Touching the Void (2003)

by Cynthia Fuchs

14 June 2004


Quite Shivery

I’m not a climber at all and I had zero interest in climbing before I did this film. And I have even less interest in ever doing it myself now, having done it. It is miserable, cold, you feel terrible, you’re panting, your nails are coming out, your lips are bleeding. It’s not pleasant.
—Kevin Macdonald, “The Making of Touching the Void

We climb ‘cause it’s fun.
—Joe Simpson, Touching the Void

cover art

Touching the Void

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Nicholas Aaron, Brendan Mackey, Joe Simpson, Simon Yates

(Darlow Smithson production for FilmFour (UK)
US DVD: 15 Jun 2004

As Kevin Macdonald describes it, making Touching the Void was an ordeal. “I wouldn’t be going too far to say that I was really miserable through the vast bulk of the shoot,” he smiles, during his hotel room interview for “The Making of Touching the Void.” Now available on DVD, Touching the Void, intercuts interviews with actual climbers/survivors Joe Simpson and Simon Yates and shots of two climbers/actors reenacting their traumatic experiences on Peru’s 21,000-foot Siula Grande. The reenacted scenes take place on the same mountain, some 18 years later. Macdonald notes the hardships of recreation: “When [our actors] are struggling up a rope and they’ve got ice all over their face, they’re really struggling, and they have got ice on their face and not makeup. Those are things you can’t fake.”

The real story started in 1985. British climbers Simpson and Yates climbed the then unscaled Siula Grande. They made it to the top, and on their way down, disaster struck. Joe shattered his leg. They came up with a plan whereby Simon would lower his partner 300 feet at a time, but as this process took them into the pitch-black night, neither could see when Joe was lowered over a crevasse. Hours later, unable to hang onto the weight any longer and not knowing whether Joe was alive or dead, presuming he must have died, Simon cut the rope.

Joe survived. Moreover and incredibly, he made his way back to base camp days later and wrote a book about the ordeal, Touching the Void, published in 1988. In large part, he says that he wrote the book to vindicate Simon, who had since become known in the “climbing community” as the “man who cut the rope.” (As Yates says in “The Making of Touching the Void,” this “notoriety” has been taxing. “I do find it annoying sometimes,” he admits, but he’s also used it to “make my own life easier and to make money.”) Macdonald (who won an Academy Ward for 2000’s One Day in September, a remarkable account of the terrorist hostage-taking at the 1972 Munich Olympics) made his Touching the Void, a sort of docudrama based on Simpson’s book.

It appears that everyone associated with the film project (and the history that grounds it) feels the tension inherent in its concept. In “The Making of Touching the Void,” Simpson watches the crew and cast (Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron, who perform for the most part without speaking) head off to a location. Squinting into the sun, he observes what might be termed the “insanity” of the project: “It’s incredibly dangerous. We’re making a film about two people surviving a horrendous epic, and getting away by the skin of their teeth. It would be an ultimate irony if anybody got killed making that, basically.”

The film is all about this danger, the preposterous risk. The threat is visible in every frame, even when the spectacular imagery—bright blue sky, swirling snow, tremendous peaks—takes your breath away. It’s fair to say that the film’s essential drama has as much to do with Mike Eley’s stunning cinematography as with the narrative proper: it’s difficult to put into words just how white, cold, and endless the mountain can seem, the climbers so small against its terrifying expanse, the blue or black or stormy sky looming over them. Alongside such brilliant demonstrations of scale and scope, the climbers (who are actually climbing the mountain, not on any sort of set, so the concept of “recreation” is somewhat complicated) appear in close-up to emphasize their blackened faces and fingers (the frostbite is recreated), their breath in -80º wind-chill conditions, and the chinky sounds of their picks and hammers vivid in the icy stillness.

