"Touching The Void"
Director: Kevin McDonald


Tom Meek

In Touching the Void, a mountain climber dangles from the end of a rope while his partner, three hundred feet above, waits for the signal (a succession of quick tugs) to descend. The signal never comes. They’re twenty-one thousand feet above sea level, the climber below has a broken leg and since the mountain face has unexpectedly fallen away, there is no means for him to get anchored and send the signal. Then things get really hairy. The tether above begins to lose his footing and slide towards the drop he doesn’t know exists while the man below takes off his gloves in sub-zero temperatures to try one last desperate measure. And that’s just the beginning of Kevin Macdonald’s true-life account (docudrama if you will, though it’s anything but) of how two wide-eyed climbers set off in 1985 to conquer the world and ended up in a frozen hell.

The men on the screen, who truly do appear to be at grave risk – there’s no cutaways, no cheesy FX and no evident staging – are actors, climbers and stuntmen. The harrowing ordeal is so vivid and real, it’s as if you’re watching a National Geographic expedition gone dreadfully awry and their loyal cameraman is on tap to capture their imminent demise. Macdonald, who won the 2000 Academy Award for “One Day in September,” the plucky documentary recounting of the terrorist siege during the 1972 Munich Olympics, seems to have a wickedly good time playing puppetmaster with the audience’s sense of time, space and human frailty. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to look down miles of snow and ice with that near sense of falling, have your bare hands frozen by arctic winds, be jammed into a crevice with no means out, or go without water for days, Macdonald puts you there so viscerally that your gut, throat and legs feel like they’re going to scream. It’s the kind of effect IMAX filmmakers only wish they could bottle and incorporate into their surround sound chicanery.

In between the cliff hanging recreation, the two real-life climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates sit calmly (and separately) before a camera and explain how they wanted to be the first to scale Siula Grande, the highest peak in the Peruvian Andes. Several climbers had tried before, but because of fierce winds, sheer walls of ice and sudden white outs, no one had successfully topped the summit. At the time of the climb, Simpson and Yates were in their early twenties, and while they boasted impressive resumes, you can’t help but wonder if youthful naiveté was a factor in their near undoing. But yet there they sit, some twenty years later, dispassionately, with stiff British resolve, telling you about the near fatal incident that had the European climbing community calling for Yates’s head.

Yates and Simpson, as they tell us, scaled the mountain “alpine style,” meaning they did it in one push with minimal provisions – it’s much quicker, but far riskier than setting up a series of camps and footholds that essentially prep the path up. If the film has an anticlimactic moment, it’s when the climbers unceremoniously make the peak in two days. Then one of them informs us that “eighty percent of all accidents, happen on descent,” and sure enough, as if on cue, Simpson makes a minor miscalculation and plunges twenty feet, driving his shinbone through his kneecap. The accident left the climber in excruciating pain and, for the most part, incapacitated. The two thought they were as good as dead, “really stuffed” as Simpson puts it, but driven by desperation they devised a plan that had Yates lowering Simpson down the mountain in three hundred foot lengths. Then came the pivotal moment when Yates unwittingly dropped Simpson over the edge of a cliff. He waited for the signal to descend and when it didn’t come, and his own life became in peril, he made the decision –- the one that drew the ire of the climbing world -- to cut the rope. Yates said he found no sign of Simpson below and descended without further incident, but for Simpson, who crashed through a snowcap and fell a hundred and fifty feet into a crevice; the ordeal had only begun. With no means to ascend, Simpson, being a much tougher customer than his serene demeanor would indicate, did the unthinkable; he burrowed downward. We know he makes it out -– he wrote the book the film is based on -– but even so, he still had nearly twenty thousand feet to descend, a glacier to traverse and a cobbled plain of boulders to cross. He accomplishes this in four days, and what makes it so astonishing, is that he does it all on one leg and without any water.

Simpson wrote the book in part to devilify Yates, yet the two never appear on screen together and never directly talk about their feelings towards each other or Yates’s decision. Simpson, who’s had several operations and has resumed climbing (the two actually do some of the climbing sequences), seems to have come to terms with the incident, but Yates, uneasy before the camera, is clearly haunted by that draw of the blade atop Siula Grande, and you will be too.

-- Tom Meek

Copyright Web del Sol, 2004

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