You know, I don’t want to say, “It serves them right,” but there is something about extreme mountain climbing where when something horrible happens, I just want to say, “Well, c’mon, are you surprised???” There is a reason that humans don’t thrive at altitudes above, say, 20,000 feet. We just aren’t supposed to be there!
Still, I love a good mountain-climbing disaster tale as much as anyone else who snatched up Into Thin Air, making it one of the most horrifying true-story best-sellers ever. Touching the Void is a docu-drama based on another true climbing disaster, this one involving two young climbers who got into bit of a sticky situation in the Peruvian Alps in 1985. Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, two cocky 20-something Brits, decided to climb a yet-unscaled 22,000 foot peak in alpine style (which means it’s just you and what you can carry on your back—no pack animals, underappreciated local helpers, or extra provisions). They successfully scale the peak after encountering bad weather and basically getting lost a couple times, but the rough part was yet to come.
On the descent, Simpson breaks his leg something nasty. Yates does his best to lower his severely injured buddy down the mountain by rope, 150 feet at a time. But another mishap causes Simpson to slide off a cliff, leaving Yates stuck holding the rope with his buddy dangling for an hour and a half, unable to know if his friend was dead or alive below. So Yates cuts the rope.
In any other tale, that would be that. Yates goes back to camp defeated, met only by a goofy backpacker guy that they picked up a few days before to watch their stuff. They loiter around for a few days, feeling something awful, then a voice calls out of the darkness on their last night in base camp. Turns out Simpson not only survived, but he freakin’ crawled out of a crevasse, across a glacier, and over a horribly rocky landscape to make it back alive. Crazy. Just crazy.
Surviving to tell such a tale is an incredibly lucky thing, plus it admittedly makes for a good yarn. Yates and Simpson tell the story through talking-head interviews, and the saga is dramatically recreated by actors (Nicholas Aaron and Brendan Mackey) who are professional climbers themselves. Though the actors really don’t look like their real-life counterparts, that is quickly forgotten as their situation gets more and more hellish. Try not to wince as Simpson’s character keeps bumping his shattered leg on glacial rocks. Ouch.
Touching the Void is a stunning-looking film, with some of the best mountain-climbing footage I’ve ever seen on a big screen. These filmmakers and actors obviously know their stuff. But there is a slight drawback to the narrative arc: Since Simpson and Yates are narrating the film, we know from the start that they both survived to tell their tale. This takes away from some of the dramatic tension of “Will he make it?” But I suppose in this case, it is the journey that counts. And what a journey!