[First published: 05/02/2004]
Last night, we saw Touching the Void — Joe Simpson and Simon Yates' attempt on the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. I'm sitting now, with my hands on the keyboard, wondering if it's possible to compress down and reduce the story and the impression it had on me into words. I don't think it is, but I'll do my best.
When most of us make decisions, then tend — in the main — to be of the 'orange juice with bits or without' or 'Indian food or Chinese' type. Simon Yates had a decision so far from this triviality that it's impossible to think what you might do in the same circumstances. After Joe fell awkwardly and broke his leg when they were starting to descend from the summit, Simon grimly tried to lower him down the mountain, 300ft at a time. Unknowingly, he lowered Joe over an ice overhang, which itself was above a crevasse. Now they were stuck; Joe's full weight was on the rope but he couldn't climb up, and Simon couldn't pull him back up or maintain his position, as there was nothing to anchor to and he was gradually slipping down the slope himself. So his choice was this: did he stay in this impasse (in which case they would both eventually die), or did he cut the rope and stand some chance of surviving himself?
He cut the rope. Both men tell their stories quite calmly and impassively for the most part, but you still get a glimpse of the psychological impact that decision must have had on Simon, and how it must haunt him even now. The rest of the film documents the hellish things that both men (but particularly Joe) had to endure to make their separate journeys back down the mountain.
In a way, the film has a built in spoiler. Right from the start, we see both men recounting the story today so we know that they must have got down, but I don't think that I've ever seen a more gripping film. I think that this might be because the conditions you see them survive are so outside the realm of anything you might reasonably expect a human being to endure, that you can't believe the evidence of your eyes that they are still alive and well.
It really is an extraordinary film, and testament to the stubborn tenacity of life against all the odds. There was one particularly harrowing scene, in which Joe was dragging himself inch by inch along the ground using his ice axes, which reminded me of a wildlife film I saw several years ago. This showed flamingos breeding in the middle of a vast soda lake. The caustic soda combined with sediment to form something like concrete, which formed heavy anklets around the flamingo chicks' legs. The adults migrated as soon as the lake started drying up, leaving any unfledged chicks to walk across the lake to escape. There was one shot of a chick, exhausted and weighed down by the anklets, lying on the ground and using its beak to haul itself along. It was heart-breaking and inspiring at the same time, and I thought that it showed how our survival instincts don't let us give up until the very last spark is gone, no matter how hopeless it may seem. The way Joe put it was that you have to go on making decisions, even if they are stupid ones; you can't just sit down and wait to die. I love life with a passion, and would give it up very reluctantly, but even so I fear that I would just have given up.
There was one funny scene in all the grimness. A few months ago, I wrote a post about songs going around in my brain, and the bad taste my brain showed in selecting material. Vanessa suggested that these are called “