Film

Cruel summit

Touching the Void tells
the most harrowing
mountaineering story of all time

Touching the Void is a documentary, and it starts out with clips of its two
heroes, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, discussing what happened, so from the
very beginning we know they’re both going to make it. Whatever happens
on that mountain, they’re gonna be okay. But somehow it doesn’t
matter; our knowledge can’t distance us from the tension and the fear
and the horrible moment-to-moment surety of death that runs through this film
as these two guys face some of the most excruciating tests of will and
courage imaginable. In 1985, Simpson and Yates set out to scale the west face
of the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes, and from the very
beginning it’s obvious this is hard, scary, dangerous work. Other
expeditions had made the attempt and failed, so the two knew it was tough,
but as Simpson narrates, “We just thought we were better than
them.” Soon Simpson and Yates’ dramatized stand-ins are chipping
away at the ice and snow, hauling themselves up inch by inch, the steel claws
of their climbing boots scrabbling away at the rock face looking for any
crack for a second’s purchase. The narration fills us in on the gritty
details of mountain climbing, the difficulty of melting snow to drink and the
utter reliance a climber has on his partner. We see the cold bite deep, snow
boiling off the peak in huge sheets, crusting the climbers’ faces and
fingers with ice. The narration describes the slope, huge flutings of powder
that crumble away under the stroke of an ice axe. By the time they get to the
summit, we know how hard this is. But at least the up part is
done—getting down should be a lot easier, right? Not this time. Simpson
narrates how at one spot on the descent “the pick went in, made a
strange sound.” It gives way and Simpson drops and lands and screams;
his leg is broken, the lower leg bone driven up through his knee. Suddenly
death is there for both of them. Yates knows that with one of them crippled,
chances are neither of them will make it off the mountain. Nonetheless Yates
tries, slinging two ropes together, lowering Simpson partway until he can
secure himself, then descending to join him and repeating the process. Except
eventually Simpson starts to slide, slip, race down the slope and over a
cliff to hang uselessly, helplessly. Time passes, Yates starts to slip and he
makes the only decision he can: he cuts the rope, sending Simpson plunging to
certain death into a crevasse. The documentary style of Touching the Void
pulls us into the story. As we see the events unfold Simpson and Tate explain
how it felt, what they were thinking, and they were not happy thoughts. From
the outside, with the perspective of time, this would seem like an inspiring
story, but while it’s actually happening there’s no inspiration
or plucky “I-can-make-it” hope. It’s confusion and
helplessness and frustrated rage at the certainty of death, horror and guilt
over having condemned a friend to die. The two narrators speak frankly; at
one point Yates admits he thought of coming up with a story that would make
him look better, at another Simpson describes how even in the blackest
moments it never occurred to him to pray. And yet somehow they make it.
I’m not gonna tell you how, but it’s an excruciating ordeal, a
teeth-clenching, pain-filled journey that makes Jesus’s cross-carrying
hike in The Passion of the Christ look like a day at the beach with three hot
chicks. It’s a harrowing portrait of will and it’ll scrape you to
the bone. Check it out. V Touching the Void Directed by Kevin Macdonald
• Starring Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates
• Opens Fri, Apr 23

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