"If I believed in the afterlife, I would have let go," Joe Simpson told USA Today a few weeks ago. By "let go," Simpson means he would have curled up in the snow and died. Instead, the prospect of spending eternity clinging to Siula Grande, a 21,000-foot pile of rock in a remote corner of the Peruvian Andes, persuaded Simpson to endure one of the greatest survival stories in the history of mountain-climbing. You thought the vacation-gone-bad heroics of Into Thin Air were compelling? That was nothing compared to what Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, went through after successfully scaling Siula Grande's treacherous west face, a vertical wall of snow and ice topped by a razor-thin ridge. That, nearly 20 years later, these two Brits are still the only two climbers to have gotten all the way up and all the way back down suggests the size of their accomplishment. But it's how they got back down that's had rock-heads talking about them ever since.
Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void, which is based on Simpson's 1988 book of the same title, tells the story all over again, this time with Simpson and Yates narrating while a pair of actors (Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron) impersonate them in what turns out to be a dazzling use of dramatic reenactment. Clearly, it's not Simpson and Yates out there, joined at the hip by a rope that will soon serve as a lifeline. But combining the two modes of presentation is surprisingly effective, perhaps because the actors were given almost no dialogue. Instead, Simpson and Yates do the talking, taking us through a descent that, in Simpson's case, would go on for days. Trouble started when he fell and shattered his leg. Then, while Yates was lowering him down the mountain one rope-length at a time, he fell again, this time into an apparently bottomless crevasse. Leg broken, hands frozen, dangling in space, he realized he'd never be able to climb his way out.
And Yates, who was losing traction on the other end of the line, had no idea what had happened to Simpson. (A snowstorm made communication between the two all but impossible.) There was only the continuing pull on the rope, which Yates ascribed to Simpson's lifeless body. So he did what some, most or all other climbers would have done in that situation: He cut the rope. That he himself survived was something of a miracle; he had no water, for one thing. And that Simpson survived, lowering himself into the crevasse until he found a way out, then dragging himself over miles of snow and rock with a femur where the patella had been, was both a miracle and a testament to -- you knew this phrase was coming eventually -- the indomitability of the human spirit. Those of us who don't climb mountains might point out that Simpson wouldn't have been in that situation if he hadn't put himself in that situation, but we would be wasting our breath, of course.
Besides, despite having cried like a baby, Simpson could rightly claim that, once he was in that situation, he behaved beautifully -- not that he claims that, mind you. "I can be insanely stubborn," he says. And that, along with a terrifying sense of loneliness that overcame him when he realized he might never escape from his ice casket, is what caused him to pass on through the void to the other side. Part of Touching the Void's charm is Simpson and Yates' characteristically British understatement -- that stiff, not to mention frozen, upper lip. "We're stuffed," Simpson recalls thinking when he found himself incapable of putting any weight on his bad leg. Of course, if he'd known at that point exactly what it would take to get unstuffed, he might never have been able to pull it out of himself. "When you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you," Nietzsche famously wrote. When Simpson looked long into the abyss, the abyss also looked into him, then blinked.