Touching The Void: An Interview With Joe Simpson

TWO people climb a mountain, connected by a rope. They go up together in concerted motion, taking turns to carve out a path. If one falls, so does the other. This method is known as “alpine-style” – the purest kind of mountaineering. It has the simplicity of a proverb and it loads the rope with meaning. When Simon Yates cut the cord between himself and his friend Joe Simpson during their fraught descent from the summit of Peru’s Siula Grande in 1985, he was taking the only possible, practical action. The act itself was resounding. There were only two people on the mountain, but everybody heard about it.

“Some would say,” Yates later wrote in his book Against The Wall, “that cutting the rope, and the powerful symbol of trust and friendship it represents, should never have entered my mind.” “The cutting of the rope clearly touched a nerve,” acknowledged Simpson in the epilogue to the 10th anniversary edition of Touching The Void, his own now-classic account of the incident. “It transgressed some unwritten rule. People seem drawn to that element of the story.”

“Absolutely,” says Kevin Macdonald, the Oscar-winning Scottish director of the new documentary adaptation of Simpson’s book. “That’s the part everyone remembers. In the abstract, there is something so forceful in the moral question it poses. But in reality, in context, Simon did not have any choice. And in the end, it’s not what their story is about. It’s about what it’s like to be alone, to confront death, to acknowledge we live in a godless universe.”

As far as Yates and Simpson are concerned, the rope has always been just an incidental detail. Anarchic young men who wanted to “climb the world”, they were the first people to ever scale the furious west face of that 21,000 feet peak in the Peruvian Andes. On the way down, Simpson smashed his knee and Yates spent hours lowering him down, through frostbitten fingers, until his friend became a dead weight, invisible in a snowstorm, dragging them both over a ledge.

Yates had seconds to make a decision to save his own life, though in the most tortuous, roundabout way, his penknife probably saved both men. Simpson survived a long fall into the black hole of a glacial crevasse, crawled out and spent three days inching back to base camp with his bones grinding, blood pooling inside his leg and his brain literally singing in agony and dread. His story, as recounted in Touching The Void, is a grim, weird, melancholy testament to the human spark. But his reasons for writing it, its success as a bestseller, its place in mountaineering legend and its new life as a film, are all linked to that cut rope.

I meet Simpson for a few pints in the bar of a semi-arthouse cinema in Sheffield, his home town, having just watched the documentary. It’s essentially a re-telling – with Simpson and Yates providing context in straight-to-camera interviews, and two actors representing them in pulverising reconstruction sequences. So now we’re talking about a film, based on a book, based on an event that happened nearly 20 years ago. This story has made his fortune – the book, the movie rights (which Tom Cruise once bought, but didn’t use), and the lucrative corporate lectures, in which Simpson motivates businessmen by “just telling the story of Touching The Void in 45 minutes”.

He looks fit and animated. He’s a friendly guy. When I ask about his knee, he shows me. It works far better than doctors predicted, but it’s still bluntly misshapen, and the arthritis is going to give him “serious payback” in the next 10 years. His left ankle was also half-destroyed in a later climbing accident, and it’s “like walking on glass”.

“I’ve been telling the story almost every day for 18 years,” he says when we get back on the same old subject. “But I usually just tell it on the surface. I wrote the book in seven weeks and found it very distressing, not cathartic at all. I’ve never read it. For all this talking, I put the whole experience in a good, solid box, and sealed the lid.” But last summer, Yates and Simpson went back to Siula Grande to advise on the documentary. The shoot did not go well. For Simpson, the box cracked open, and the fear got out. “It was like it had all happened five minutes ago,” he says. “I kept thinking I was going to turn around, and the film crew wouldn’t be there. That the last 18 years had just been a hallucination.”

On his return to the UK, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I was having panic attacks, crying all the time. And I’m not much of a crier. It was raw for a month or so. But I’ve put it back in the box again.” Simpson has since seen the film about 10 times. He likes it, he’s fascinated by it, but it’s of no psychological benefit to him. “No. Why the fuck should it be? If you smash your finger with a lump hammer, you’re not going to want to relive the experience, just to check it really was that painful. I don’t think people understand what catharsis means. All this stuff about getting it out, repeating it, that’s all rubbish. Just move on.” The way Simpson tells it, he and Yates moved on almost immediately. The first thing he said when he crawled into base camp that night was: “Thank you, Simon. You did right.”

