Steep Price To Pay

'Touching the Void' comes close to nothing you'd want to experience

Siula Grande is 20,853 feet of scalloped ice and yawning crevasses in the Peruvian Andes, 250 miles or so north of Lima. Before 1985, no one had ever negotiated the mountain's treacherous west face. That year, however, two young, ambitious British climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, decided to give it a go. "We climb because it's fun," Simpson tells the camera in Touching the Void, director Kevin Macdonald's bracing new docu-drama about the pair's misadventure on Siula Grande. "Every now and then it went horribly wrong," he adds.

And how. On the way down the mountain, Simpson fell off a cliff, snapping his leg and driving the broken bone through his kneecap. Yates tried to lower his injured friend, but the pair didn't have enough rope, and Simpson was left dangling over a chasm, while Yates, who was tied to him, slipped ever closer to the cliff's edge above. In the end, Yates cut the rope, and Simpson fell 150 feet into a pitch-black crevasse. Already blackened with frostbite and assuming his friend to be dead, Yates walked back to base camp. Simpson survived, however, burrowed his way down and out of the crevasse, and dragged himself over miles of razor-sharp moraine. Three days after the accident, Yates heard Simpson outside his tent, howling in the night like the ghost of murdered Banquo.

Macdonald has obviously stumbled onto some weighty dramatic material here. (The film is based on a best-selling book by Simpson, who is now one of the world's foremost mountaineering writers.) The director's last film, One Day in September, used archival footage, jittery first-person recreations, and computer graphics to examine the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre as a media-age Rashomon. Here, Macdonald wisely reins in his arsenal of tricks. In addition to talking-head interviews with Simpson and Yates (although both claim there are no hard feelings, they never appear on camera together), he uses actors to reenact the climb itself. Although the climbing scenes were filmed mostly in the Alps, Macdonald also includes panoramic shots of Siula Grande. Occasionally the camera will fall back from the climbers to reveal the whole implacable mass of the mountain before them. The effect is stunning. Likewise, Macdonald doesn't try to juice the drama with music. The one exception is a horrible ABBA-like pop song that gets stuck in the hallucinating Simpson's head. This is a cosmic insult added to his physical injury--like being tortured to death while Kelis's "Milkshake" song plays in a loop.

Touching the Void has an understated, just-the-facts tone that fits nicely with Yates's and Simpson's British reserve. ("I had a pleased feeling," recalls Yates of the moment when he realized his friend was alive.) All the same, we're meant to understand the men's experience as a moral and spiritual crucible, even a metaphysical one. When Simpson falls down the crevasse--into his grave, basically--he first curses, then weeps, then comes to the conclusion that there is no God. He survives only through primitive, hard-wired instinct: He doesn't want to die alone. Looking at the two men now, you can almost see the damage done to them: Yates, who was pilloried in Britain for his choice to cut the rope, is defensive and ferrety; Simpson has an almost unearthly aura about him, as though something essential and human has been burned out of him.

What Touching the Void recalls most vividly is another parable of moral choice and primitive impulse that played out high in the Andes: Piers Paul Read's Alive. At one point in that book, one of the Uruguayan castaways, facing the prospect of eating the flesh of his dead friends to survive, asks, "Why does God let us suffer like this?" Another replies, "It's not as simple as that." Simpson would understand.

 
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