Touching the Void

Touching the Void

In 1985, British mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates attempted to climb a face of the Siula Grande mountain in Peru that had never been climbed before. They had some mountaineering experience though not a lot (they were only 21 and 25), and certainly had never climbed anything comparable to this mountain.

It wasn’t quite at the level of reckless amateurism of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild setting off into the Alaskan wilderness with minimal preparation and survival skills, but it had an element of that. They decided to forego setting up a series of camps along the way and making their way gradually to the summit. Instead they did the climb in “Alpine Style,” meaning you just take what you can carry on your back and try to make the climb in one shot. They had no communication device or any way to get help if they needed it. Evidently the only person who even knew where they were, at least with any specificity, was a guy they happened to run into in Peru that they asked to hang out at the base of the mountain and watch the rest of their stuff while they were climbing.

Touching the Void is a documentary about that climb. Part of it is in docudrama style, with actors portraying the climbers as they battle the mountain. They have little or no dialogue (calling out each other’s name on occasion is about it). That part’s really more for the visuals. The story itself is told by the real people—the two climbers and the guy waiting for them at the base of the mountain—in retrospective on-camera interviews.

The choice was made not to include other commentators—experts, family members, other mountaineers, etc.—nor to have much of anything about what came before or after the climb. Which works. It’s effective having the focus so sharply on just the climb itself and what it was like to experience it.

Other than that, the style is not great, but it’s probably the best they could have done. Because the climbers are being interviewed, you know they survived, and so that eliminates a lot of the suspense. But obviously the inclusion of the interviews is a big positive in other ways. And even if they somehow had avoided including the real guys until the end of the movie and done it all as a docudrama, the level of detail of the depiction of events would have tipped off a viewer that the climbers survived (either that or that a lot of it was made up), as no one else would have known what they experienced.

Of course it would have been better to have actual footage of the climb, as doing it as a docudrama can’t help but have a certain feeling of phoniness to it, but obviously they weren’t accompanied by a professional camera crew with the capacity for aerial shots and such.

So given the limitations of what the people making the film had to work with, they created something about as real and compelling as it could be.

And it’s quite a story. Touching the Void is long enough that they can bring you along on the journey to an impressive level of detail, telling you just what the climbers were doing at each stage, for how long, and how it felt. A lot of what they experienced was nothing short of horrific (though they describe it all in a delightfully quaint, understated, matter-of-fact, British manner).

The ascent is substantially harder than they anticipate, with much suffering and much doubt that they’ll ever make it to the top. Complicating matters is the fact that a good portion of what they climb is “one way.” For technical mountaineering reasons that I don’t fully understand, there are stretches where you can go up but not down. In order to go down, you have to find a different route.

So during those stretches, there is no option to quit and head back down. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that continuing would lead them to areas where descent will indeed be possible. They are pretty much taking it on faith that they’ll find a way down eventually.

I don’t recall what time of year the climb takes place, but in any case the bulk of it is above the snow line. So they are climbing up a mountain covered in ice, at freezing temperatures, with intermittent snowfall, sometimes at blizzard or near-blizzard levels.

Aside from all the other physical and psychological challenges of this, that alone is a huge deal. One of them remarks off-handedly that at one point the wind chill was probably “about 80 below zero.” (I don’t know if that’s Fahrenheit or Celsius. Celsius is worse—equivalent to -112 Fahrenheit—but either is bad enough.)

How do you survive that, especially for extended periods? When I’ve hiked on mountain trails even in the summer, I’ve always been struck by how really uncomfortably cold it was in the morning, until I was fully dressed and bundled up. Just getting out of the sleeping bag and scrambling around for my clothes, I was freezing. And that’s at an altitude where I’m guessing the temperature at dawn was in the 30s.

We’re so used to being in temperature-controlled environments indoors and in vehicles—or when we do have to be out in the elements having multiple layers covering ourselves—that we don’t have much tolerance for temperature variation. Or at least I don’t. I’m chilly and noticeably uncomfortable if it’s 5 degrees lower than usual in my house. Drop it 40 degrees from what I’m used to, like in the mountain camping example, and that’s a dominating kind of cold.

Not only are they facing temperatures almost unimaginably worse than that, but they really don’t seem all that bundled up. You need plenty of freedom of movement to do what they’re doing after all. But their faces are bare, and though they usually wear gloves, there are certain maneuvers that they need to do bare-handed. Again, how is this possible at -80 degrees?

Yet not only did they survive it, they don’t even single out the cold as being the most overpowering factor they had to contend with.

One thing they talk about as being a bigger problem than that is thirst. Even though they’re surrounded by snow, they say that swallowing snow, or putting it in your mouth to melt, is grossly inadequate to keep you hydrated in those conditions. So they carry in their gear little containers to heat the snow and melt it into water when they are in a flat enough area to take a break.

That is until they run out of gas to heat it with. (Another sign that they’re doing this pretty half-assed.) From that point, dehydration is a big issue.

That’s still hard to believe though, with all that ice and snow. I mean, imagine you were given a choice: One, you have to do a physically very demanding, exhausting task over the course of several days, with a limit to how much clothes you can have on because you need full freedom of movement, with access to unlimited water, in temperatures below zero, down to as much as 80 below. Two, you have to do the same thing, but in whatever temperature you choose as most comfortable, with no water except unlimited unmelted snow.

