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Posts Tagged ‘Touching the Void’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 25th March 2004. I know the title is crap, but inspiration doesn’t always strike…

Growing up in a rather flat part of the UK, mountaineering never really featured on my list of things to try. In fact it never really impinged on my youth at all, with the exception of an attempt by (I think) Chris Bonnington’s daughter to climb the Old Man of Hoy1 on live breakfast TV. The highlight of the event was the intrepid young woman being vomited upon by a startled gull, and even that was hardly an advertisement for the pastime.

The same could probably be said for the astonishing drama-documentary Touching The Void, directed by Kevin Macdonald, which is – to say the least – gruelling, but still intensely watchable. (Also a rare example of a British Film Council production – in this case, in association with the now-defunct studio Film Four – that doesn’t make you want to gouge your own eyes out.)

Based on a barely-credible true story, this is the tale of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two young Englishmen who in 1985 decided to attempt the unclimbed west face of the Andean peak Siula Grande. (Ominous captions and music, not to mention Simpson’s weirdly assymmetrical nostrils, make one very sure from the start that All Will Not Go To Plan.) Attempting the ascent in the ballsy Alpine style, one is initially wrong-footed when the duo get to the top relatively easily. However, as Simpson points out in his narration, 80% of accidents happen on the way back down, and so it proves here.

After beginning the descent, the duo quickly become lost (I must confess to not quite understanding how one can become confused as to which direction is down, but I am an indoorsy type as you can probably tell) and run out of gas with which to brew their tea. But things get even worse as Simpson falls off the mountain and badly breaks his leg. (I defy anyone not to squirm at Simpson’s clinical description of exactly what happened to the various bones in his shin and knee.) You’d’ve thought that would be quite enough bad luck, but then Yates’ attempts to lower his partner down the mountainside to safety hit a snag. In the dark, he accidentally lowers Simpson off a cliff. Simpson is unable to pull himself back up, and – even worse – finds himself dangling over an ice crevasse. Yates, rapidly losing his grip on the slope, and not knowing what’s happened to Simpson, decides to cut the rope and let his partner fall…

This film succeeds so well because it combines two disparate elements with consummate skill. The actual reconstruction of events on and around the mountain is remarkable. Simpson and Yates are both played by actors – neither of whom are particularly close lookey-likees, if we’re honest, but they both spend so much time wrapped up in mountaineering gear it doesn’t really matter – but most of the climbing certainly seems to be done ‘for real’. Just getting a camera crew into some of the places this film does is an achievement in itself and for all that it’s obviously a horrible place, the mountain is amazingly beautiful. (Although – and a sign of the times, this – any sight of a really big mountain on a cinema screen these days just makes me expect Ian McKellen to go by in a pointy hat.)

Coupled to this are talking head accounts of the story from the real life Joe Simpson and Simon Yates (and also some bloke who was hanging around base camp while they were up on the mountain). Both are clearly talking unscripted, and while this leads to some amusing infelicitudes in their language (‘We had two 150-foot ropes,’ says Simpson informatively at one point, ‘and by tying them together we got a 300-foot rope with a knot in the middle’, while later on Yates weighs in with ‘Nothing continued to happen’) it’s of immeasurable aid in bringing the story to life. It is incredibly gripping – and were it not for Simpson’s actual presence, I’d’ve been willing to swear he couldn’t possibly have survived.

I personally wouldn’t want to go up a mountain with either of the guys, to be honest, but one’s sympathies are inevitably more with Simpson (if only because he isn’t the one who buggered off back to base camp). The effects of their experiences are easily discernible in the men as they are interviewed – Simpson seems secure, knowing how he’ll react in an extreme crisis, while Yates… I’m not sure, but I thought I sensed a little guilt.

In any case, this is a top-notch piece of work, engrossing, startling, and immediate, shot through with moments of subtle humour and humanity, and entirely deserving of the awards it has won. Touching The Void makes a drama out of a crisis in the best possible way. Recommended.

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