Go Tell It On the Mountain

A scene from Touching the Void
Severing a tenuous link to life in the Peruvian Andes

In June 1985, 21-year-old Simon Yates and 25-year-old Joe Simpson set out to ascend Siula Grande, a peak in the Peruvian Andes whose west face had never before been conquered. By the third day of strenuous, perilous climbing through icy winds, the two British mountaineers reached the 21,000-foot summit. When asked later what attracted them to this treacherous adventure, one replied: "It makes you feel more alive." During the four grueling days it took to descend Siula Grande, Simon and Joe would often feel closer to death than life.

Touching the Void commemorates an ordeal of extraordinary tenacity and improbable survival. Hours after standing in exultation atop Siula Grande, Joe and Simon were lost in the snow on the north face of the mountain. Joe fell and shattered his leg. Lashed by rope to his alpinist partner, he attempted to make his way back down to safety, but, plunging off a cliff, he soon found himself dangling more than 100 feet over a huge crevasse. A frigid night had come, and Joe, dehydrated and in shock, was suffering intense pain. All that kept him from plunging into the crevasse was the line to Simon, who could not see his partner and had no idea whether Joe was even still alive. Eventually, fearful that the other man would only pull him to his death as well, Simon cut the rope.

Touching the Void is a hybrid of documentary and reenactment. Recent on-camera interviews with Simon, Joe, and Richard Hawking, a non-climber who manned the base camp, alternate with footage of Nicholas Aaron and Brendan Mackey simulating the actions of Simon and Joe, respectively, two decades ago. Director Kevin Macdonald, whose earlier work includes One Day in September, the riveting account of the Munich Olympic massacre, took his crew and his courage to the Andes to replicate the disastrous ascent of Siula Grande. The younger impersonators do not look much like the men they are counterfeiting, but high in the snowy Peruvian mountains, even pretending to break a leg, fall into a crevasse, and crawl slowly back to base camp takes much more than skillful acting. To put it all on film takes much more than a camera.

Touching the Void

Dir. Kevin Macdonald; writ. Joe Simpson; feat. Nicholas Aaron, Richard Hawking, Brendan Mackey, Joe Simpson, Simon Yates (NR)

After Simon cuts him loose, Joe falls onto a mountain ledge. Suffering pain, shock, and fear and critically in need of blood and water, he resolves to move on, if only not to die alone. "The other option was just to sit there," Joe recalls. Although raised a Catholic, he refuses the false hope of divine intervention. It is then that, despairing of ever getting out alive, Joe touches the void. The abyss becomes palpable to the viewer as well.

Rather than just sit there, Joe lowers himself further into the crevasse, but the way in turns out to be the way out. He manages to crawl through into the sunshine and, with excruciating difficulty, back to the base camp, where Simon, whose own escape was almost as improbable, thinks he sees a ghost. Although both have since gone back to climbing, they are obviously still haunted by their encounter with mortality in the icy Andes. Many have faulted Simon for cutting the rope that served as Joe's tenuous link to help and hope. Not so Joe. "I'd have done the same," he says. Can anyone see Touching the Void and still feel the same about the things that bond us to other humans and the earth? •