Touching the Void (9/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

Even though the highest Iíve ever climbed is the bridge below Vernal Falls in Yosemite, Iíve always liked mountain climbing movies. I liked The Eiger Sanction (1975; OK, most of the mountain climbing in that was talk, but it was when Clint Eastwood was still Clint Eastwood and the film had a memorable performance by Jack Cassidy), and Vertical Limit (2000), Cliffhanger (1993), Into Thin Air (1997). I liked Ďem all.

Good as they were, Touching the Void is the best. A true story, in 1985 two friends, Simon Yates (Nicholas Aaron) and Joe Simpson (Brendan Mackey) set out to conquer the west face of 21,000 foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, a feat that had never been done. Simpson was 21 and Yates 25 when they set out. Making it even more harrowing they were attempting it with no backup and no safety fallback. If someone got injured it would be up to the two of them to get back on their own. There would be no helicopter rescues, or any other type of rescue. They were attempting this on their own with just a novice they picked up at the last minute to take care of their base camp.

This is the story of what happened, based upon Simpsonís book, with extraordinary photography, each man telling his story in voice-overs and cuts back to their interviews. I knew what happened when I went in but that didnít spoil the film for me. Because each is telling his story, you know in advance that they both survive, so Iíll give you the basics.

After they reach the summit and start down, Simpson breaks his leg in three places. With Simpson in excruciating pain, Yates stays with him and tries to lower him down by tethering both to a rope, anchoring himself and then lowering Simpson down 300 feet, letting Simpson anchor himself and then coming down to him and repeating the process. This goes OK until yet another disaster strikes as Simpson plunges over an unseen precipice, leaving him dangling 150 feet in the air. Yates doesnít know whatís going on because he canít see Simpson. After an hour and a half of holding him Yates realizes heís losing his anchor and slipping and that theyíre both going to die. So he cuts the rope, plunging Simpson into a crevice, a drop of more than 150 feet to the top of the crevice, but into the crevice where he lands on a ledge, an additional 80 feet down.

Yates thinks Simpson is dead so he goes on alone back to base camp, leaving Simpson on the ledge, 80 feet deep into a crevice with a horribly broken leg. The rest of the film is a gritty survival story.

Although the film doesnít get into the philosophy of their thinking, this is really the story of two decisions. The first is Yatesí decision to cut the rope and the other is the decision Simpson makes in the crevice to allow him to survive. Would you have done what he did? The decision he made, with his life on the line, is impressive.

Yates' decision to cut the rope was equally heroic. He knew if he didnít cut it theyíd both die. But if he cut it and survived, he knew he could be subject to horrendous criticism. He cut it and was subject to criticism, unjustly, in my opinion. The cowardly decision would have been to sit there and hold the rope and just wait for both their deaths. By cutting the rope he gave them each an additional chance to survive, although he clearly thought that by cutting the rope Simpson probably had no chance.

This is a gripping tale of courage and survival with gorgeous cinematography.

February 6, 2004

The End