Touching The Void
Vintage, 2008 (1988)
Tackling the unclimbed west face of the remote Siula Grande in the Andes, Joe Simpson and his partner Simon Yates achieved the summit before disaster struck. A few days later, an exhausted Simon staggered into base camp to tell their non-climbing companion that Joe was dead. For three days he wrestled with guilt as they prepared to return home. Then a cry in the night took them out, where they found Joe, badly injured, crawling through the snowstorm. Far from causing Joe’s death, Simon had saved his friend’s life when he was forced into the appalling decision to cut the rope.
Touching the Void documents the successful scaling of the west face of the unforgiving Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes by Joe Simpson and Simon Yates in 1985 - and the accident that occurred on their descent, leaving both men struggling for survival, and Joe in particular fighting to stay alive.
There is no 'surprise' in in Touching the Void. The story is a classic of mountaineering and the book makes no attempt to keep the central event hidden. On their descent from the summit, Joe and Simon are caught in a storm, and Joe falls and breaks his leg. Faced with the reality of his climbing partner's death - on a stormy mountain with no gas, no water, and no help - Simon attempts to lower Joe down the face, until Joe falls into a deep crevasse. Simon, at risk of exposure and tied to the fallen Joe, cuts the rope.
The book begins with Joe and Simon at base camp, preparing for their climb, before moving on to their summit challenge. I was a little bit overwhelmed by some of the terminology at first, and had difficulty picturing the mountain and their progress. Though not a lot happens in the first few chapters - beset by a few difficulties, they nevertheless make it to the top - there is a strong sense of foreboding for the reader, who knows what is, inevitably, just around the corner.
The second half of the book documents the events after Joe's accident: the attempted rescue by Simon, the fall into the crevasse, and his lonely, agonising crawl down the mountain with a badly broken leg. Parallel to this are Simon's thoughts as he, too, makes the perilous descent and deals with the horror and guilt of letting Joe go. Simpson's writing is quite matter of fact, but if anything this heightens the unimaginable pain and fear underlying the story of how he makes it down alive. The fact that Simpson is writing the book suggests that Joe's survival is somehow inevitable - of course he makes it! - but this does not diminish the nearness of death that haunts this half of the book, as Joe faces dehydration, haemorrhaging, hallucinations, and the fear of being left to die alone at the age of 25.
Touching the Void is a sometimes harrowing read, sometimes amusing (a delirious Joe trying desperately to get a Boney M song out of his head), and does a good job of telling what is a difficult story to tell (Simpson acknowledges in the afterword the impossibility of capturing the sheer awfulness of the whole situation). The inclusion of Simon's view, and his decision to cut the rope, is interesting and adds another dimension, allowing the book to counter the criticism that Simon received on their return.
Touching the Void is a slow read, but worth taking your time over to let the implications of Joe's fall and subsequent descent sink in fully. For me, this and Into Thin Air are my mountaineering must-reads.
Overall rating: 8/10
Book source: Bought with a birthday giftcard from Waterstones, Birmingham.