Scaling the Depths: 'Touching the Void' & 'Eternal Sunshine'

By Cooper, Rand Richards | Commonweal, April 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

Scaling the Depths: 'Touching the Void' & 'Eternal Sunshine'


Cooper, Rand Richards, Commonweal


In 1985, British mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates scaled the twenty-one-thousand-foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, making a daring ascent up a treacherous and previously unconquered face of the mountain. On the way down, disaster befell the two, a horrifying mishap that quickly achieved notoriety in the world mountain-climbing community. In Touching the Void, Scottish documentarian Kevin Macdonald recreates the climbers' grueling ordeal of survival.

Macdonald's film consists of reenacted mountain scenes, performed by actors and a pair of climbing doubles, wrapped around studio interviews of Simpson and Yates. Matter-of-factly, the two describe the risks involved in scaling remote peaks with minimal equipment and no support team. "There's no line of retreat," Simpson explains. "If you get badly hurt, you'll probably die." That the pair come off as normal English blokes only highlights the extreme nature of their passion. The climber's fixation on an essential spiritual truth--that to live without confronting one's own mortality is hardly to live at all--makes him a mortality junkie, craving the thrill of having life reaffirmed over and over, in the most literally death-defying circumstances. "This is what we live for," Simpson and Yates confess. "That mixture of power and grace."

With this, the filmmakers bring into focus the themes that make Touching the Void much more than an adventure story. Mike Eley's camera sweeps vertiginously over majestic crags and harrowing plunges, conveying a grandeur that reduces the two men to tiny specks in an endless immensity of creation. At every turn the film conveys a visual religiosity, fetching up metaphors for human aloneness, ambition, and struggle--images like the puny light of a helmet lamp twinkling on a sheer face of rock in the gloom of twilight. And always, the slow, forbidding look up toward the heavens.

The vision mixes beauty and danger in equal measure. The immense white meringues of fresh powder after a storm make for treacherous climbing, cornices that can give way with one false step. With one such step, Joe breaks through and plunges out of control; when he lands, the impact shatters his leg, gruesomely driving his tibia up through his knee joint. At twenty thousand feet, such accidents often mean death. But Simon acts heroically. Refusing to abandon his partner, he ties their two ropes together and begins lowering him down the mountainside, three hundred feet at a time.

It seems all but hopeless; and then something even worse happens. The decline steepens toward a cliff, and Joe, tethered to Simon far above, goes sliding off; in the gathering dark and the howling wind, Joe now dangles helplessly at the end of his rope--a metaphor dreadfully made real. Hundreds of feet above, Simon has no idea what has occurred; all he knows is that the rope has gone taut, and that Joe's weight is gradually pulling him down. The two men shout to each other, but their voices dissolve in the wind. Simon waits, and waits, and waits. An hour and a half passes, and with the weight on the rope threatening his precarious hold on the mountain face, Simon decides to act for his own survival. With a penknife he cuts the rope, abandoning Joe to his fate. The next day Simon makes it down the mountain and back to camp. Joe is dead, he tells a friend who's been watching over the campsite.

But Joe is not dead. Cut loose, he has plummeted into a deep crevasse, where against all odds he lands on a fragile ledge and survives. Numb with pain and terror, he assesses his grim situation, shining his light down below. "The head torch went down and down," he recalls years later, "and the darkness just ate it." The thought of dying alone brings rushes of panic. In the film's most disturbing moment, we see Joe crouched in the icy gloom, wailing in rage and despair: "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"

From here on, Touching the Void becomes an exercise in the resurgent and tenacious will to live. …

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