“Touching the Void” was the perfect antidote for the wintertime blues that seemed to have gotten a grip on me during this unrelenting blast of arctic weather intent on making each run outside a dreary chore. Years ago, I read Joe Simpson’s book, of the same name, about the incredible events that befell him and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, in the Peruvian Andes during a fateful expedition to climb the west face of Siula Grande in 1985. Almost 20 years later, in 2004, their remarkable story of survival was made into a gripping docudrama.
Simpson and Yates narrate the adventure against a stark, image-less, background. Brendon Mackey and Nickolas Aaron play the Simpson and Yates roles in the reenactment. The climbing scenes were filmed on location in the Andes (as well as the Alps) - and included experienced climbers as stunt doubles. One addition voice, that of Richard Hawkings, a fellow traveler they met at the outset of the expedition and agreed to man the base camp while they climbed, adds to the narration.
The two adventurers bypassed the traditional method of mounting such a difficult climb by the establishment of multiple camps (or equipment caches) along the route. They opted for the more “risky” - here that is a decidedly relative term - “one push” method which involved carrying all their gear on the journey. They successful climbed the practically vertical west face of the mountain and then, ominously, noted that 80% of all climbing accidents occur on the descent!
On the descent Simpson slipped and had a disastrous fall. He broke his leg so severely that the calf bone was driven up and through his knee. The only “luck” was it didn’t break his skin (and thus no blood). From that point on his ordeal gets increasingly more painful and harrowing. Simpson was initially surprised that Yates not only stayed with him, but attempted to get him down off the mountain. Both realized that a broken leg under those circumstances was practically a death sentence.
Yates attempted to lower Simpson 300 feet at a time (the length of their combined ropes knotted together). When he was lowered to the end, Simpson would secure himself and Yates would climb down to him to repeat the procedure. Instead, in the darkness and bad weather, Simpson was lowered over the edge of a precipice and left hanging in mid-air! After some agonizing (it was impossible for Yates to pull Simpson back up) Yates cut the rope and Simpson fell a 100 feet into a crevice. He landed on an ice shelf, which probably saved his life.
The rest of the film is the agonizing lengths that Simpson goes to survive - against incredible odds at almost every turn. Simply to escape the crevice he had to lower himself further into the void - not knowing what was at the bottom! Amazingly, he finds a way out of the crevice - and out onto the glazier! From that point his ordeal begins again because Simpson must travel 5 miles to return to base camp (with no food, melted ice for water, and thought dead by Yates).
It is an incredibly inspiring story (either on screen or in print)! After watching Simpson spend 3 days getting off that glacier and back to base camp - alternating between crawling and hopping on one leg - grousing about a cold spell, however brutal, in urban American, seems trite (to put it mildly). Put this on your Netflix queue and put winter into perspective!