A Climb That Wasn't 'Fun'

By Underhill, William | Newsweek International, January 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Climb That Wasn't 'Fun'


Underhill, William, Newsweek International


Imagine a snowstorm close to the summit of a 6,100-meter peak in the Andes. On the descent, your climbing partner slips in treacherous conditions. His leg is badly broken. For hours you struggle to winch him down the mountainside. The cold is unbearable, and you must battle fatigue and dehydration. Then disaster strikes afresh: tethered to the rope, your friend slips over an unseen cliff. The sound of his cries is lost in the blizzard. As he dangles below, you cannot know whether he is alive or dead, but his weight is pulling you inexorably to the edge. Without prompt action, you will die. Do you cut the rope?

It's the stuff of nightmares--and now a powerful film as well. The British-made documentary "Touching the Void" re-creates the ordeal of two young British climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who were trapped on the flank of Siula Grande, a forbidding Peruvian peak, back in 1985. So how was the moral crisis resolved? The thousands who read Simpson's best-selling memoir, also called "Touching the Void," will already know: Yates cut the rope.

But the full force of both book and movie lies in the sequel to that decision. Against all odds, Simpson survived a 50-meter plunge into a crevasse. Unable to climb out, he crawled down into the abyss in search of a route back to the daylight. His luck held. Driven by cussed determination, he hopped and crawled down the mountainside for two agonizing days, reaching base camp in a state of delirium just as Yates was preparing to leave.

For filmmakers, it's a story with some blockbuster ingredients: a critical dilemma, a friendship tested and one man's contest with the implacable forces of nature. Small wonder that Hollywood was interested. A score of producers sought the rights to Simpson's memoir. Tom Cruise was once lined up for the lead role. But the project languished; along with its epic qualities, the tale posed awkward problems--particularly, how to dramatize the interior monologue at the core of the book?

The solution comes from British documentary maker Kevin Macdonald, who collected an Oscar in 2000 for "One Day in September," a retelling of the terrorist attacks at the Munich Olympics. …

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