Touching the Void

If you haven't seen Touching the Void yet, run out to Blockbuster (or your local library) and get the DVD. It's that good.

Based on the book by Joe Simpson, the movie relates the story of Simpson and Simon Yates, two young English climbers who set out in 1985 to climb the west face of Siula Grande a mountain in the Peruvian Andes.

They reached the 21,000-foot summit without incident, but shortly after starting their descent, Simon broke his leg. Rather than abandon his partner, Yates rigged a simple but ingenious device way to get Simon down the mountain. He tied two 150 ropes together, attached one end to Simon, and then attached the other end to a pulley on his belt.

Yates then lowered Simon down the icy slope of the mountain. When the rope reached the know, Simon would brace himself. Yates then unclipped the rope, slid the knot passed the pulley, and reattached it, allowing Simon to slide down another 150 feet. Yates then climbed down to meet him. By repeating the process, they got most of the way down the mountain, despite a blinding snowstorm.

Then disaster struck, when Simon slid off an outcrop, dangling 80 feet about an icy crevase. He couldn't climb back up, and because of the powdery snowdrifts they were climbing through, Yates couldn't him pull him back up. After an hour of holding on, and in danger of falling off the cliff, Yates cut the rope, and Simon fell into the crevice to an certain death.

Yates, frostbitten and half dead,stumbled down the mountain, and then down several miles of glacier to the base camp. Simon survived the fall. He splinted his leg in a bedroll, and eventually crawled down the mountain and glacier.

Touching the Void recreates the incident, with interviews and filmed reenactments. It shows, in a remarkable way, both human independence and interdependence. Simon, after his fall, refuses to give up. He crawls over impossible terrain while in excruciating pain--crawling over miles of glacier by breaking it into small increments, and challenging himself, with the help of his still working wristwatch, to crawl over short distances in 10-minute increments.

Just when he's almost back to base camp, he collapses. After three days of crawling, with no food and little water, he can go no further. He calls out to his friends, but they don't respond, and he lays down to die.

Then his friends hear his cry and find him. They nurse him back to health, and get him down to a village where he eventually recovers. It's a moment of grace.

Simon, who was raised Catholic but left the church, insists he is not religious--that even in his darkest hour, he found no succor in faith. But upon his return to Siula Grande, documented in the DVD extras, he makes a remarkable statement. I lost everything, my life and everything I was, he says.

"Then it was given back to me," he says, and then talks about the "blessings" he has received since--a career as a writer, speaker, and climber. (His latest book, "The Beckoning Silence" seems to have a spiritual theme.)

There seems to be something universal here; that life requires us to get to the end of our rope (figuratively and literally, at some points), and then we experience grace.


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