In 1985, English mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates decided it was time to take a crack at conquering the western face of Siula Grande, a peak in the Peruvian Andes that no one had ever successfully climbed. With the help of Richard Hawking, a non-climber whose sole job was to secure the sole base camp, the two Englishmen started their ascent of the jagged and harsh mountainside. The young men preferred to climb mountains “alpine” style, which means they packed every essential into bags strapped across their backs and attacked the climb without the help of numerous base camps and long periods of rest and restocking. This style of climbing, although regarded as the “purest” by those who employ it, is fraught with incredible perils. As one of the climbers attests in this powerful documentary: “If you get badly hurt, you’ll probably die.” These men know what the dangers are, and they still regard this specific climb as “a challenging day out.”
Employing actors to re-enact what would become much more than a “challenging day out,” and narrated by the two men who survived what could be only described as a living nightmare, Touching the Void grabs you from the very beginning and never lets go. The climber’s challenge on this trek is not so much the steep and foreboding mountain itself; it is the treacherous cascades of ice and snow that hug the peak. Each step could be one that plunges the climbers into a crevasse that would become their tomb. They dig their boots into the ice-covered monolith, hammer in their ice screws, and ultimately make it to the summit. When they have to come down, the story really begins.
Attached to each other by ropes, Simpson and Yates descend Siula Grande until Simpson takes a misstep and breaks his leg. Yates attempts to lower his partner down the mountain until another nightmare occurs: unbeknownst to Yates, Simpson is lowered right off a cliff. Yates can’t allow himself to be lowered with the rope still attached, otherwise he could wind up in whatever trouble his buddy is in. Yates decides to cut the rope. The act will save him, but it will plummet Simpson 150 feet down into one of the mountain’s dreaded crevasses. Yates continues down the mountain, sadly assuming that his friend could not have endured.
What happens to Simpson after the rope is cut is simply one of the most fascinating and moving survival stories ever committed to film. The film succeeds in putting you right where Simpson is, moments from a cold and lonely death. The tension and pain are re-created so masterfully that at times it is excruciatingly hard to watch.
Touching the Void, filmed on location in the Andes, is much more than an “adventure” story. Within its simple framework of a man doing everything he can to survive what most could not, it tells a remarkable tale about choices and repercussions and a moral dilemma most of us are fortunate enough to never face.
To fully appreciate the stunning camerawork and the unreal vistas of the Andes, you must see Touching the Void on the big screen. It will swallow you up like a whiteout at 26,000 feet.
At the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak) with the Disney-Dali short Destino showing before. Call 248-263-2111 for more information.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].