Cinema Signal:
Touching the Void
The book
. "Touching the Void"

If you need convincing about the virtues of good conditioning, see this documentary. Without its subjects' ultimate fitness the outcome of this mountaineering adventure would have been far different, more disastrous, and likely not told.

But it is told, and by the survivors of a climb that holds you spellbound in the expectation of disaster even as you know how it will turn out because its talking heads are the adventurers themselves. As the film progresses, you keep expecting a camera pullback to reveal lost limbs and paraplegic narrators.

They relate the story of how, on a successful climb to the top of Peru's never before conquered, 21,000 foot Siula Grande, Joe Simpson broke his leg on the descent, requiring his partner Simon Yates to attempt a rescue calling for strength and strategy. Blinded by fog and driving sleet, Yates lowers his climbing partner rope length by rope length, 300 feet at a time, until Simpson drops to a place that puts both climbers in a precarious position and mortal danger.

With no way to see his partner or know for sure, Yates is mystified by the unrelieved tension on the line for far longer than expected. A slackened line tells him when the injured Simpson reaches a secure spot so that he, Yates, can climb the next increment down. He finally realizes that what is causing the lifeline not to relax is Simpson's inability to gain a secure footing. This can only mean he must be suspended in space, off a ledge outcropping, and that the gradient of descent is vertical, over the void. His attempts to pull up on the line prove futile, causing him to slip and lose his own footing.

With night falling and temperatures turning frigid, he then faces untenable options. So long as he has his friend's weight on the rope, his own life is endangered. Anchored down, he literally can't move. In order to survive the climb he must do the unthinkable. After much anguish, he cuts the line.

Finally unburdened, he makes his way down to base camp, looking for but finding no sign of Joe, assuming that he could not have survived the fall. He begins doubting the rationale behind his decision, blaming himself for his partner's death.

But Joe does survive the fall, (there he is narrating his part of the tale) having landed on a ledge inside a crevasse. But, that's hardly a promising situation given his broken leg. After days of hoping a rescue team will be coming up to find him, he realizes they think he's dead and that he's got to find his own way down or die.

How he managed to pull this off, tripping out in delirium along the way, is powerfully told by the participants themselves as it's reenacted by actors Brendan Mackey (as Joe Simpson) and Nicholas Aaron (as Simon Yates). The juxtaposition of the re-creation of the events with the survivors telling the story from their unique perspectives is startling and, at times, defies belief.

Bringing the experience to us in icy, vivid detail are cameramen Keith Partridge (primary), Simon Wagen and Dan Shoring. Under some fine direction by Kevin Macdonald, they produced all the coverage needed to capture the excitement of a very big challenge, the heartbreak of hopelessness, and an outcome that turned failure into something else. It makes a gripping documentary.

While the editing might jump a little here or there and the visual quality less than perfect in instances, the sense of actualality and the many glimpses of mountain magnificence are enough to put aside any call for technical perfection. Just thinking of the crew positioning themselves for their filming angles when conditions got worse than harsh on that unyielding peak is enough to tingle the nerves.

When you see this film, bundle up and be prepared for an education in the possible.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


The DVD





Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Well written
I'll recommend this reviewer
Rating: 8

One of the few movies dealing realistically with alpine climbing (I speak as a climber myself).

                                                      ~~ Luca S.



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From the poster for the harrowing adventure

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