Back to the Brink Almost 20 years after their near-death experience, climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates returned to the Peruvian Andes with an Academy Award-winning director to film the stunning new documentary Touching the Void

January 19, 2004

When Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out in June 1985 to scale
Siula Grande, a 20,853-foot mountain in the Peruvian Andes, they
knew that all previous attempts to reach the summit had failed.
But Simpson was 25, a compact, experienced and cocky climber, the
youngest of five kids, born in Malaysia to an Irish mother and a
stiff-upper-lip English military father. "My feeling was, Well,
we'll just do it; we're better," Simpson says of climbing Siula
Grande. Yates was 21, a blond, wide-eyed Brit who as a teenager
had found his place in the world through climbing. For Yates,
mountains were "the most beautiful places," where you could "get
away from all the clutter that we have in our world." ¶ Day One
was clear and sunny. The pair climbed Alpine style, carrying
little food or gear in an attempt to reach the summit in a single
push. There would be no camps along the way to return to, no
possibility of a helicopter rescue, no margin for error. "If
you're going to do that kind of climbing," says Simpson, "at some
point you're going to have to rely wholly on your partner." ¶ The
extent to which that basic rule of mountain climbing would be
tested is the focus of a riveting new film, Touching the Void,
based on Simpson's 1988 book of the same title. Directed by
Kevin Macdonald--whose films include the Academy Award-winning
One Day in September, about the 1972 Munich Olympics
massacre--Touching the Void, which opens in New York City on
Jan. 23, melds interviews with Simpson and Yates, re-creations
of the climb and spectacular shots of Siula Grande, which is at
once staggeringly beautiful and terrifying.

Simpson recalls the three-day ascent through wind, snow and
plunging temperatures as "the most precarious, unnerving and
dangerous climbing I'd ever done." Yet on the sunny afternoon of
the third day, the pair--though they were hypothermic and utterly
"knackered," as Simpson put it--made the summit.

That, however, was just the beginning. "I don't particularly like
summits," says Simpson, "because 80 percent of the accidents
happen on descent." As he and Yates started down, large clouds
rolled in from the east. The climbers had decided to descend
along the north ridge, to a col between Siula Grande and
Yerupaja, and abseil down a smaller section of the face. They had
thought they could walk the north ridge. "It was horrendous,"
recalls Simpson. "We were in a whiteout." Cornices that Yates was
unknowingly walking on fell away under his feet. When night came,
the climbers were still at 20,000 feet, and as they prepared
drinking water, their gas ran out.

They awoke to Day Four believing the hardest part was over.
Simpson, ahead of Yates, came to a vertical wall bisecting the
ridge. Intending to hammer two axes into the ice at the top and
lower himself down, he drove his ax in, but, he says, "it made a
strange sound." As he pulled the ax out, he slipped. He fell only
20 feet, but the impact drove the bones of his lower right leg
through his knee joint. "The look that he gave to me sticks in my
mind--this look of shock and desperation and terror," recalls
Yates, who realized they would be lucky if either of them got out
alive.

Desperate, they devised a way to get Simpson down the mountain.
Each had 150 feet of rope: Knot it all together and Yates,
bracing himself in the snow, could lower Simpson down. At the end
of the rope Simpson would give Yates enough slack to unclip one
rope and thread the other one through the belay plates. Simpson,
sliding on his stomach, in shock and severely dehydrated,
screamed each time his broken leg jabbed into the snow. Yates,
intent on getting off the mountain as quickly as possible, had to
ignore the cries. The windchill factor was -80°. The climbers had
no water and knew that if they dug a hole for shelter, they would
risk getting trapped in the storm.

After several lowerings, they were almost down to the glacier
when Yates suddenly felt more weight on the rope. He assumed
Simpson was going over steeper ground. But Simpson had hit a
patch of ice and slid over a cliff that neither of them had
anticipated and was suspended over a crevasse; looking down, he
estimated the drop was about 80 feet and knew there wasn't enough
rope left to get him to the bottom. He screamed for Yates to stop
lowering him, but his partner couldn't hear. "I felt completely
helpless and really angry," Simpson says. "I just hung on the
rope and waited to die." He couldn't feel his fingers, so
climbing the rope was impossible. He expected Yates to fall past
at any moment. Yates, feeling the snow sliding from under him and
knowing he was about to plunge down the mountain, remembered the
penknife in his rucksack. "I took the decision pretty quickly,"
he says.

Yates unzipped the pack, pulled out the knife and cut the rope
that held his partner.

ates's overriding memory of that night is of terrible thirst and
of his mind playing over what had happened to Simpson. The next
day he was convinced that Simpson had been killed and that now he
would die as retribution. Abseiling down the mountain, he saw the
cliff and realized that Simpson had been hanging in space and had
fallen into a crevasse that from Yates's vantage point, appeared
bottomless.

He continued toward base camp, trekking across a glacier dotted
with crevasses, wondering how he was going to explain to Joe's
parents, to friends, to Richard Hawking--a third member of the
party, who had stayed at base camp--what had happened. He thought
of concocting a story that would make him look better, but when
he got to base camp, he told Hawking the truth. "He wasn't, in
the slightest bit, judgmental about me or what I had done," says
Yates.

Although Hawking thought it best that they leave camp
immediately--Yates "looked absolutely horrendous," he says--Yates
needed a day to regain some strength and collect his thoughts. He
washed and shaved. He and Hawking burned Simpson's clothes as a
symbolic farewell.

That night, having decided to leave the next day, they climbed
into their sleeping bags. "I woke up, not knowing why," Hawking
recalls, "and was aware of this strange atmosphere. I could hear
the wind howling outside the tent, and started hearing
something."

