? He did disable himself. In his memoirs, he takes complete responsibility for placing himself in harm’s way, saying that he not only made a mistake which allowed the incident to occur, but that he invited the incident: “That boulder did what it was there to do. Boulders fall. That’s their nature. You did this, Aron. You chose to come here today; you chose to do this slot canyon by yourself. You chose not to tell anyone where you were going.” Ralston has taken a lot of flack from the climbing community for his disregarding this “golden rule” of climbing, possibly queering himself in the process of living and functioning beyond rules. Some consider Ralston to be intentionally publicizing and profiting from his own stupidity. A review from a reader of Between a Rock and a Hard Place demonstrates how easily Ralson’s situation can be made to support the idea of personal responsibility for disability/disablement: “Aron was right when he said in his book that he created the exact situation for himself. It was an experience he needed to have for his own spiritual growth.” This reader-review also invokes an image of disability as a moral test, necessary to development of character (Quayson 37). Ralston’s own perspective of his disability as epiphany, or even inarticulable and enigmatic tragic insight also surface in his descriptions of the experience as the most “liberating” and “beautiful feeling” he has ever known.

Third, how is Ralston a supercrip? He is climbing better than ever. He is a popular motivational speaker, benefiting others through sharing his message of indomitability. Even his book is probably saving lives by publicizing the consequences of climbers not telling others their itinerary. Many of Ralston’s interviews and the latter part of his memoir give a lot of print inches to reaffirming his physical prowess. He also makes what I thought is an unnecessary reference to his girlfriend in his remark about how there is more to his life than being a motivational speaker or an outdoor extremist. Readers seem to respond either by idolizing or demonizing him–some find him inspiring, others see him as a joke. In response to being cast as a hero, he says, “I think that people responded to the way I reacted to what happened, not to the accident itself. I guess there is some irony there. But what are you going to do?” In his book, Ralston describes his desire for the extreme: “I wanted to reveal to myself who I was: the kind of person who dies or the kind of person who overcomes circumstances to help himself and others.” It would seem Ralston had already internalized some of the usual criteria for becoming a supercrip.

Fourth, does pity have a role in Ralston’s relationship with readers? Everyone who reads his book asks themselves the same question: what would I have done if I were in that situation? Ralston effectively gets readers to identify with him. But the attitude is not one that asks for pity–but it seems that for readers there are only two positive options: pity or awe. Ralston does not allow for pity by emphasizing his responsibility for his situation, so readers choose to admire him instead. As a result, some readers perceive a narcissistic tone in Ralston’s work.

Fifth, is Ralston marketing himself as a freak show? I think so. But I think that for this individual who lived to take risks as a means of self-discovery, marketing himself as a physical emblem of extremism may be fitting.  He is still working to accept his changed life, and  maybe this is his approach to that. I don’t have a conclusion for these questions, but I think they are helpful to a discussion of dismemberment and disability.

Some links:


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