Monday, January 31, 2011

127 Hours and the search for adventure

When I had to leave my home state of Kansas more than a decade ago, I chose Colorado for my fresh start.
Well, of course I did. That place meant more to me than any other place, even, by that point, Kansas.
It was the place where I felt most alive.
The need to feel alive is an urge I could never truly explain to people. I still struggle with that. But when people ask me why I feel that need these days, I'll just steer them to "127 Hours," the Aron Ralston movie.
Most everyone knows who he is these days, but if you don't, I'll put it crudely: He's the guy who cut off his arm to save his life. Oh, I can hear you saying. THAT guy.
A movie about that experience, I'll admit, sounds boring and horrific at the same time. His arm was trapped by a boulder, so you're watching a guy whose arm was trapped by a boulder. No car explosions, no shootings and, more seriously, no real climbing scenes either.
So why is it so riveting? Well, for one, the movie does a great job of showing you what he's up against, with its sweeping views of the vast landscape that's swallowed him whole. You can't even hear his screams a few feet beyond the constricting walls that have him pinned. The obvious tension comes from the fact that it's not hard to figure out he's on his own, and the only way he's going to make it out is by cutting off his arm. The natural question, of course, that comes from that is wondering if you could do it.
But by showing you that vast landscape, it also shows you, at least for me, WHY Ralston is so mesmerized by it. It shows why he's out there. I'm pretty sure that if someone told him there was a risk of him getting trapped by a boulder, he'd be out there anyway. In fact I know that.
I'm out there, after all.
I've written about this before, but in 1999, my first year of my fresh start, I was scrambling down some giant boulders in a steep rockfield when they moved and then went. It's the first time in my life I saw death - I even yelled "Oh God!" just like in the movies - and I rolled with the rocks. I somehow stopped myself after the third flip. I was beaten and bloodied, pretty badly, and had to walk with a cane for a few weeks, but 17 hours later I made it back to the trailhead with my father.
Just four years later, I was traversing on a ridge between two 14ers in the toughest climb of my life when I got a touch cocky and jumped every so slightly down from a ledge. A rock spilled out from under me and I rolled like drying laundry to what surely would be my death, 2,000 feet down to sharp rocks, when I managed to wrap my leg around a boulder three feet, or one more roll, from the end.
That climb lasted another 16 hours, and it's one of the five most memorable things I've ever done, out of more than 200 adventures. It was terrifying at times, but I loved it. Less than an hour after I was killed on that climb, I was loving it.
That's just the hold those special places can have over you.
Ironically, the movie, too, shows just how amazing those places are even if 90 percent of it is about his desperate need to escape it.
The beginning of the movie is a frantic, MTV-like montage, one of Danny Boyle's signatures (he uses the same technique to perfection in the Oscar-winner "Slumdog Millionare"), and as you struggle to keep up, you get a sense of what Ralston is trying to escape. All those lights. All that action. All the noise, noise, noise. Yet the city, for all its cacophony, supplies us with everything we need, ten thousand times over. Fresh, clean water out of the tap. Contact with others. Taco Bells. Leaving all that behind is a risk even if it's also fun. That's one of the best things about the peaks: They make you appreciate the simple creature comforts that we take for granted. By the end, Ralston is so desperate for water, he drinks his own urine. I just filled my water bottle after I wrote that. That line made me pretty thirsty.
You need to leave that comfort every once in a while, I believe, and Ralston seems to believe, in order to discover yourself. The movie seems to say that, too, and I can't see how anyone couldn't leave "127 Hours" without feeling the same way.
Ralston still climbs. He still gets out there. He, just like me, appreciates the risks a bit more now.
It's an incredible survival story. But it's much more than that. I took it as a movie that finally shows what it means to be alive.

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