In 1985, British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates took on Peru’s at that point unscaled 21,000-foot Siula Grande. On their way down from this noteworthy accomplishment, 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 rote the book to vindicate Simon, who had since become known in the “climbing community” as the “man who cut the rope.” Now, documentarian Kevin 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) has made his own Touching the Void, a sort of docudrama based on Simpson’s book. The movie intercuts images of climbers (Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron, who perform for the most part without speaking) hired to recreate events on the mountain, with interviews with Joe, Simon, and their non-climbing base camp watcher, in order to make visible this story of astounding courage and abject fear.
It’s fair to say that the film’s essential drama has as much to do with Mike Eley’s stunning cinematography as with eth narrative proper: it’s difficult to put into words just how white, cold, and endless the imagery of 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 so that 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.