The effect of such recreated immediacy is twofold, at least. Certainly, it’s harrowing even to imagine the nightmare that both men endured. The film’s reconstruction of specific events comes with appropriately disquieting music by Alex Heffes and equally disturbing personal recollections narrated by each of the principals. Before Joe is dangling over the crevasse, these memories seem in some accord: admitted adrenalin junkies, they like to climb “because it’s fun,” they’re well aware that “80% of accidents happen on descents,” and both appreciate what Simon called the “great unknown” they face. Once they lose sight of one another, their experiences diverge radically.

This divergence is at the center of Touching the Void, the film (Simpson’s book, of course, does not tangle with this dilemma). While Simpson and Yates returned to the site for the making of the film, it is clear in interviews published and aired since production that even at that time, some 18 years after the trauma, their experiences remain dissimilar. (Simpson has said repeatedly that he wholly understands, forgives, and exonerates his partner; they have not climbed together since.) For the film, they are shot separately, not in conversation, but edited together as each tells his own part.

And so, while Simon admits that he thought, for a brief second, that he would be better able to make his descent if Joe was not a factor, he never meant to leave behind a man who was alive; thinking Joe was dead, he cut the rope. Back at base camp, he couldn’t bring himself to leave, for days, and it is only that lingering that allowed for Joe’s ultimate rescue, once he had limped and crawled his way back down the mountain and over a terrain of rocks and ice. By the time he reached the flat land, he was so dehydrated and his leg was causing him such pain that he began hallucinating, eventually unable to get a song by Boney M., “Brown Girl in the Ring,” out of his head (his terror at that moment, he recalls, was that he was going to die to that song).

The film’s split structure is in itself compelling and thematic. The multiple fragmentations here are increasingly profound, as the movie intelligently compromises usual distinctions between fact and fiction, memory and fantasy, subject and object, even, to an extent, space and time. Even as Touching the Void uses generic conventions (the talking head interview, the spectacular mountain climbing shot), it also draws attention to the limits of such conventions. Neither man can know what the other is going through, both try to imagine or, during darker moments, work hard not to consider, what the other might be going through. The reenactors appear in close-up or from afar, but without dialogue, they remain mostly unreadable specters, without specific emotion; bearded, hooded shadows in indistinguishable parkas and boots, they’re anyone and no one, struggling to survive under the most primal of circumstances.

And this speaks to the limits of documentary, as a storytelling and fact-finding form. As Simpson and Yates speak about their experiences, you realize that each can only tell so much, that his understanding of his partner’s or even his own experience at that time can’t be comprehensive or settled. Each man can come to terms with “what happened,” but neither can know the entire truth of it.

As if to poke at such instability and fragmentation one more time, the DVD also includes “What Happened Next,” a 10-minute documentary following up on the film’s production, and “Return to Siula Grande,” a video diary of the climbers’ return for the sake of the film. Simpson contributes readings from his own diary, beginning with the confession, “I’m going back to Peru tomorrow, and I really don’t want to.” At the new base camp, Simpson speaks into the camera. “Up until now, four days walking in, to be honest I’ve been completely surprised at how uninterested I’ve been in coming back here.” Though he thinks initially this is a function of his self-preserving “repression” of events, Simpson comes to another conclusion, that his disinterest is informed by the very apparatus of filmmaking—the generators, the lights, the satellite phones and “loads of people around”—which makes “the whole thing completely artificial and just unreal really.”

And yet, when he accompanies Yates to the spot where Yates found him so many years before, Simpson is startled. “I felt I was just going to have a panic attack. I could feel Simon grabbing hold of me in the dark while I stood there. I could remember it. I felt quite shivery.” He adds, “I’d forgotten, I’d forgotten how difficult it was. I’ve told the story so many times, it’s just become a fiction.”

While Yates insists that he remains an “adventurer,” without “unresolved feelings about this place,” Simpson is at once openly “emotional” about the return, but also resists explaining. It is beyond explanation. As the crew makes its way up the mountain, the interviewer asks Simpson how he “feels.” With sounds of the crew shuffling and chatting in the background, he demurs. “It’s a bit too sort of Jerry Springerish, isn’t it, to say how you really feel?” By the end, he’s feeling “dried up now… because we’ve spent so long making this fucking movie.”

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