Straight after the Peru episode, Yates climbed the Eiger and went on to run his own expedition-guide service. Simpson started mountaineering again – although “never to quite the same level of commitment” – as soon as he was physically able. But colleagues in the climbing community had a problem with Yates, and the idea of his blade against the rope. No-one had ever done what he did, for the simple reason that alpine-style climbers don’t usually get the chance at a critical moment; a few years earlier, Yates had witnessed two Japanese climbers fall from the face of Croz Spur in the Mount Blanc range, tethered together all the way down. “Cutting the umbilical cord of trust,” says Simpson, weary of the metaphors, “or whatever you want to call it, it freaked people out. They reacted emotionally, not thinking that it was a bloody pragmatic thing to do in the circumstances. Climbers should have known that, but they still went for Simon.”

Yates was physically assaulted in the French Alps by a pro-active critic, and The Alpine Club – the most prestigious mountaineering society in the world – discussed officially ostracising him. Simpson wrote Touching The Void as a response, “to tell it straight, the story of everything Simon did for me before the rope was cut”.

He had always loved mountaineering literature, had been inspired to climb by reading Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider, a journal of the notorious Austrian’s first ascent of the Eiger. “I remember thinking he must be getting something good out of climbing, to face all that risk and keep doing it.” But his own effort “wasn’t really about climbing, it was something else”. For all the strange beauty of Simpson’s terminology – with its ice weeps, snow flutings and spindrift avalanches – Touching The Void was probably the first emotionally honest book on the subject. “The tears, the wetting yourself, the losing it, that is not what I read in all those other books.”

Touching The Void attracted a readership far beyond the climbing world, drawn to its extremity and intensity. It made Simpson and Yates famous, and opened their story to second-hand opinions, interpretations and moral judgements. It made moving on, in some ways, impossible. Yates will always be the guy who cut the rope, Simpson the symbol of resilience, and that story will always provide their livelihood. “The success of the book affected us much more than the actual event,” says Simpson. “That’s what Kevin never understood.”

Yates and Simpson have always resented the suggestion that their whole lives have been defined by those few days in 1985, and this formed the rub of their antagonism with Macdonald during the making of the documentary. There were clashes over the safety and ethics of filming at high altitude, but the climbers were particularly annoyed by any reference to their “demons”. “[Macdonald] kept implying that Simon is loaded with guilt. And he kept saying that this is the most significant thing that ever happened to us. Well, we’ve climbed all over the world in the intervening years, and we’ve lost a lot of friends, maybe one every year. This was just one extraordinary accident that we got away with. Kevin has made a very good film, but he never worked out what made us tick.”

Simpson still has a good relationship with Macdonald, but Yates won’t even talk about the film. Macdonald, for his part, acknowledges that the essential difficulty of documentary-making, “the balance between keeping your subjects happy and getting what you want”, was upset by the extreme environment, and accepts he may have pushed people too hard. The finished film deliberately resists any kind of analysis beyond the events described in Touching The Void, but Macdonald still feels that “this is a living issue for them”. “It’s pure supposition,” says Macdonald, “but based on the way they acted in Peru I think it’s obvious there are still deep wounds there, leading down into their psyche through this story.”

Whatever their differences, when Macdonald goes on to talk about “the human predicament” that haunted him about the book, the sense of “feeling yourself being destroyed, and longing for human contact”, he sounds very close to understanding the fear as Simpson himself remembers it. And it has nothing to do with the cut rope. “I lost me,” says Simpson. “That sense of yourself you think will always be there. To find that reduced to nothing is a profoundly disturbing thing. And I never really got that Joe back again.”

Simpson recently quit high-altitude mountaineering. Since Touching The Void, he’s written five books trying (and “failing”) to explain the mindset behind the sport. Fun, risk, beauty, ego, humility, aesthetics and escape all seem to be facets of a bigger, deeper motivation that he could never fully articulate. “Anyone who asks why you climb,” he says, “will never understand your answer.”

But his most recent book, The Beckoning Silence, is a kind of resignation letter. “I’ve got older. I’m scared of my shadow, and that fear has been confirmed by all the friends who got killed.” He knows his chances of a long life are now improved, but not guaranteed. And he knows that one day, he’ll be back in that crevasse. “We’re all going there,” he says. “Not to paradise or anywhere else. That’s what I learned in the crevasse. We’re all going to die, and it’s going to be a lonely experience. When it’s your turn, you will feel the same loneliness I did. I can’t even describe it, but I know I’m going to get that again one day.”

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