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Published December 12th, 2003 | by Jay Richardson

Touching the Void Review

Classification: 15 Director: Kevin Macdonald Rating: 4.5/5

Any winner of the National Outdoor Book Awards’ best literature category instantly commands my respect. I mean, who knew such awards existed? But then Joe Simpson is scarcely in need of my admiration. Touching the Void, his bestselling account of a disastrous mountain climb he undertook in 1985 with friend Simon Yates in the Peruvian Andes, has just been made into a docu-drama for the big screen. As critics scale new heights of superlative describing it, are we seeing the birth of a new cinema genre?

Well, probably not. Touching the Void only has a limited UK release. Feature film rights to the novel have been kicked around Hollywood for some time, with Tom Cruise mooted to be involved. Frank Marshall, director of Alive, was another who wanted the project. But it was independent production company Darlow Smithson who grabbed the documentary rights, intending a conventional documentary for television broadcast on Channel 4. Things snowballed though, when Oscar winning director Kevin Macdonald came on board, with additional funding sourced from the US and a theatrical release acquired.

Shot in the Andes as a mixture of dramatic reconstruction from actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron, with first person accounts from Simpson, Yates and the third member of their group – Richard Hawking, who stayed at base camp – it’s an incredible story of human resilience, fortitude and downright bloody-mindedness.

Attempting to climb the 21,000 ft Siula Grande mountain “alpine style”, that is wearing backpacks and aiming to scale it in a single push, it was a risky endeavour even for two experienced climbers. They had few problems reaching the summit, but as they began a descent made treacherous by the weather, Simpson fell, breaking his leg. As he ruefully explains, this was effectively a death sentence. Logically, Yates should have abandoned him, but his friend heroically attempted to single-handedly lower him down the mountain.

Then, disaster struck again. In whiteout conditions, Yates lowered Simpson over the edge of an unseen cliff. Unable to climb back, his weight agonisingly pulling Yates towards the same cliff, their fate was literally in the balance. Uncertain whether Simpson was close to solid ground, Yates was doomed to commit the unthinkable. He cut the rope, sending Simpson plummeting into a deep crevasse …

If this sounds bleak, then the straightforwardness of the narration makes it even more so. Simpson’s relation of his fall, crawl and grasp to salvation are without hyperbole, as is Yates’ account of his own guilt-tinged, by no means assured passage back to camp. We even get Hawking telling us of his gladness that of the two, it was Yates who returned. He hadn’t bonded with the surly Simpson, he explains.

Despite a style that recalls television’s 999, the cinematography is so appropriately spectacular you often forget this is documentary. And in a true testimony to the power of the narrative, knowledge of the eventual outcome detracts nothing from the exhilarating story.

If you liked the film account of one man’s epic battle with the mountain, why not read the book?

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