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Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005
Just one step from oblivion
In May of 1985, British mountain climbers Simon Yates and Joe Simpson made what almost turned out to be the last decision of their lives: They attempted to scale Siula Grande, an ominous 6,400-meter peak in the Peruvian Andes that had never been climbed before. Not only that, they decided to do it "Alpine style" -- in what Yates called "one big push" -- with no supply camps along the way, just the packs on their backs.
They made it up in three days, an incredible feat of endurance and pure will. Coming down almost killed them; Simpson shattered his knee in a fall, and a blizzard kicked in with the wind chill bringing the temperature down to -60 Celsius. Soon after that, Simpson fell off a precipice, and as he dangled on the rope attaching him to his partner, Yates had to decide whether to hang on until he was dragged down as well, or to cut the rope and send his friend to certain doom.
That's only Act 2 in an epic story of survival that would be impossible to believe if it weren't true. In 1988, Joe Simpson published "Touching the Void," his account of this terrifying ordeal. It went on to become an international best seller, and eventually documentary director Kevin Macdonald reunited Simpson with Yates to tell the story onscreen.
Macdonald's "Touching the Void" is based on very lucid recollections by the two climbers, who appear in separate interviews, but he ramps up the impact by employing dramatic re-creations to illustrate their words. Macdonald has a pair of actors playing Simpson and Yates, and shoots on location in what looks like some quite perilous conditions. Acrophobics be forewarned: This film may be your worst nightmare.
Hardcore, high-altitude mountaineering is a hermetic world, but Macdonald does a good job at presenting everything simply and clearly, so that even someone who's only trekked up Fuji's vending-machine lined slopes can follow what's going on. Whether it's the art of sleeping in snow caves or the importance of the sound an ax makes when you sink it into ice, Macdonald never leaves the viewer guessing.
He's also managed to elicit some frank commentary from the mountaineers. Yates rather matter-of-factly admits that at one point, when Simpson was dangling off that precipice, he thought "If he fell off, I could make it down the mountain alone." Simpson, for his part, tells how the utter despair of his ordeal put him off Catholicism and made him an atheist for life. Given what he went through, you could forgive him for thinking, as Col. Steiner put it in Sam Peckinpah's "Cross of Iron": "If God exists, he's a bastard."
"Touching the Void" zeros in on three key choices at the heart of this story. One: the decision by the climbers to attempt such a foolhardy and risky ascent as "sport." Two: the choice Yates has to make in deciding whether to cut Simpson's rope or not. It's easy to moralize from the position of Monday-morning quarterback, but the film makes clear what a painful and difficult decision it was. Three: the choice facing Simpson -- trapped in a deep crevasse after a fall, with a mangled leg and no hope of rescue -- of a quick and certain death, or an agonizing struggle for survival.
Docudramas can often take too many liberties with the truth, but the involvement of Simpson and Yates meant that things never strayed too far from reality. About the only major fudging of facts is that only half the film is shot in the Peruvian Andes, with the rest in the somewhat safer European Alps. Nevertheless, the re-enactments fully immerse the viewer in an environment that imagination alone could never do justice to. Anderson's camera takes us into the sheer terror of a "white out," where cloud and snow reduce visibility to near zero -- not a good thing when vertical drops of 500 meters may loom just a few steps ahead. The money shot comes, however, when Simpson tumbles into that crevasse, a vast, cavern-like space of shadows and massive icicles, untouched by the light of day. Dangling in the middle of this bottomless void, Simpson has to somehow find a way out.
High-altitude action flicks have long been a staple of cinema, but lately they have suffered from the banal pyrotechnic excess of movies like "Vertical Limit" and "Cliffhanger." What "Touching the Void" proves so effectively is that nature can be terrifying enough by itself without any help from computer graphics. If anything, it's too good at what it does -- if you enter the theater thinking mountain climbers must be a bit mad, you'll leave convinced that they're total nutters. But nutters who survive their lunacy inevitably have a tale worth hearing.