Touching the Void

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Touching the Void is a book by Joe Simpson recounting the true story of Simpson's and Simon Yates' disastrous and near-fatal climb of the 6,344 metre (20,813 foot) Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. The book won the 1989 NCR Book Award. In 2003, fifteen years after it was first published, the book was turned into a documentary film of the same name directed by Kevin MacDonald. The film won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the 2003 BAFTA Awards and was featured at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. Joe Simpson is also a motivational speaker presenting his story, Touching the Void, to audiences all over the world.

[edit] Synopsis

Although previously attempted, Yates and Simpson were the first people to ascend to the summit of Siula Grande via the almost vertical west face. Disaster struck, however, on the descent. Simpson slipped down an ice cliff and landed awkwardly, smashing his tibia into his knee joint and breaking it. The pair, whose trip had already taken longer than they intended due to bad weather on the ascent, had run out of fuel for their stove, which they needed to melt ice and snow for drinking water, and needed to descend quickly to their base camp, about 3,000 feet below.

They proceeded by tying two one hundred and fifty foot long ropes together and then tying themselves to each end. Yates dug himself into a hole in the snow and lowered Simpson down the mountain on the 300 feet of rope. However because the two ropes were tied together, the knot wouldn't go through the belay plates, so Simpson would have to stand on his good leg to give Yates enough slack to unclip the rope, and then thread the rope back through the lowering device, with the knot on the other side. A second disaster struck however when Simpson was lowered over a 100 foot overhanging cliff and left dangling in mid-air with the knot tight against the belay plates. Yates could not see Simpson, but felt all his weight on the rope, very slowly pulling Yates down the mountain. He held on for about an hour. Convinced that Simpson was unable to secure himself and that his bucket seat was collapsing, he forced himself to cut the rope linking them, consequently dropping Simpson into a crevasse.

The next morning Yates descended the mountain alone, and found the cliff. He saw the crevasse below and realized what must have happened to Simpson. He was certain that Simpson must have died in the crevasse and safely descended the remaining dangerous leg of the journey.

In fact, Simpson had survived, despite a 100 foot fall and broken leg. When he took in the rope, he discovered the end was cut. He eventually abseiled from his landing spot on an ice bridge (which broke his fall and therefore presumably saved his life) to presumably the bottom of the crevasse, a thin ice roof, and crawled out back onto the glacier via a side opening.

From there, he spent three days without food and only splashes of water from melting ice, crawling and hopping five miles back to the base camp. Almost completely delusional, he reached the base camp a few hours before Yates intended to leave the camp to return to civilization.

Simpson's survival is widely regarded by mountaineers as amongst the most amazing pieces of mountaineering lore in history.

[edit] Controversy

Some members of the climbing community feel that Yates was mistaken to cut the rope, and that he should have held on as long as he could to give Simpson every chance to work out a solution to his predicament. Joe Simpson himself has never voiced anything other than complete support for Simon Yates' action.

Further it should be noted that Simpson was freezing to death on the end of the rope, and would not have lasted much longer, even if the belay seat Yates had used to support himself in the loose snow had lasted (which it didn't). Cutting the rope not only freed Yates to seek shelter from the storm, but dropped Simpson down to a sheltered spot where he too could survive the weather. Had the two fallen while roped together, it is possible that Simpson would still have survived, but it is very unlikely that Yates would have. As it was, Yates climbed down to base camp and met up with their traveling companion, Richard Hawking. Yates and Hawking lingered for a few days in base camp while Yates regained strength and his own injuries healed. When Simpson crawled into camp in the middle of the night, they were in fact intending to leave in the morning. Had Yates not returned to base camp ahead of Simpson, Hawking probably would have left well before Simpson managed to crawl out of the crevasse and down to camp. Without anyone to help him out of the mountains, Simpson would have died there. Thus, by cutting the rope Yates actually saved both of their lives.

[edit] Remarks

Simpson's childhood, growing up, getting climbing experiences and also the times after the Touching the Void (including the part about the complicated healing of his injuries and writing the book) is described in another of his books called This Game of Ghosts (Vintage Books, 1993).

A variant of the "Touching the Void" route was climbed later in 1999 and was called "Avoiding the Touch". (See Siula Grande)

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