30 July 2020

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

My obsession with Everest is pretty singular, but every so often I read about other mountaineering disasters. About two years ago Ben (with help from his father who shares a lot of similar reading interests as me) got me Joe Simpson's book Touching the Void for Christmas. The climb was on the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 and Simpson's personal account came a few years later.

Touching the Void is super short and I finished it in two days. Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates make the trip while one of their other climbing friends remains at base camp awaiting their return. The book is obviously from the perspective of Simpson, the author and survivor of these events, but he also writes in Yates's perspective. He mentions in the epilogue that he did get Yates's approval and confirmation that that was how he was feeling during the accident and the days afterward.

In Peru we had gone to unusual lengths to take the ultimate risk and yet despite all the pain and trauma it now seems a small price to pay for such an inspiring adventure. Isn't memory a wonderful deceiver?"

Right from the start Simpson does a good job showing what his relationship is like with Yates. It takes a very specific kind of person to want to climb, but they also both share a laid-back attitude and you can see how they made a good pair. The book starts off with them making jokes before they set out on their climb about not returning from the mountain. When their third teammate takes a picture of one of them they  reply "Thanks! Please use that for my obituary!" I guess most people cope with humour, so it isn't a huge surprise they employ it as well.

Simon Yates and Joe Simpson
The accident unfolds pretty quickly: Simpson falls and destroys his leg and knee joint which is essentially a death sentence. The two are tied together so Yates has to lower Simpson down and then slowly follow, rejig their pulley system, and then lower Simpson again. Eventually Simpson falls, and Yates believes it is fatal and has to make the difficult decision to cut the rope and continue on without him.

Making a decision like this would literally kill me. I cannot decide where I want to eat for dinner or what TV show to watch next. I think I would freeze to death before making a move on the Siula Grande. But what's great about Yates's perspective is that he assures you you'd also make the decision ...but that living with it is a whole other story.

The rest of the book deals with Simpson crawling his way to safety... He continuously passes out from pain and exhaustion, but eventually makes it back to base camp before his companions left to go back home. He talks a lot about a "voice" he heard that kept him alive... how it would constantly rouse him from sleep and demand he keep going.

In a peculiar way it was refreshing to be faced with simple choices. It made me feel sharp and alert, and I looked ahead at the land stretching into distant haze and saw my part in it with a greater clarity and honesty than I had ever experienced before."

I would recommend anyone interested in mountaineering and the characters involved in such a dangerous hobby read this book. Simpson tells the story very plainly and matter-of-factly, but in a way that really works for it.

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