Touching the Void

based on the book by Joe Simpson

directed by Kevin MacDonald

starring Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates


review by Stephen Notley

Touching the Void is a documentary, and it starts out with clips of its two heroes Joe Simpson and Simon Yates discussing what happened, so from the very beginning we know they're both going to make it. Whatever happens on that mountain, they're gonna be okay. But somehow it doesn't matter; our knowledge can't distance us from the tension and the fear and the horrible moment-to-moment surety of death that runs through this film as these two guys face some of the most excruciating tests of will and courage imaginable.

In 1985 Simpson and Yates set out to scale the west face of the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes, and from the very beginning it's obvious this is hard, scary, dangerous work. Other expeditions had made the attempt and failed, so the two knew it was tough, but as Simpson narrates, "We just thought we were better than them." Soon Simpson and Yates' dramatized stand-ins are chipping away at the ice and snow, hauling themselves up inch by inch, the steel claws of their climbing boots scrabbling away at the rock face looking for any crack for a second's purchase. The narration fills us in on the gritty details of mountain climbing, the difficulty of melting snow to drink and the utter reliance a climber has on his partner. We see the cold bite deep, snow boiling off the peak in huge sheets, crusting the climbers' faces and fingers with ice. The narration describes the slope, huge flutings of powder that crumble away under the stroke of an ice axe. By the time they get to the summit, we know how hard this is. But at least the up part is done --getting down should be a lot easier, right?

Not this time. Simpson narrates how at one spot on the descent "the pick went in, made a strange sound." It gives way and  Simpson drops and lands and screams; his leg is broken, the lower leg bone driven up through his knee. Suddenly death is there for both of them. Yates knows that with one of them crippled chances are neither of them will make it off the mountaint. Nonetheless Yates tries, slinging two ropes together, lowering Simpson partway until he can secure himself, then decending to join him and repeating the process. Except eventually Simpson starts to slide, slip, race down the slope and over a cliff to hang uselessly, helplessly. Time passes, Yates starts to slip and he makes the only decision he can: he cuts the rope, sending Simpson plunging to certain death into a crevasse.

The documentary style of Touching the Void pulls us into the story. As we see the events unfold Simpson and Tate explain how it felt, what they were thinking, and they were not happy thoughts. From the outside with the perspective of time this would seem like an inspiring story, but while it's actually happening there's no inspiration or plucky I-can-make it hope. It's confusion and helplessness and frustrated rage at the certainty of death, horror and guilt over having condemned a friend to die. The two narrators speak frankly; at one point Yates admits he thought of coming up with a story that would make him look better, at another Simpson describes how even in the blackest moments it never occurred to him to pray.

And yet somehow they make it. I'm not gonna tell you how, but it's an excruciating ordeal, a teeth-clenching pain-filled journey that makes Jesus's cross-carrying hike in The Passion of the Christ look like a day at the beach with three hot chicks. It's a harrowing portrait of will and it'll scrape you to the bone. Check it out.

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