I would choose number two, and would think it’s a no-brainer. Or at least I would have before seeing this movie, because evidently the correct answer is that number one is the right choice, that with number two you’ll suffer a lot more.

I haven’t even talked about the climbing itself, what they’re actually doing in these conditions.

I know nothing about mountaineering, so even the most basic techniques were new to me. But remember, it’s not like there are trails on these mountains, even steep trails. Maybe there are brief stretches here and there where you can walk uphill, but for the most part what they are doing is scaling the side of the mountain in human fly fashion.

They hold spiky things in their hands that they drive into the ice to stick, and similar spiky things on their shoes. So—attached to each other by rope in case one loses their grip—they methodically work their way up by digging in and releasing one hand or foot at a time like that.

This is on the side of a mountain, in an almost vertical position, thousands of feet up in the air. At times in a blizzard.

Think about doing that for even a few seconds, like if you had to do the human fly thing sideways for a few feet between ledges way up a mountainside like that. Think how petrified you’d be. A lot of people probably couldn’t do it, even if they were sure to die if they didn’t.

Objectively you’re not going to be any deader falling 20,000 feet or whatever than you would falling from whatever fraction of that would kill you. But psychologically it makes a big difference. I’m amazed at people who can do what mountaineers like that do.

Anyway, somehow they eventually make it all the way to the top. If the movie ended there, it would already be a story of remarkable achievement and survival against the odds.

But the descent turns out to be vastly more difficult than the ascent.

It was going to be difficult regardless. As they note, more mountaineers are killed and injured descending than ascending a mountain.

But fairly early on the trip down, Joe snaps his leg. Not like a mild ankle sprain or something, but a major, bone-sticking-out-at-the-knee, excruciatingly painful, demobilizing, broken leg.

As he says, when he realized the extent of his injury, he knew he was going to die. (Though he continues to describe all this in a very calm, matter-of-fact manner.) He says he expected Simon to continue on alone, parting with assurances they’d both know were false that he was going for help.

I’m not entirely sure why they’d be false, but he speaks as if there’s no doubt about that, that a rescue simply wouldn’t be possible. I guess even if Simon made it all the way back down and summoned help, there’d just be no way to get someone with a broken leg down from that high up the mountain, at least not soon enough to save him.

Maybe a helicopter couldn’t do it because there’s no place to land, and they can’t get close enough to the mountain to drop a rope ladder. Or a team of climbers couldn’t reach him in time. (This side of this mountain had never even been climbed; it’s not like there are teams of mountaineers with special stretchers and such hanging out at the bottom ready to ascend.)

In any case, he accepts that he’s done for (or “stuffed,” as he puts it, in British fashion).

But Simon comes up with an audacious plan to stick with him and try to get him down. They tie their ropes together, making one 300 foot rope, and step by step, Simon lowers Joe (bouncing him down the mountain in unimaginable pain). At the end of the rope Joe secures himself, Simon climbs down to him, and they repeat the process.

The plan fails though when Joe falls into an unexpected crevasse, and is left dangling helplessly. They are in a snowstorm, the visibility is close to zero, and they cannot see or hear each other. Simon has no idea what is going on, except that Joe’s dead weight is at the end of the rope, that he hasn’t secured himself.

He waits for hours, freezing and trying to hold his position at the upper end of the rope. He can’t move from where he’s dug in unless and until he cuts Joe loose. They remain in their respective positions as it gets dark.

A good portion of the movie then depicts in detail how they eventually make it down the mountain successfully (as you know since they’re talking about it in interviews), separately, with each not knowing the other’s fate.

There are some interesting tidbits when they recall what was going through their minds during the worst of the experience. Joe notes that he didn’t waver in his atheism at all, that he had no inclination to start praying, no thought that there was a God watching all this and able to intervene. Nor, he says, did he think about any specific people back home that he loves. He was totally focused on survival, and at certain points of near-delirium on very annoying popular songs that he couldn’t stop running through his head.

Simon is honest enough to admit that when he was sure Joe was dead, he was concerned how he would look and what people would think of him if he made it back safely alone. He says he toyed with the idea of coming up with some story that would put him in the best, most blameless, light. (Though I don’t think, and apparently Joe doesn’t think, that the truth puts him in a bad light at all.)

It’s an extraordinary story, beyond what you could accept in something fictional like Cast Away. It’s even more of a “Wow! How could someone do that?!” film than Man on Wire.

The question arises when you see something like this of why people put themselves in that position. Some viewers will be completely perplexed by that. I’m not going to say I would want to go through anything remotely like this—a person would have to be insane to want that—but at a certain level I understand the appeal of the activity, of challenging yourself this way. Watching this is not at all like watching a movie about, say, someone being captured and tortured, like Winston Smith in 1984 or Jews in Nazi concentration camps, even if the suffering is comparable.

My guess is, and maybe I’m wrong, that perceptions of this would correlate to some extent with gender. The number of males who would get the appeal of defying death through extraordinary stamina, endurance of pain, mental toughness, etc. I would think is higher than the (still definitely non-zero) number of females who would. There’s something about enduring that kind of experience that can not only be admired but envied.

I could say a lot more about Touching the Void. I got pretty caught up in it. Solid recommendation.


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