Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
You can’t touch this.

Here’s a classic survival story from English mountaineer and author Joe Simspon. It was first published in 1988 and there was a 2003 docudrama adaptation.

It tells the story of his successful, but equally disastrous, attempt to scale Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985.

Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival

Right, this is along the lines of classic against all odds tales such as Nando Parrado’s Miracle in the Andes (2006) and Steven Callahan’s Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea (1986).

Joe Simpson’s battle for survival was remarkable, coming back from certain death to overcome a horrific predicament.

Along with his mountaineering friend Simon Yates, the pair went up the west side of the 20,814 foot Siula Grande. No one had ever done that before.

However, it’s noted in mountaineering the return journey is often more perilous than getting up one of the things.

During Simpson’s descent, he slipped and landed awkwardly on his right leg. The result was his tibia crushing through his kneecap for a seriously agonising leg break.

With limited supplies and bad weather approaching, Yates and Simpson needed to get down 3,000 feet to an ice glacier for relative safety.

Given the desperate situation, the duo needed to be smart and inventive. The result was:

  • Yates had to painstakingly lower Simpson down the mountain using a rope pully system.
  • At intervals, Simpson would stand on his good leg and signal to Yates to come and join him.
  • They repeated this process and were making steady ground.

In the book he writes about this approach:

“[Yates] was still grinning, and his confidence was infectious. Who said one man can't rescue another, I thought. We had changed from climbing to rescue, and the partnership had worked just as effectively. We hadn't dwelt on the accident. There had been an element of uncertainty at first, but as soon as we had started to act positively everything had come together.”

The real problem began when, with nightfall descending, Yates lowered Simpson off the edge of a cliff. Due to the bad weather, he didn’t realise it was there.

Yates could feel the weight of Simpson on the rope but wasn’t aware of the predicament. After an agonisingly long delay, he realised he was losing his grip and would plunge to his death with Simpson.

And so he made the decision to cut the rope, leaving Simpson to plunge into the murky depths. That controversial  decision, of course, led to a divisive reaction in the mountaineering world.

However, we think Yates did all he could do in the situation. His actions throughout were nothing but heroic.

After making the decision, he dug a snow cave until morning and then went to investigate the situation. He realised what Simpson was up against, but the situation seemed hopeless.

However, Simpson had plunged into an icy crevasse. But he was alive.

With no food or water, he spent the next five days crawling and hopping his way back to their camp—in agony and, eventually, delirious. He arrived back a few hours before Yates was set to leave and head home.

All of which makes this one of the most incredible mountaineering stories in modern history. Dogged perseverance and luck working in tandem.

Simpson was only 25 at the time and underwent six operations on his leg. After two years of rehabilitation, he was able to return to climbing.

The English spread spread incorrect details about the Yates rope cutting incident, so Simpson set out to put the record straight. That’s one of the reasons he wrote the book.

After another fall in 1991 broke his left ankle, he began to have doubts about the nature of extreme mountaineering. Now he mainly works as a motivational speaker and writer.

But his first work is still absolutely worth a read, remaining a dogged and determined account of defeating adversity.

Film Adaptation—Touching the Void

A documentary adaptation went ahead in the early 2000s and, for the first time, Simpson revisited some of the areas of his 1985 ordeal.

He later acknowledged this caused him to suffer bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But it’s a good documentary. A candid insight into the events during the fateful climb.

And, of course, makes you wonder what you’d do in that situation. That’s one of the broader appeals of survival stories, no?

However, if you’re looking for the ultimate survival story, we recommend Stranded: I’ve come from a plane that’s crashed on the mountains (2008). Which is a remarkable film.

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