Siula Grande (6,344 m) is a beautiful uprising in the Peruvian Andes. The West Face of this mountain remained an unsolved climbing problem until 1985. That was the year when Joe Simpson and Simon Yates successfully climbed the West Face of the Siula Grande. Touching the Void is an astounding narrative that recounts the nightmare that Joe Simpson and Simon Yates experienced after successfully summiting the not-yet-conquered West Face of Siula Grande.
And I believe there can’t be many climbing stories as dramatic and awe-inspiring as this one.
Simply put, Touching the Void is a story of a man (Joe)
walking crawling alone, beneath the crevasses, in the powdered snow of the Andes, with a broken leg, for three days; and surviving. While his companion thought him to be dead.
After all, who survives a 100 feet fall in the Andes?
And what do they say about a broken leg on a climbing expedition?
A broken leg on a climbing expedition, especially in the powdered snow of the Andes means death.
The two of them start together, climb the peak together but only one of them makes it successfully to the base camp in time. The other one, Joe Simpson too makes it back to the base camp, just that he takes three days more, with a broken leg walking through the deep crevasses of the powdered snow.
After many (minor) accidents and setbacks, they make it to the top. Then, on their way back via the Northern Ridge, disaster strikes. Joe’s leg is badly fractured and Simon is left only with two choices; to abandon Joe & save himself, or to fight against the odds with Joe. He chooses the difficult one; to lower Joe down the mountain. 3000 feet vertical drop to be precise.
And then the inevitable happens. Joe’s body becomes too heavy a burden for Simon to carry. Eventually Simon has to make a choice; to cut the rope to save himself, or to be pulled down the mountain with Joe.
Simon cuts the rope. And gains notoriety as the man who cut the rope. Even today his decision to cut the rope is questioned by the armchair climbers.
Joe Simpson also puts forth Simon’s perspective as notes in between and [to me] Simon’s writing made more sense than Joe’s. Simon’s dilemma while cutting the rope, a fit of forceful compassion that forced him to carry Joe 3000 feet down on a rope while risking his own life, all makes a poignant read, in his own words.
Simon, the man who cut the rope, writes in detail about his emotions and you can only wish that you don’t ever face what he went through. It makes a beautiful read for those who are fond of Alpine Climbing. Digging snow buckets with frostbitten fingers, sleeping in snow caves instead of pitching tents, walking across the fluting and cornices to find the hidden pathways; such narrative makes you a companion in their journey.
And when Joe experiences that dreadful fall, you feel that it’s not him but you who has to now fight against all the odds.
This is how Joe describes his fall.
The impact had driven my lower leg up through the knee joint. It [my knee] was in one solid piece, but it felt huge, and twisted, and certainly not mine. (Page 73) The irony of falling almost 100 feet into a fifty feet deep crevasse and surviving unscathed was almost unbearable. Life can be cruel and tender at the same time.
Joe, while fighting against the oblivion thinks of Tony Kurtz. The young kid who lost himself to the North Face of the Eiger. To think of his [Tony’s] bravery is inspiring but to be in a position like him is certainly not what a climber would ever want. And that’s what Joe Simpson faced during those terrible three days in the Andes.
The first two chapters (40 pages) are boring, to say the least. And if you are a mountaineering novice, you just don’t make any head or tail out of it. Use of too much of climbing jargon without any glossary makes it a tedious read. And it’s not before the third chapter you get to feel the real kick of extreme climbing.
Surprisingly, it was Joe’s first book and it doesn’t look like that at all. He connects to the reader and doesn’t try to paint an overly romantic picture of the mountains, which is usually a case with many first timers. Joe talks straight and talks to the point and that’s what makes this book a brilliant read.
This is what Joe had to say after he made it back to the camp safely;
If you succeed with one dream, you come back with to square one and it’s not long before you are conjuring up another, slightly harder, a bit more ambitious – a bit more dangerous.
This book probably doesn’t answer the ‘What Next‘ question. But it surely forces the reader to think about the difficulty in making choices at such crucial junctures of life.
To think about Cutting the Rope or Not.
P.S. The book was made into a Hollywood Movie by the same name. The movies was good. But it doesn’t come anywhere close to the book.