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Touching the Void

Released 2003. Director: Kevin McDonald

IN 1985, JOE SIMPSON AND SIMON YATES SET OUT TO CLIMB the 21,000ft Siula Grande, a treacherous peak in the Peruvian Andes hitherto unconquered. Something terrible happened on their descent and the story is retold in Touching the Void.

The mountain climbing scenes have been extensively re-enacted, with Joe and Simon being played by actors, plus a talking-head treatment of Joe’s and Simon’s separate interviews inter-cutting the climbing scenes.

The first achievement of Touching the Void is how quickly it manages to hold your undivided attention, even if you’re not particularly drawn to mountain climbing. The dramatization is captivating in its urgency and nearness, the cinematography vivid and realistic. Chief of all, Joe’s unbelievable escape from certain death is a journey that, had it not been told by the survivor himself, would be taken as a work of the imagination. Truth is, in this instance, really stranger than fiction.

Director Kevin McDonald unfolds the facts, re-enactments and commentaries with the pacing of a thriller. Each succeeding detail catches on to extend the tension, thanks in no small part also to Alex Heffe’s music. Although it’s no secret that Joe survived (he’s right there on the screen talking to us after all), the suspense is finding out just how he did it despite an Everest of odds against him.

Here’s what happened. Joe had an accident and broke his leg. The injured man clung to a rope which Simon was using to pull his friend back to safety. But the situation became increasingly worse and Simon eventually cut the rope. Joe fell 80 feet into the darkness of the night in a bone-chilling snowstorm.

Did Simon let his friend die? There are strong grounds to condemn him, but the circumstances of the time provide equally strong reasons to defend him. Both men survived but the miracle was how Joe actually got out alive.

Fallen deep into an icy crevasse with his fibula snapped and piercing into his kneecap, Joe somehow succeeded through the next few days in getting out, crawling agonizingly across a heavily snowed-over glacier, stumbled across a field of rocks to reach base camp, hungry, severely dehydrated, delirious, barely alive but definitely not dead.

Touching the Void is a big moral and existential mountain. The choices and actions of the mountaineers will never find a satisfying solution. Whether Simon should or shouldn’t have cut the rope is not as simplistic as a black-and-white textbook issue. To this day, Joe defends his friend’s action. Actually, his first words after being rescued were appreciation and gratitude for Simon.

Joe commented that even in his deepest fear, agony and helplessness he never believed in god. His entire excruciating path to survival was played out in a godless universe. To the religious, Joe’s miraculous journey back to life appears to be touched by divine intervention. To me, his tenacious will to live, astonishing endurance and, may I add, sheer luck, appears scripted and plotted – because his survival is so improbable. Yet this is how it happened.

As a feature film this is harrowing and gripping. It’s a shave so close there was no reason to expect Joe to live. But it’s evidently not big enough a lesson. Six operations later Joe has resumed climbing. I don’t expect another survival tale; nobody can be this lucky twice.

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