Filming the Void

In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates were the first to climb the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Unfortunately, as immortalised in Simpson’s international bestseller Touching the Void, on the descent they had one or two hitches. Nick Carson considers how the author’s harrowing journey was translated from book to BAFTA-winning film.

“We’re probably the only two people who don’t get it,” Joe Simpson muses to a capacity crowd at the Guardian Hay Festival 2004. “It’s our car crash, so we don’t put an interpretation onto it and try to imagine what it was like. We see it with different eyes, and don’t feel like anyone else does when they see the film.”

The two climbers’ experiences in Peru have gained worldwide recognition since the publication of the book in 1998, and Joe’s four-day journey back to base camp on a shattered leg, after his partner was forced to cut the rope binding them together, far transcends the genre of mountaineering. “Eighty-five percent of readers aren’t climbers,” he points out. “It’s not about climbing; it’s about dying alone, loneliness, pain, anguish and ultimately friendship. People appropriate stories for themselves.”

Touching a nerve

It was never intended as a film, Joe is keen to point out, but how much closer could a visual medium get to dramatising his ordeal? “I was frustrated at the end of the book, as I was nowhere near articulating how bad it was,” he confesses. “I couldn’t remember the real pain, so couldn’t find the words to explain what it felt like. But then most people have never been at twenty thousand feet, so it’s like a lie, but not, if that makes sense,” he goes on. “To be honest, my fellow climbers telling me it’s authentic means more to me than the BAFTA.”

Watching his experience unfold visually for the first time had quite an impact. “I was convinced they would make a pig’s ear of it, but it was better than I ever imagined,” he reveals. “Seeing the crevasse again was quite disturbing: it didn’t feel like it did at the time, but it reminded me of it,” he explains. “I can’t actually feel the pain but I get the sense of it, one stage removed.”

Re-living the ordeal

The final cut of the film may have awakened painful memories, but the return to Siula Grande during the filming process was many times worse. “Going back to Peru made me anxious: it wasn’t a cathartic experience,” Joe admits. “When I was writing the book it became someone else’s story, but back in Peru, surrounded by cameras, it became very real again. When I got back I was told I was having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – seventeen years late. It was criminally irresponsible to send us out there,” he adds wryly.

Re-living his ordeal en-situ prised open a long-dormant wound that words on a page could only gloss over by comparison. “The traumatic experience was burned into my neural pathways,” he continues. “I could see the circle of mountain peaks where I thought I was going to die, and suddenly it wasn’t a story anymore. Kevin [McDonald, the director] and his cronies were little dots far away, and I genuinely felt that they would disappear and that the book, film and last seventeen years hadn’t happened: I was back there, and the neural pathways opened up again.”

Bearing the tedium

Nevertheless, Joe’s rugged spirit of adventure often didn’t gel too well with the ethos of the industry, and the torturous flashbacks were fleeting moments in an otherwise gruelling filming schedule. “For an actor, making a film is about as interesting as watching paint dry,” he groans. “They spend four-and-a-half hours fiddling with the camera for every five minutes filming.”

Despite his respect for the directorial talent he was working with, Joe remains singularly unimpressed with Kevin McDonald’s grasp of mountaineering. “He’s a London-based arty guy, who made an amazing film but still has no idea what makes climbers tick,” he admits. “He was endangering our lives at one point, because he didn’t appreciate how dangerous it was. Simon had to sort him out,” he laughs. The combination of Kevin’s artistic talent and Joe’s first-hand experience clearly made for a much more rounded result.

Unexpected success

The international acclaim has quite genuinely hit Joe by surprise, having written the book primarily to defend his friend from a tide of criticism. “I never thought critically of Simon, in fact I’m immensely in his debt,” he explains. “People forgot that he put his life on the line for me, and only remembered the cutting of the rope.”

“If I thought a million people would read it and a film would be made I never would have written it,” Joe confesses. “I didn’t seek success or notoriety; I certainly never expected to front the film. It makes you very vulnerable, as you have no control over how you look once it goes into the editing room. To be honest, I was relieved that I didn’t look a complete prat.”

Setting the record straight

So what can the film offer that the book couldn’t? One major asset is for the benefit of those mountaineering virgins that make up the majority of the audience. “The camera pulling back over a vast mountain range gives a real sense of scale,” Joe points out. “A book can’t depict the inside of a crevasse if the reader had never seen one; it’s reliant on the imagination. The film helps non-climbers to visualise the experience.”

Another bonus, he adds, is that the psychologically realistic documentary style of Touching the Void may bring advocates of popular mountaineering blockbusters such as Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit down to earth. From the lips of a man who’s been there and back, they are absolute drivel. “You just can’t have sex at twenty thousand feet,” he concludes with a grin.

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

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