Recommended Viewing Situation:
Slowly swinging back and forth in a creaky chair lift that has ground to a halt over Mont Blanc in a whiteout.
Running Time: 106 minutes.
Format: 16 & 35mm film
Director: Kevin Macdonald.
Writers: David Darlow (script writer), Joe Simpson (book).
Cinematographer: Mike Eley & Keith Partridge.
Awards: Won BAFTA for Best British Film + More
In 1985, Joe Simpson (25) and Simon Yates (21) climbed the hitherto unclimbed west face of Siula Grande, a 21,000ft peak in the Peruvian Andes. Touching the Void describes Joe’s solitary journey down the mountain after breaking his leg in a bitter and violent storm during descent. Despite its very real nature and lack of theatrics, it is a gripping tale.
“We didn’t give a damn about anyone else … we just wanted to climb the world.”
After an understated opening scene showing close-angle shots of the finer details of climbing, with a simplistic backing track of wind whistling and the heavy breathing of someone who is cold, Joe reflects on the hedonistic nature of his and Simon’s youth. With comments like “we were fairly irresponsible” and “this is what we live for”, he captures that lack of awareness of mortality so typical of teens and twenty-somethings.
Director Kevin Macdonald takes us to the Andes themselves and so the reconstructions are not only accurate, but also show the silent, awe-inspiring beauty which must have partly drawn Joe and Simon to this corner of the world. Impressive footage of actors/stuntmen climbing is sometimes supported by narration and sometimes by the simple sounds of ice axes and crampons. Occasional music is atmospheric without being melodramatic and the brief burst of baroque-style music when they reach the summit is a fitting backdrop to both their success and the surreal, panoramic shots of the Andes.
Their recollections are honest and at times, brutal.
“If he slips off the side of the mountain now I can just clear off.” Simon recalls how he viewed Joe’s accident as a death sentence for both of them and after a blighted attempt to deliver his friend down the mountain, he cut the rope that joined them after suspecting that Joe may have died. One imagines that nothing would faze a person who chooses to paste himself to a deserted, icy, vertical slope with just his best mate for company; so Joe’s expression of fear and loneliness on falling 150 feet into a dark, otherworldly crevasse, is humbling and touching.
“There is something about crevasses. They have a dread feel. Not the place for the living … I felt very, very alone and I was very scared.”
A scene from the most chilling horror could not match the scene in a place where probably no human had ever been before and possibly none will.
His unswerving resolve to break out from his eerie prison and complete the descent, is phenomenal.
“I’m gonna die to Boney M,” he laughs as he reminisces about one of the band’s hits, ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’, whirling around his head when he was within striking distance of base camp.
The title reflects Joe’s mental journey as he endured the most important physical journey of his life. Rather than imparting a sense of heroism, he seems humbled by his experience.
An inspirational piece, but not in the way you might expect.