Says Yates, "It was quite clearly a shout of my name."

Yates sprang up and started up the streambed 200 or 300 hundred
yards away. "And there," he says, "was Joe. I couldn't completely
believe it ... because of the eerie night and the state he was
in.... He was a ghostlike figure.

"He thanked me for trying to get him down the mountain, for all
I'd done up to the point where I'd cut the rope, and he said,
'I'd have done the same.'"

Hawking remembers Simpson's asking for his pants. "We had to
explain that we'd burned his trousers, which made him quite
angry. That brought me back into life, realizing it was the same
old Joe, back again."

hough simpson, after a series of operations, returned to climbing
in 1987, and, in '91, teamed with Yates on a Himalayan
expedition, neither man would return to Siula Grande until 2002,
when they both accompanied Macdonald and his crew for the filming
of Touching the Void. The film was shot not only in Peru but also
in the French Alps. Many of the shots are composites. The summit
sequence, for instance, combines aerial shots of Siula Grande
with actors standing on a smaller mountain. That was by
necessity, says Macdonald, because "Joe and Simon were the only
two to ever reach the [Siula Grande] summit."

The five-week shoot in Peru was grueling. Cameras froze in the
cold, and, because of the terrain, supplies had to be brought in
on the backs of burros. The crew struggled with the altitude. For
Yates and Simpson the experience was far more wrenching. "When
they're in the U.K., they're very bluff and unaffected," says
Macdonald. "But in Peru, Simon became very aggressive--halfway
through, he wanted to leave." Simpson experienced flashbacks and
suffered panic attacks. "When Joe was confronted with the place
[where] he almost died, he became quite emotional," says
Macdonald. "He started crying."

n that night in 1985 when Simpson made his return to base camp,
he had lost a third of his body weight. Yates, who had studied
biochemistry, noticed that Simpson's breath smelled like acetone,
a sign that he was entering a state of ketoacidosis, not unlike a
diabetic whose condition is out of control. "What the film
doesn't show," says Simpson, "is that three hours after I got to
Simon, he put me on a mule, which I had to ride for two days,
then I was put on a pickup truck, then the fourth day I got to a
hospital. Making me ride that mule--I was really pissed off with
him. But Simon was afraid I was going to die at any moment."

Simpson's experiences over the four days following his fall are
all but unimaginable. After Yates cut the rope, he fell nearly
150 feet, hitting a sloping surface and then falling farther into
the crevasse. Still attached to the rope, he figured Yates had
fallen too, and he waited for his partner's body to drop. He
began to pull on the rope, and the rope kept coming. "When I saw
the frayed end, I realized he'd cut it," Simpson says. "It was a
strange experience. Everybody thinks you'd see the rope and you'd
think, You bastard. But I remember thinking, One, Simon's still
alive, and two, he's got my knife.

"Well done, mate, I thought, we're still in the game. As long as
Simon was still alive, I had a fighting chance of getting out."

But, as Simpson says in the film, "Crevasses have a dreaded feel;
they're not a place for the living.... I could hear the ice
cracking and the wind noise in the ice.... I felt very, very
alone, and I was very scared." He was also young, fit and full of
ambition. "I wanted to climb the world," he says, "This hadn't
been part of our game plan."

As a climber, "you've got to keep making decisions, even if
they're wrong decisions," Simpson continues. He was on a ledge in
the crevasse and could not scale the walls, so he made a decision
to "lower myself deeper into the crevasse ... hoping there might
be some way out in the labyrinth of ice and snow.... I didn't put
a knot at the end of the rope. If there was nothing down there, I
wouldn't be able to hold the rope, and then I would fall and it
would be quick."

But once at the bottom, he looked around and saw light peeking
through a hole. He crawled 50 feet across a cracking surface,
climbed a slope and out into the sunlight, where he lay in the
snow, laughing. Then he looked at the ice and the rocks and
thought, You haven't even started, mate.

For the next three days Simpson made his way back to the camp,
crawling over ice, dragging his broken leg, hopping over rocks.
He found Yates's footprints, which helped lead him to base camp
until a snowfall covered them. But seeing the footprints "was a
more sickening thing than seeing the cut rope," he says. "Until
then, we were still a team. Knowing he had left me for dead was
psychologically very difficult."

An insistent voice, he says, told him to keep moving. At one
point the cheesy lyrics of the pop group Boney M were running
through his head, and he couldn't believe he was going to die to
Boney M.

lmost 20 years years later, Simpson--who, though he has lost
nearly 20 friends or acquaintances to the mountains, continues to
climb--says he still isn't sure how he survived. He knows he was
not struggling back to base camp because he thought he would
survive. "My abiding memory is of an appalling sense of
loneliness, a sense of being abandoned," he says. "It's that that
stopped me from giving up. I wanted to be with somebody when I
died."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON YATES BEFORE THE FALL Simpson, here leading the successful 1985 assault on Siula Grande, was overcome by emotion when he returned to film in the Andes. COLOR PHOTO: JEREMY SUTTON-HIBBERT SNOW BUSINESS To re-create the fateful climb, Macdonald and his crews spent five weeks in the Andes and a month in the Alps. COLOR PHOTO: SIMON YATES HANGING IN Yates (bottom) recalls that when Simpson (top, on the ascent) made it back to camp, he was a "ghostlike figure." COLOR PHOTO: JOE SIMPSON [See caption above]

During the shoot in Peru, cameras froze in the cold and SUPPLIES
HAD TO BE BROUGHT IN ON THE BACKS OF BURROS.

"Crevasses are not a place for the living," says Simpson. "I
COULD HEAR THE ICE CRACKING, AND I FELT VERY ALONE."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)