There is no surprise ending to the survival story of mountain-climber Joe Simpson; Touching the Void is filmed as a talking heads narrative with dramatic reenactments of the injury Simpson suffered while traversing the peak Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with climbing partner and friend Simon Yates in 1985. The real Joe is right there, talking to the camera, so right away you know that he survived. Even so, the events of Void are no less remarkable than any other fact-is-stranger-than-fiction tale of astounding human endurance and willpower if not more so.
The opening shots establish a matter-of-fact, real-world danger moodiness to the whole production – we see and hear the creak and crunch of ice as an anchor is screwed into a snowy mountainside, the mushy thunking of a climbing axe picking into ice, the clicking and scraping of rope and carabiner – right away its clear that, as mundane as such sounds might have been before, that these noises and these actions are a matter of life and death. With his first bit of monologue, Simpson muses over the reasons for indulging in such a reckless sport: Because its fun…until everything goes wrong and then it isn’t.
At the time of the climb Simpson, then twenty-five, and Yates, then twenty-one, were as brash and confident as their youth could carry them which was to the last unclimbed mountain face in that range. With new travelling friend Richard Hawking watching over the base camp, Simpson and Yates set out to conquer the peak alpine style: one pack each containing all their gear ascending in one single push, no camps along the way, no predetermined route. As Simpson and Yates provide the narrative over the reenactment, there’s a definitive sense of reality. The love of climbing and the zeal of adventure are there in their voices, even through the reserve and the battle-hardened seriousness of their age and experience. With the straight-on-to-camera intensity of a Jonathan Demme film, they are, Simpson especially, as stark and entrancing as war heroes. When the story progresses to the more harrowing and horrifying moments, there’s a thick air of detachment, for example when Simpson describes the nature of his injury or his memories of feeling horribly lost and alone, and you know that it couldn’t get any more real even if he broke down and wept.
Touching the Void is so full of moral questions it’s a wonder that such rash people could be put through the ringer with them and come out the other end in more or less one piece. But the ordeal of Joe Simpson proves that one can. It would be easy to make the mistake that because Simpson and Yates are hardened by their experiences that they are desensitized. For some knowing a man survived so much bad luck would be enough to find it moving. For everyone else, it’s important to watch closely. Despite the seventeen years that passed between the incident and the no doubt endless number of times these men have had to tell the story, its still soul-stirring to watch Simpson remember the moment when he found his friend Simon and being held and comforted by him – the tear is, granted, hard to see but it is, accompanied by a few thoughtful pauses, enough of a happy sadness to yank Void from being only just a bleak recounting of what is now “mountaineering legend,” to being a revealing and majestic reminder of the vastness of the human spirit.