BEFORE TRAVELING back to the Peruvian Andes for the first time in 17 years, Joe Simpson recalls, friends suggested the trip would do him good. "Because that's what people believe, don't they? That it's cathartic to go back to where you had a horrible, painful time, so you can get over it." He scoffs, "What a load of bollocks!"
The 44-year-old British mountaineer had agreed to fly to Peru in 2002 with his former climbing partner, Simon Yates, 40, to shoot scenes for Touching the Void, a new film based on Simpson's 1988 book of the same name, a million-plus bestseller and modern adventure classic. The $2 million film, directed by Academy Award winner Kevin Macdonald and distributed by IFC Films, is one of those rare documentaries to see national theatrical release, kicking off in select cities on January 23 and expanding through February and March. Rarer still, it actually gets mountaineering right.
"For once, someone's done a feature film about climbing very, very well," says Michael Brown, 37, an accomplished Himalayan mountaineer and director of Farther Than the Eye Can See, Outside Television's documentary about blind climber Erik Weihenmayer and his 2001 ascent of Mount Everest. "Usually, it's so far from reality, you just sit there and laugh. But this movie has credibility right from the start."
Faithful to the book, Touching the Void chronicles Simpson and Yates's 1985 perilous first ascent of the 4,500-foot west face of 20,853-foot Siula Grande. Climbing alpine stylefast and light, with no set campsthey took on bitter winds and heavy-laden cornices of snow but summited in three and a half days.
On the descent, however, Simpson fell down a 20-foot ice cliff. With his right leg shattered, he relied on Yates to lower him down the mountain 300 feet at a time, on two knotted ropes. They made slow progress for a few hours, a blizzard descending upon them. But when Simpson slid over a second cliff, Yates, unable to see his partner or haul him up, fought for over an hour to keep both of them from plummeting into the void. As a last resort to save himself, Yates made the only choice he could: He cut the rope.
Miraculously, Simpson survived a 150-foot fall into a deep crevasse. Yates, who couldn't hear Simpson's shouts, gave his partner up for dead. Plagued by guilt, Yates made it back to their base camp while Simpson endured an agonizing self-rescue, escaping the crevasse and dragging himself over the glacier and rocky moraine for three and a half days, crazed with thirst, and desperately following Yates's footprints even as fresh snow erased them. (Upon returning to England, Simpson underwent six operations and two years of rehab before resuming climbing in the major ranges.)
Macdonald, 36a Briton who won the Oscar for One Day in September, a 2000 documentary about the Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympicsstruggled at first with how to tell the highly psychological story. "I'm a purist," he says. "I don't like casually blurring the lines of documentary and drama."
He settled on a clearly delineated docudrama. A reenactment of the climb and Simpson's self-rescuefeaturing British actors Brendan Mackey, as Simpson, and Nicholas Aaron, as Yates, as well as several stuntmenwas filmed at three locations in the Alps during punishing snowstorms. Those sequences are intercut with London studio interviews featuring Simpson, Yates, and Richard Hawking, a fellow Brit who tended their base camp. The three narrate the action, their faces and voices revealing not only what it felt like in the moment but what it's been like to live with the memories. Yates stammers as he describes the instant he remembered he had a knife in his pack; Simpson's eyes well up when he recalls his near-death loneliness.