No Way Down: Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void

08.11.15

Welcome back to a series of articles written by Patrick Carlson. Throughout this series, Patrick will analyze a piece of survival “literature” — be it a novel, a film, a game, etc. — and frame it within the context of The Long Dark. This entry deals with Joe Simpson’s 1988 memoir, Touching the Void. 


The wind gusted against me, making me swing crazily on the rope, and with each gust I was getting colder. The pressure of the harness on my waist and thighs had cut off the circulation and both legs felt numb. The pain in the knee had gone. I let my arms hang slackly, feeling the deadweight of useless hands in my mitts. There was no point in reviving them. There was no way out of this slow hanging.” —Joe Simpson in Touching the Void Touching the void Cover

The climbing memoir is one area where survival literature has made some of its deepest and most meaningful cuts. This genre often speaks to the psychological dimension of the post-disaster experience and how storytelling intersects with memory. And as we know from The Long Dark, the mind, and its influence on our decisions, is often the most important tool for overcoming adversity. In this entry I’ll be looking at Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void. Simpson’s 1988 memoir suggests that writing is itself a tool for surviving—and making sense of—desperate and dangerous experiences.

2015 marks 30 years since Simpson’s fateful expedition to Peru’s Siula Grande. The British mountaineer’s account of what happened to him and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, forms the spine of his now-classic tale of mountaineering catastrophe. First conquered by a pair of Austrian climbers in 1936, the 6,344-meter (20,814-foot) Siula Grande looks like a jagged tooth erupting from the maw of the Andes. Simpson and Yates travel to Peru in 1985 hoping to leave their own unique mark on the South American mountain by plotting a course up the peak’s craggy West Face. The plan would secure them a place in the history books with a first ascent by that route.

The climbers’ push towards the top of Siula Grande is a tough one, but doesn’t test their resolve in a way that matches what’s waiting for them on their journey back to basecamp. With daylight vanishing they set out down the mountain’s North Ridge. An already difficult descent is made worse when a storm moves in and kills their visibility. They find themselves walking along a knife edge dulled by deep, soft snow. After a series of near-fatal missteps, they eventually dig a snow cave to wait out the storm.

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The potential success—and safety—of their descent is intimately linked to the rope coiled around their waists. Roped together, each man’s life is in the hands of the other. And although roping up is a traditional move for alpinists, it’s also a technique that highlights a brutal truth about the danger of mountain climbing. Simpson confronts this reality directly:

“As I settled myself down for sleep, I couldn’t shake off the dread feelings I had experienced while traversing the ridge. The image of the two of us falling helplessly down the East Face, still roped together, had all too nearly come true. I shuddered at the prospect of such an end. I knew Simon must have felt the same.”

And once a violent fall shatters Simpson’s leg, that rope will become the point on which both their fates will pivot. In the high mountains, in bitter cold and lonely times, survival becomes an experience about making decisions and living with them—no matter what.

Simpson’s style communicates a remarkable level of clarity and self-reflection given the horror of his story. I’d place Touching the Void firmly in the tradition of other noteworthy mountaineering texts by writers such as Reinhold Messner and Jon Krakauer. Like so much good writing that tries to make sense of the remote, icy corners of the world, Simpson’s memoir doesn’t turn away from the psychological hurdles that confront the men and women who are drawn to these desolate places. Fear, despair, and hopelessness are acknowledged and examined in a way that makes these highly individual experiences come to life for readers who have never strapped on a crampon or negotiated a crevasse.

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For Simpson, pictured above, his book is a way to make sense of a brutal struggle with a vision of nature that laughs at his ambition and gives him every chance to disappear into its frozen landscape. With his trials on Siula Grande, I’m left feeling that Simpson’s greatest alpine talent in Touching the Void is having the endurance to write himself back into the world.

The reality that Simpson and other climbers confront in their writing finds an echo of itself in fictional worlds such as The Long Dark. The game’s interpretation of the survival experience, of simulating vulnerability, strikes me as in harmony with the ambitions of climbers like Simpson. It’s a fictional story, but The Long Dark gives me the chance to write my own account of overcoming the odds.

Touching the Void was also turned into an award-winning documentary that appeared in 2003. The always-thoughtful Roger Ebert called it “the most harrowing movie about mountain climbing I have seen, or can imagine.” The film is an excellent, although different interpretation of the same events and the images accompanying this article are drawn from it. I’d recommend reading the book before checking out the documentary.

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