Have You Read? Climbers’ struggle for survival detailed in ‘Touching the Void’ | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Have You Read? Climbers’ struggle for survival detailed in ‘Touching the Void’

Isabelle Luna
Isabelle Luna

“Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson

In January 2002 my fiancé, Jeremy, and one of our roommates went on a mountaineering expedition to climb Aconcagua in Argentina, the tallest mountain in South America at 22,841 feet. When he returned, I heard every detail from the flight to the summit. One thing he mentioned was that Simon Yates, “The guy who cut the rope,” was at his base camp. I had no idea who he was talking about. He then shoved the book “Touching the Void” written by Joe Simpson, in my face. I read the back of the book and was intrigued. It seemed to be an epic tale of survival for both Yates and Simpson, who had ventured into a remote region of Peru in an attempt to climb an imposing peak named Siula Grande.

But I didn’t read the book. It was placed back on the shelf, out of my memory.

Three years later when I started reading “Touching the Void” – coincidentally three weeks before Jeremy and I left to Peru for a climbing trip of our own – the narrative didn’t let me out of its grasp. I knew Jeremy and I would be climbing glaciated peaks over 18,000 feet and didn’t particular enjoy hearing the grim details of Simpson and Yates’ adventure. The range we would be in was the Cordillera Blanca, less than 100 miles from the Cordillera Huayhuash, where Simpson and Yates’ lives were defined.

In 1985 Simpson and Yates began their journey as twenty-somethings with a dream of ascending a previously unclimbed route on the west face of the 21,000-foot Siula Grande. They were experienced climbers who accepted the inherent risks and dangers associated with the sport. As the two prepared for their attempt, they packed only enough food and supplies for four days. This lightweight approach would force them to leave their base camp, climb to the summit, and then return to camp within four days. With no cushion for unpredictable weather or other objective hazards, their ascent was successful, but their descent turned disastrous. During the descent, Simpson falls uncontrollably over an ice ledge and feels his leg snap upon impact.

Theoretically, a broken leg on technical terrain at over 20,000 feet is basically a death sentence. But to Simpson’s amazement, Yates tries to perform a mountain rescue by single-handedly lowering Simpson down the mountains. They decide to tie two 150-foot ropes together. The two devised an efficient system of communicating when the first rope reaches the knot in Yates’ lowering mechanism. With Simpson standing on his one good leg, enough slack is then created that Yates can maneuver the second rope in position to continue lowering. With ropes tied together, Yates begins to lower his partner 300 feet at a time. Before long, a storm envelops the climbers, but Yates admirably continues to lower Simpson in the less-than-ideal conditions.

In the chaos brewing around them, Simpson is lowered over an ice cliff, unable to release tension off the rope. Hanging almost 100 feet above the glacier with a bottomless crevasse (crack in the ice) as a potential landing spot, Simpson makes several attempts to connect himself to the cliff he was just lowered over. He is unable to do so, and he continues to dangle in the thin, Andean air. Yates, meanwhile, has no idea what’s happened. Yates does all in his power to hold Simpson for as long as possible, but he begins to lose the battle with fatigue, the blizzard and gravity. He is beginning to be pulled off the slope himself when he considers this question: Should the two fall to their deaths or should he save himself? Yates makes the decision to cut the rope, not realizing Simpson is alive and plunges into the crevasse.

Miraculously, Simpson survives the fall, but his adventure is just getting started. The next morning, he begins a three-day attempt to get out of the crevasse with his broken leg and return to base camp, where hopefully Yates will be. Simpson is frostbitten. He has no food or water, and his only piece of equipment is an ice screw and the rest of the rope attached to his climbing harness.

From the first page of the book, Simpson does a wonderful job of vividly describing his complete exhaustion, the unbearable cold, and the mental gymnastics necessary to complete such a journey. With chapters alternating between Simpson’s perspective and Yates’ perspective, the reader feels the emotional drain and experiences the struggle each climber endures.

A glossary of climbing terms located in the back of the book allows those readers unfamiliar with climbing to clearly understand the prose.

This book is not only for adventure readers, but also for those who enjoy action, suspense, friendship, and survival. “Touching the Void” is an inspiring story of human struggle and is a book that stays in your hands from the moment you make it past the first page. Also available is a documentary titled “Touching the Void.” Commentary by Simpson and Yates and incredible extras makes this a rare case in which the book and movie are superb.

– Isabelle Luna is a sales associate at Neighbors Bookstore.

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