This docu-drama is the true story of mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates and their ambitious expedition to climb the infamous Siula Grande peak in the Peruvian Andes. The year is 1985 and the determined young climbers are single-minded in their attempt to conquer a famous South American summit. They relish in the isolation of the Cordillera Huayhuash region of Peru, 28 miles of rough walking from the nearest village; a far cry from the bustling slopes of Europe, crowded with tourists and amateur climbers. Here they have found a real and lasting challenge, one that so very nearly cost the both of them their lives. ‘Touching the Void’ describes the loneliness of mountaineering, alone with the mountain in a treacherous and unforgiving environment.
The partners from the prestigious climbing community of Sheffield set off up the glacier at the base of Siula Grande. They left behind their recent acquaintance Richard Hawking, to look after their kit at their camp on the shores of the first of two lakes that spring from the melting glacier. Young and impulsive, they are unaware of the vital differences between Alpine and Peruvian snowfields and their ignorance nearly brings their expedition to an abrupt and early end when, on the descent, Joe falls and shatters his knee. A death sentence on a remorseless and remote mountain; with absolutely no hope of outside help or rescue.
The film was shot on location in Peru and switches between the real-time drama of the moment and narratives by Joe, Simon and Richard. I was wary at first of the whole concept of a docu-drama movie, but having read Joe’s autobiography of the event years ago was curious to see how it would be approached. The narratives are brutal and honest, describing, sometimes with tense emotion, how very close they came to death. It’s almost impossible to imagine how, in the middle of the night, Simon painstakingly lowered Joe down the mountain on a mere 300 feet of rope until he could feel Joe’s weight pulling him off the slope. In a split second Simon must decide whether to save his own life or let Joe drag him to his death on the glacier below. Desperately he reaches for his penknife…
But that’s only half the story. The second half deals with Joe’s terrifying plummet into a crevasse and his relentless determination not to give up and die in this remote corner of the Andes. Both climbers believed the other dead and their descriptions of terror, despair, stubbornness, fortitude and guilt are almost overwhelming. A stunning and beautifully terrifying film recommendable to everyone, whether interested in mountaineering or not. Its emphasis on resilience, companionship and the closeness of the end is vivid and ultimately heartening.