Friday, October 12, 2007

Staff Pick: Touching the Void (2004 DVD)

touching the void dvd coverWe climbed 'cause it's fun. And mainly it was fun. That's all we ever did. And we were fairly anarchic and fairly irresponsible, and we didn't give a damn about anyone else or anything else, and we just wanted to climb the world. And it was fun. It was just brilliant fun. And every now and then it went wildly wrong. And then it wasn't. ~ Joe Simpson

I must confess: I’m a couch potato. I’m not proud but I’m honest. Regardless, this doesn’t keep me from enjoying watching others push their bodies to the limit. Climbing Mt. Everest? I’m there. Football game in the 100-degree heat? I’m there. Clog dancing? I’m there…right there in front of the TV.

For some reason this woman who can’t complete one chin up has always been fascinated with mountaineers and their hubristic attempts to scale impossible heights. My favorite story by far is Simon Yates' and Joe Simpson’s 1985 ascension to the 20,814 foot summit of Siula Grande in Peru. Their story became part of mountaineering legend, and was turned into the documentary Touching the Void in 2003. Yes, they climbed ‘cause it was fun. They also climbed because they were young and cocky and knew they could succeed where others had failed.

Yates and Simpson did succeed and were the first to reach the summit by scaling the West face, but they made the mistake of descending on the North ridge. The weather slowed their progress and they ran out of food and gas; without gas they weren’t able to melt snow to drink and soon became weak with hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. Then things went wildly wrong when Simpson fell and shattered his leg, forcing the lower bone through his knee joint. He expected Yates to leave him, but Yates stayed and lowered his mate down the mountain, 300 painstaking feet at a time.

Yates would anchor himself in a snow seat, lower Simpson down, and when Simpson tugged on the rope, he would climb down and start the procedure over again. But there came a point in their descent when Yates waited for a tug that never came; he had unknowingly lowered Simpson over an overhanging cliff. For an hour and a half Simpson hung in mid-air, and Yates held his place on the sugary slope for as long as he could before he started to slide down the mountain. Then he remembered that he had a pen knife in his rucksack and quickly made the decision to cut the rope and save himself. With this action he dropped Simpson 100 feet into a crevasse. What happened after this is a testament to how nearly indestructible the human body is and just how stubborn two athletes at the top of their games can be.

At one time Tom Cruise was in line to play Joe Simpson in a movie version of Touching the Void. Thank goodness that plan was never put into action. The decision to intersperse Yates' and Simpson’s first-hand accounts with two actors re-enacting the scenes was the right one. I've watched Touching the Void many times since it arrived on DVD. Watch it and judge for yourself if it’s more enjoyable and suspenseful than the movies they're passing off as entertainment in Hollywood these days.

Touching the Void trailer

Joe Simpson has led an interesting life and has detailed his adventures in several books: Touching the Void (1988); This Game of Ghosts (1995); Storms of Silence (1997); Dark Shadows Falling (1999) ; The Beckoning Silence (2003); and The Water People (2006, fiction). Books not listed on our catalog may be available through Interlibrary Loans.

Visit his Website Joe Simpson-No Ordinary Joe for more information on his life, books, and films.

Think you have what it takes to pull your own body weight up a mountain? Then try these books on mountaineering. If you run into trouble, you won't be the first. And for my fellow couch potatoes, here are some fiction books on the sport.

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