In 1985, British mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates scaled the 21,000-foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, becoming the first men to climb the unclimbable west face to its summit. And then things got really interesting. On the descent, Simpson, then 25 years old, suffered a fall that drove his lower leg through his knee; when Simpson fell again later that day, some 150 feet into the black yawn of a crevasse, 21-year-old Yates gave up his friend for dead. But Simpson was, to his own surprise, very much alive. He had to find a way out of the ice-wall fissure and then negotiate the steep piles of moraines and boulders that stood for six miles between him and camp. He had no food or water, no partner, and a useless tree-trunk of excruciating pain conductors where his right leg had been. And he made it.
We know he made it—after four spectacularly horrific days—because Simpson wrote a bestselling 1988 account of the journey, Touching the Void, and now co-narrates Kevin Macdonald’s tremendous documentary-cum-reconstruction of the expedition. As Simpson, Yates, and their base-camp watchman Richard Hawking describe the scene in present-day close-ups, Macdonald retraces and re-enacts their steps at Siula Grande—areas of which have never been filmed before—using high-definition video and near silent actors. (Sometimes Simpson and Yates even “double for themselves,” as the director puts it.) Though matter-of-factly presented, Simpson’s endurance test exceeds the imagination, and reanimates every blurbable cliché in the film reviewer’s word bank. Battling frostbite and self-preserving instincts, Yates helps his badly injured friend sled down thousands of feet (it’s a white-knuckle ride!). As Simpson dangles in air off the mountain face, the imperiled Yates ponders cutting the rope that links them (a taut, gripping cliff-hanger!). Alone and terribly dehydrated, Simpson fights delirium, despair, and cruelest of all, the water-torture loop of Boney M.’s “Brown Girl in the Ring” spinning inexplicably inside his head (a tense psychological thriller!).
Macdonald’s previous doc, the Oscar-winning One Day in September, which revisited the terrorist killings at the 1972 Munich Olympics, was a major archival feat marred by egregious lapses of taste (e.g., scoring a montage of corpses to a howling Deep Purple track). Despite the astounding setting and legitimately inspirational story, Touching the Void favors Simpson’s stiff upper lip over the grandiose bluster of One Day—or of a Hollywood action blockbuster. A very different cinematic fate once lay in store for Simpson’s book, as he dryly notes in a newly published epilogue: “It was meant to be a ‘star vehicle’ for [Tom] Cruise which caused general hilarity in the climbing world and many jokes about Nicole Kidman playing the part of Simon.” (Just conjure the Cruise version: cathartic cliffside fisticuffs, tremulous vigil-keeping girlfriends, sporty Peruvian gangsters.) True to his subjects—who climbed in the hard-ass “Alpine style,” carrying essentials on their backs and sleeping in snow caves with no line of retreat to camp—Macdonald takes a purist approach: two men against the ruthless elements, in an instant-by-instant chain of life-or-death decisions.
Touching the Void unexpectedly bridges genres—it’s a buddy movie, a horror story, a boy’s-own adventure, and a near metaphysical meditation on the limits of human endurance. Lost in the crevasse, the actor playing Simpson shrieks and weeps into nothingness—a moment of fathomless desolation lit with a faint spark of bleak wonder, as surely he had gone where no man had gone before.