TOUCHING THE VOID
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Based on Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
This is the true story of two Englishmen, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who attempted to be the first climbers to conquer the 21,000-foot high Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes. Both men are interviewed while authentic reenactments are interspersed throughout their recollections. Backpacker Richard Hawking, who they met in Peru, is also interviewed. During the climb, he stayed at the base camp.
The events of their ordeal happened over the course of one week. The ascent took three and a half days. No base camps were created along the way. Instead they chose to dig out shelters in the snow for their overnight stays. Traveling lightly, they only had enough supplies to get up and back down quickly. There was no room for errors; nevertheless, their descent became gravely difficult. Joe fell and landed on a slope. The impact of which drove his lower right leg up through his knee joint. The audience shared a collective fidget as Joe illustrated how the bones pushed past each other. This scene was intercut with a dramatization that included bone-crunching sound effects and “Joe” screaming in agony.
Once Simon learned how dire Joe’s predicament was, he tied their two 150-foot ropes together and lowered Joe down150 feet at a time. As Joe descended, he banged along the mountainside, screaming in pain, but there was no other alternative. After sliding 300 feet, Joe tugged on the rope, letting Simon know that he was secure. Simon then made his way down to Joe and started the process all over.
There were many reasons that Siula Grande had remained unconquered up to this point and one of the dangers was about to become evident. During their descent, Joe was lowered off of a precipice. He dangled in the air helplessly, trying to get a hold of the cliff face but couldn’t reach it. Simon continued to wait for a sign from Joe even though the wind blew hard, the sun was setting, and his footing was giving way. As darkness came he eventually decided to cut the rope. Simon knew that he was probably killing Joe with this action, but it was the only way to save his own life. Simon dug out a snow shelter to survive the frigid night and made his way back to the base camp in the morning. He told Richard how Joe had died during their descent.
What Simon didn’t know was that cutting the rope caused Joe to fall onto a ledge within a very deep crevice. Refusing to die where he landed, Joe decided to lower himself as far as the remaining rope would take him. He would either find a way out or drop even further into the bowels of the mountain.
Since Joe wrote the book and is interviewed for the film, the outcome is obvious; however, the film isn’t about if Joe survived but how. His unrelenting determination to not give up is amazing to hear. He fought unbelievable odds by continually making decisions and creating tasks for himself, such as pulling his body to a certain place in x amount of minutes. He wanted to live so much that he was going to die trying.
The photography is breathtaking. The reenactments looked both fabulous and dangerous because their had to be some risk involved in the re-creation of the climb. The crevice they shot in was a visual siren’s call, breathtaking beauty that would be any man’s death if he gazed too long. Joe’s resolve to beat death and get back home rivals the tales of brave Ulysses.
The interviews are equally as fascinating because everyone is very candid about the events of those days and their feelings both at the time and upon reflection. No one more so than Joe who is very aware of how close to death he came. He is understandably still moved to tears when talking about it.
As much as I enjoyed the film, the last couple of days of Joe’s journey grew tedious. Even though there’s not a lot of action or reflection going to occur during two days of crawling across and falling onto rocks, the sequence still should have been cut down. I know that sounds austere after watching a man will himself to stay alive for days, but I’m reviewing the film of the event, not the event itself.
There was negative criticism from some climbers about Simon’s actions and that might have been interesting to hear. What were their arguments? I couldn’t see any fault in what Simon did. It seems like every man for himself out there because the risks are known, but then I’m not a climber. What is the unwritten code of the climber that some say Simon transgressed? What is the boundary between saving a fellow climber and saving one’s own life? How can anyone claim to know what the right decision when they aren’t in that moment and aren’t affected by all the factors involved?
Also, we never get any better understanding of what drives men like Joe to risk their lives climbing mountains. Sure, it looks beautiful and pristine from the peaks, and at times you’ve accomplished something few, if any, ever do, but why are the risks worth it? To quote Joe, “If you get near death it’s not good but you get a very clear perspective of what’s important, and it’s not your mortgage and it’s not your job, it’s just the fact that you are here. After something like this happens, you have a changed perspective…and you know about living.” We learn that after a few surgeries is Joe still climbing, so what does he now know about living that says risking your life is worth it all. What is this “changed perspective” that he now has.
Touching the Void is an excellent trek for the armchair adventurer with its story about the perseverance of one man and the friendship of two. There are more edge-of-your-seat moments than most CGI-filled blockbusters and the power of silence is vastly overwhelming compared to percussive explosions. The drama and conflict come from not only man against nature, but also man versus himself. This film is in the class of the novel Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer with similar chills and thrills that will vicariously entertain and educate you.