Friday, April 16, 2004

Touching the Void

In 1985 two young Englishmen, Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, scaled a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes. Their climb had never been attempted before and it hasn’t been done since, but they crested the mountain without much difficulty. Then they began their descent.

What happened next has caused a lot of people to vilify Yates or glorify Simpson, but the story dramatized in Simpson’s 1988 book, Touching the Void, and in Kevin MacDonald’s documentary of the same name is much more interesting. These two are neither heroes nor villains; they’re just ordinary guys who survived an extraordinary ordeal.

Well, okay, not entirely ordinary. Simpson and Yates are climbers, which means they’re unusually fit, unusually self-reliant people whose idea of a party is playing Spiderman at altitudes too high to support indigenous life forms. “We climbed because it was fun,” says Simpson. “And every now and then it went wildly wrong, and then it wasn’t.”

Things went wrong on this trip when Simpson fell, shattering his right leg. His first thought, he says, was: “If I broke my leg, I’m dead,” but Yates didn’t leave him to die. Instead, he spliced two ropes into one 300-foot length and began lowering his partner down the mountainside in stages. “What he did was quite extraordinary,” Simpson says, and it almost worked. But just before they reached the bottom of the slope, Yates lowered Simpson over a yawning chasm.

For about an hour and a half, the two sat in suspended animation, Simpson dangling helplessly while Yates sat in the snow bucket he had carved to hold his weight. Separated by 150 feet and a blinding snowstorm, they had no way of knowing what was happening to each other and no way to pull Simpson back up. Meanwhile, Yates’ seat was gradually shifting out from beneath him. To save himself, he finally cut the rope and found his way back to base camp, where he hunkered down to recover.

Amazingly, Simpson survived the fall after Yates cut the rope, but he landed in a crevasse with no apparent way out. After a night of horror (crevasses, he says. “have a dread feel. Not a place for living”), he gathered the courage to drop even deeper into the abyss, gambling that he’d find something other than empty space before reaching the end of his rope. The bet paid off, but now he faced a new dilemma: How could he travel the miles to base camp, over rough terrain, with no food or water and a badly broken leg?

The physical hardships undergone by the two were almost unimaginable. Yates was unrecognizable by the time he reached base camp, his fingertips blackened by frostbite and his face discolored and raw from exposure and dehydration. The pain was exponentially worse for Simpson, who lost a third of his body weight as he dragged himself back to base camp. At one point, he hopped over a stretch of broken rocks so uneven that he fell on almost every hop. “It was like having your leg broken again every time,” he says.

But their psychological ordeal is even more grueling. Although Yates plays only a supporting role in this drama, it’s clear that he suffered deeply for the Hobson’s choice that led him to abandon his partner. As for Simpson, his long dance with death has a terrible vicarious fascination. “It was a slow, steady reduction of you, really,” he says. “You didn’t have any dignity, care if you were brave or weak.”

The story is told by the three survivors: Yates, Simpson, and Richard Hawking, who manned the base camp. All three share a plain but eloquent style of speaking, a good memory for details, and a typically British aversion to self-glorification. Yates admits, for instance, that he thought about creating “a decent story that would make me look better” to explain Simpson’s presumed death, and Hawking says he was afraid to rescue Simpson from the darkness the night he made it back to base camp because “if he was out there, he was going to be a horrible thing.”

Sometimes the narrators speak to the camera, but often they provide a voice-over while actors play out their story. It may take a little while to get used to this technique, which is used more in cheesy History Channel movies than blue-chip documentaries, but MacDonald, a seasoned filmmaker who won an Oscar for his documentary about the Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Olympics, was smart not to let that stop him. The narration in Touching the Void tells the story, but the reenactments put us right on that mountain, turning us from listeners into observers.

MacDonald hired actors who can climb, even using Yates and Simpson themselves in some of the long shots. The performances are mainly physical, and they’re painfully convincing: I winced every time the actor playing Simpson landed on his bad leg. Aside from the talking head segments, which were shot in a studio, the movie is filmed in the Alps and the Andes, and after a while you can see the terror in that beauty and the benevolence in a sunny day.

Even close to two decades later, Simpson was unnerved by the mountain where he had felt his personality disintegrate. “I wasn't shaking, but I felt like I was,” he says. “I had forgotten just how appalling it was being reduced to almost nothing."

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