Joe Simpson, Touching the Void (1988)

A million books were given away across the UK on World Book Night last week, and I got one of them at my local branch of Waterstones. I tend to think that the ideal book for World Book Night is something that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of reading, but that looks interesting once you start to consider it – a gentle nudge away from your comfort zone, in other words.

That’s just the sort of book I received in Touching the Void, Joe Simpson’s account of his and Simon Yates’s 1985 expedition to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. It’s what happened on the descent which makes the story so famous: Simpson broke his leg, and, whilst being lowered down the mountainside by Yates, got stuck in mid-air. With Simpson unable to move up or down, and Yates losing his grip, Yates decided he had to cut the rope joining the two of them. Simpson fell into a crevasse, but nevertheless beat the odds and made it back to camp, alive.

Touching the Void begins prosaically enough:

I was lying in my sleeping bag, staring at the light filtering through the red and green fabric of the dome tent. Simon was snoring loudly, occasionally twitching in his dream world. We could have been anywhere. There is a peculiar anonymity about being in tents. (p. 15)

That tent will, naturally, assume vital importance later on; in a neat mirroring, the familiar light inside the tent at the beginning becomes an alien sight when Simpson is approaching it from the outside, in desperation, towards the end. This is one of several examples in the book of the same thing taking on different qualities at different times – the mountain scenery is by turns hostile and welcoming, for instance.

The passage I’ve quoted there also contains the first of Simpson’s observations about the peculiarities of climbing. I’ve never been up a mountain myself (though I have done my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and so have some experience of outdoor activity), so perhaps I didn’t connect personally with the descriptions of climbing as I might otherwise have; but this exchange did strike a chord:

‘What shall it be then?’ Simon held up two foil bags. ‘Moussaka or Turkey Supreme?’
‘Who gives a toss! They’re both disgusting!’
‘Good choice. We’ll have the Turkey.’
Two brews of passion fruit and a few prunes later we settled back for sleep. (p. 39)

It’s the odd combination of foods and flavours which brings home the reality of having to eat what you’ve got, and of eating for energy rather than taste – a sense of how one’s priorities change on a mountain. We also see the kind of mentality that may be needed: Simpson tells the story at one point of how, on a previous expedition, Yates saw two unfamiliar climbers fall to their deaths from the same mountain he was climbing; when he returned to camp, says Simpson, Yates ‘had sat numb’, turning the incident over and over in his mind; but, the next day, ‘he was his normal self again: an experience absorbed, shelved in his memory, understood and accepted, and left at that’ (p. 64). The capacity to put even the worst experiences behind you can, this suggests, be useful – even vital – to mountaineers.

Yates’s capacity to do just this is tested to its limit when he’s faced with cutting the rope; as Simpson shows (in passages written from Yates’s viewpoint), this was both an impossible choice and, really, no choice at all. As he’s making his own way down the mountain, assuming (quite reasonably) that Simpson is dead, Yates veers back and forth over the question of how to describe what happened, whether to feel guilt or resignation. Simpson creates a fine portrait of an extreme moral dilemma.

But it’s Simpson’s account of his time alone and injured on the mountain which live most vividly in my memory. The description of his plummeting into the crevasse, then lying there in the dark, is horrifying; and we feel Simpson’s pain and frustration (as far as that’s possible, of course) at every slow step of his journey down. It makes his survival seem all the more remarkable.

This edition of Touching the Void includes a section written in 2003, after the making of the film version. As part of this, Simpson describes how he returned to Siula Grande and played himself in reconstructions of the incident. This seems so strange, I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like, nor find the words to describe how I responded to reading about it. Simpson himself closes the book reflecting on how his life has changed in such unexpected ways:

Life can deal you an amazing hand. Do you play it steady, bluff like crazy or go all in? I’ll never know (p. 215).

So, Touching the Void ends with a question we might all have cause to consider at some point – and it has opened a window on an extraordinary human experience. A fine book for World Book Night.

This book fulfils the Travel category (though ‘travel writing’ seems an inadequate way to describe Touching the Void!) of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.

1 Comment

  1. I loved this book and agree it is the perfect choice for WBN. I also recommend watching the DVD. The extra section on the DVD shows a documentary of him returning to the scene of the mountain. It is the best extra feature I’ve ever seen on a DVD and is even better than the film. His other books are almost as good as this. I recommend them all 🙂

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