Down from the Mountain
Fictional Footage Helps Tell the Incredible True Tale of Touching the Void
The new film Touching the Void is the result of two controversial decisions. The first was the decision by mountain climber Simon Yates to cut loose his partner Joe Simpson as the latter hung off the edge of an ice cliff in the Andes. Yates had every reason to believe that he was about to slide over the cliff himself, thus causing two deaths rather than just one. Simpson, who defied all odds and survived, agreed with the decision, though many others did not.
The second was the decision by director Kevin Macdonald to flesh out his documentary of these events with re-created scenes of the original climb. Many are the examples where an uneasy mix of real-life footage and fictional footage leads to disaster, as in Standing in the Shadows of Motown or PBS's Liberty! The American Revolution. But Macdonald uses his re-enactment shots so tastefully that they end up being crucial to the film's success.
For Touching the Void is a surprisingly strong picture. Almost every word spoken in the film comes from real-life interviews with Yates, Simpson, and Richard Hawking, the third member of their climbing party. And yet most of the visuals are of two actors re-creating the climb--either in long shots against the original mountain in Peru or in closeups on the Swiss Alps. Macdonald is able to blend this documentary sound with this fictional photography so well that he not only creates a coherent narrative but also captures the drama that made Simpson's 1988 book of the same name a best seller.
The story begins in 1985 when the 25-year-old Simpson and the 21-year-old Yates decide to attempt the first-ever ascent of the west face of Siula Grande, a 21,000-foot-high peak in Peru's isolated Huayhuash range. Hawking tags along to mind the valley base camp while the two young Brits assault the mountain "Alpine style"--that is, without intermediate camps and without oxygen. The climb up is thrilling--thanks to some spectacular footage of axes and boots clinging to vertical walls of ice--but successful, and on the third day the friends embrace on the peak.
It's on the way down that an exhausted Simpson steps onto a shelf of snow, plunges through, and lands so hard on his left leg that his shinbone is driven up through his kneecap, shattering both. So there he is, 20,000 feet above sea level on an ice-sheathed mountain, four miles from camp, more than 30 miles from a road, unable to put any weight on his right leg. As actor Brendan Mackey lies grimacing in a blue parka on the nearly vertical white slope, we hear a clip from an interview with Simpson, "I thought, I can't have broken my leg, because if I've broken my leg, I'm dead. "
He had broken his leg, but he wasn't dead yet. Yates tied two nylon ropes together and lowered his partner down the slope 300 feet at a time. They covered 3,000 feet this way till, in a twilight snowstorm, Simpson slipped over a cliff and was left dangling in the air, too heavy to climb up or to be pulled up, and too far from the ground to fall. After several hours, Yates pulled out his Swiss army knife and made his fateful decision.
Yates almost dies himself on the way down, but he finally stumbles into Hawking's arms a day later. Consumed by guilt over leaving his dead friend behind, Yates burns Simpson's clothes in a memorial ceremony as he gets ready to break camp three days later. So you can imagine his surprise when he hears Simpson's ghostly voice hollering in the night.
For Simpson had fallen into a deep crevasse. This would normally be a death sentence, but it got the crippled climber out of the worst weather. He couldn't climb up, so he gambled on lowering himself deeper into the fissure in hopes of finding an exit. He was lucky enough to find one, but even when he did, he still had to drag his broken leg over miles of glacier and boulder fields.
The story of Simpson's descent is riveting, but it could easily have turned melodramatic. Macdonald avoids this danger by never pumping up the drama artificially. By shooting on actual mountaintops, he captures not only the weird beauty of ridge-line snowdrifts and translucent crevasse walls but also the grim impersonality of nature. The mountain doesn't care if you live or die; it doesn't even know that you're there.
Just as crucial to the movie's success are the understated, matter-of-fact comments of Yates and, especially, Simpson. With a shrug-of-the-shoulders offhandedness, Simpson remembers lying on a shelf inside the crevasse, wondering if the nearness of death would make him believe in God. It didn't. He realized that superstition wasn't going to change anything; the only thing that would help him was faith in the laws of nature and his own capabilities. I can't think of another film that cites atheism as a source of spiritual strength, but this one is as convincing as any theistic parable.
In fact, the only thing that might have improved Touching the Void is if they had shot it as an IMAX movie.