Belay on

Last summer we went and saw the film “Touching the Void,” and I had planned to write a few thoughts on it at the time, but the draft post never quite got finished. PBS broadcast the film last night, so I thought I would finally get caught up. Yep, that’s right, this is the very last thing I have to do before I am totally caught up, with everything on my to-do list. Nothing more important to be working on whatsoever.

Based on the nonfiction book by Joe Simpson, Touching the Void tells the story of an alpine-style climb gone horribly wrong: Lost on the way down from the first (and yet-unrepeated) ascent of 21,000-foot Siula Grande in Peru, Simpson and his partner Simon Yates find themselves out of fuel and surprised by the difficulty of the descent. Simpson falls and badly breaks a leg; at 20,000 feet this almost guarantees his death. Yates rigs a series of belays to lower Simpson off the mountain, but in the steep, deep powder snow his stance is precarious; further, being lowered is excruciating for Simpson, whose mangled leg is jarred with every movement. Later, after lowering Simpson past a ledge, Yates is left with the terrible choice of cutting the belay and leaving Simpson behind, or being pulled off the mountain by Simpson’s weight. He doesn’t know if Simpson is even alive; they can’t see or hear each other.

Yates cuts the rope, digs a snow cave, and stumbles off the mountain the next day, stunned and distraught but unable to imagine that Simpson could have lived. Simpson plummets into a crevass in a 150’ fall that should have killed him—but in an absurd combination of luck and will, he lives, and spends the next four days crawling off the mountain, first through the ice crevass, then down the snowfields, and finally over miles of boulders. The night before Yates and another travelling companion are to depart from their camp, they find Simpson, near-dead, not far from their tents. He had lost thirty percent of his body weight, was horribly dehydrated, and had sustained awful injuries. After a dozen surgeries over several years, Simpson, who was initially expected to never walk normally again, returned to climbing (He later was involved in yet another near-death epic), and always defended the decision by Yates to cut the rope.

Simpson and Yates narrate the film, so the viewer knows that both of them eventually make it off the mountain. Many people, in fact, are familiar with the story and know this fact heading into the film. At least in climbing circles, the story is famous as a vivid illustration of the trust that climbers must put in their partners and their own skills, but also of the line between self-preservation and loyalty—a line that climbers hope never to encounter.

So, given all that, is the film any good? The climbing footage, a re-enactment of the Siula Grande climb, is great, and it’s about time. The thing about real climbing, of course, is that when good climbers are well-photographed doing something difficult, it’s not only authentic, but far more dramatic than gussied up Hollywood climbing (see, for example, Cliffhanger). Later in the film, It’s almost physically hard to watch Simpson fall, and then laboriously crawl first through the claustrophobic crevass and later across endless fields of ice and snow. The narration by Simpson and Yates adds emotional heft to the story at key moments, like Simpson’s attempts to re-climb the rope and Yates’ decision to cut the rope and eventually abandon his search. At times I thought the film had too much Simpson—which I suppose is understandable; it’s his book, after all. But maybe a little too much of the psychadelic film tricks in the last fifth, as he pulls himself through the scree. Minor quibbles aside, it’s a dramatic story that is well-told.