Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void recounts the events that happened to Simpson some 26 years ago while climbing Siula Grande, a mountain in the Andes, events which transformed the author into one of the most iconic figures in mountaineering. But Touching the Void is more than the tale of an escalade gone wrong. It also addresses the psychological aspects of climbing, the crushing despair of hardship, the relentless drive to survive, and the unique partnership that emerges when two men, strung together by a 150 foot rope, rely entirely on each other as they pit themselves against unforgiving mountains.
The two mountaineers of the story, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, have voyaged to the Andes to conquer the hitherto unclimbed West Face of Siula Grande. They succeed and “summit” half-way through the fourth day. The next day, while descending, Joe falls over a ledge onto ice and shatters his right leg, the lower leg ramming through his knee into his upper leg, thus fusing the leg into a single excruciating length. When Joe looks to Simon for help, he can already tell that his partner knows he is finished. There is simply no way to get off the mountain with an injury so serious. Simon knows that he can make it off the mountain alone, and that to try to take a severely injured friend along is only an invitation to his own death. However, without ever openly acknowledging the decision, the pair attempt a joint descent, with Simon, anchored in seats on the steep snow face, lowering Joe down with two 150 foot ropes tied together. Every 150 feet Joe must take his weight off the rope so that Simon can remove it from the pulley to replace it, bypassing the knot in the rope.
Amazingly, this technique works unexpectedly well and after a long day the badly frostbitten pair has descended about 2700 feet and is on the verge of success. Yet on what they estimated to be the last lowering, an ice cliff hides out of sight and Joe is lowered right over it. This presents an insurmountable problem, as hanging 20 feet from the lip of the cliff and 6 feet from the side, Joe is unable to take his weight off the rope for the necessary knot bypass. Looking down, he can see that he is about 100 feet above the dark mouth of a crevasse, which itself could hide another long drop, but the two are now stuck, unable to move from their positions. Nonetheless, Simon holds the rope for two hours, until the point at which Joe threatens to pull him off the mountain along with him. Accepting the inevitable, Simon cuts the rope, letting Joe fall into the looming crevasse where he lands on a snowy ledge 50 feet down, metres away from a huge dark pit that continues down for an untold distance. Back on the mountain Simon is already wrought with guilt, knowing that he had probably sent Joe to a certain death, but also knowing that he had had no choice, he had done the only thing he could do.
The next day, on the final part of his descent, Simon sees the enormous crevasse that Joe had fallen into and is convinced his friend could not have survived the fall. Without checking the crevasse, he continues down and reaches base camp, tormented by the thought of people’s reactions to the manner of Joe’s death. Meanwhile, Joe is in the crevasse and finds the cut rope. While cutting a rope, literally a climber’s lifeline, is the ultimate taboo, Joe is realistic enough to know that Simon had had no choice. Deciding that climbing out of the crevasse is impossible, Joe lowers himself even deeper into it in an attempt to find an alternate descent route. Fortunately, he finds a fissure in the crevasse wall, through which he crawls to emerge into sunlight after some twelve hours spent in the pitch dark. But his ordeal is far from over however, as he still must climb down to the glacier, cross it, all the while avoiding the innumerable crevasses, before finally crawling across the rock and bolder strewn wasteland separating him from base camp, half a dozen miles away. This hellish journey, with neither food nor significant water, takes three agonizing days during which Joe’s unflagging determination battles with his thirst. Exhaustion and delirium threaten to stop him in his tracks and condemn him to death. When he ultimately reaches base camp in the night, he wakes Simon with his howling and shouting; his nightmarish voyage is finally over. He had arrived only hours before Simon was set to pack up and leave. After all his suffering, Joe immediately thanks Simon for everything he’d done to get him off the mountain. The next day he is transported, first by donkey then by pick-up truck, to a hospital in Lima, where, after two days of waiting for his insurance to be cleared, he undergoes surgery on his leg.
This story is compelling for the way in which the writing builds momentum and maintains suspense. The author writes about very real events that happened to him personally in a raw and honest recounting. Today, as well as having survived, miraculously Joe’s leg is whole again, the only sign of former trauma being arthritis in his rebuilt knee. He has returned to climbing, much to the regret of his parents, and has written other books. He admits that climbing has never been the same for him since Siula Grande, that something “was knocked out of him” on the mountain. Ultimately, Touching the Void is less an adventure story than it is a glimpse into the feelings shared by all men and the forces that drive them to pursue their passions.
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