In May 1985 two young British friends, Joe Simpson aged 25 and Simon Yates aged 21, decided to make the first ever recorded attempt to climb the 21,000-foot western face of the Siula Grande, a very inaccessible peak in the Peruvian Andes. This was going to be an Alpine-style, one push attempt on the mountain where climbers go straight to the top and, in the case of Simpson and Yates, no emergency rescue team or back-up plan if things went fatefully wrong -“ which unfortunately was what happened. Simpson suffered a serious leg injury and Yates eventually made an agonising decision to sacrifice his friend’s life to save his own. This is a story of two young men who rather quaintly thought they could conquer a peak never climbed before. Miraculously they lived to tell the tale.
Scottish-born 36-year-old director Kevin Macdonald made a name for himself by winning an Oscar for his documentary One Day In September (2000) dealing with the shootings at the 1972 Munich Olympics. His latest film Touching The Void has already won a BAFTA for Best British Film as well as the Evening Standard British Film Award -“ not bad for a documentary about two men and a mountain.
The film is based on the book that Joe Simpson wrote about the climb, partly to tell the true story and partly to vindicate Simon Yates’s role in the ensuing drama. It was a bestseller when it was released a few years ago and was so popular amongst the non-climbing fraternity that both Tom Cruise and Sally Field’s production companies put options on the film rights. Luckily for us, even they thought it too hard for a blockbuster. So, enter Macdonald, who, assisted by the expertise of Brian Hall -“ one of the current top climbers in Britain, who has lent his skills to films like the latest Bond feature Die Another Day -“ Touching The Void the docu-drama, reached the big screen.
I am not a mountaineering fan. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than dragging yourself up a mountain with an ice pick and pack in a minus 80 degrees snowstorm, camping and cooking in a tent along the way, only to come straight back down. Touching The Void transforms a tale of mountaineering into a gripping, vivid story of two men’s survival against more than improbable odds.
Macdonald’s decision to film with the cooperation of Simpson and Yates in the style of a docu-drama enhances its power. At first glance the film appears to be a deceptively simple story of heroic struggle against the elements, yet Touching The Void has some truly surreal moments such as when Simpson says he had to carry on struggling to survive because he didn’t want to die singing a Boney M song in his head. Outstanding cinematography and editing will have you gripping your seat throughout this rollercoaster ride through fear to amazement.