Sunday, March 22, 2009

Touching the Void

Touching the Void posterTouching the Void (2003) tells the true story of two young British climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who attempted to reach the summit of the Siula Grande mountain in Peru in 1985. The film consists of a combination of narration by the actual climbers Joe and Simon, interspersed with a sequence of acted footage of the climb. It begins with the introduction of the two young climbers, in their mid-twenties, and their reckless eagerness to find new routes and unclimbed mountains. They have decided to climb the Western face of the 21 000 foot high Siula Grande, which has never been done. They recruit another British traveller, Richard Hawking, to help them with their climb and remain at the base camp they will set up below the mountain's glacier. Day one begins with Joe and Simon leaving Richard behind with the tent and supplies as they set off to climb first the glacier, then the treacherous Western face. They climb "Alpine Style", which is done in one push with rucksacks full of only the necessary supplies. The first stage is crossing the glacier, which is riddled with dangerous crevasses. The importance of trusting one's climbing partner becomes clear; Joe and Simon depend upon each other for their survival, tied together by ropes as they are by fate. Joe and Simon leave the glacier behind and start climbing the almost-vertical ice-wall of the face, using ice picks and crampons. As night falls, they make a snow cave where they will spend the night, using their gas stove to melt enough snow to keep them adequately hydrated.

Day two proves much more difficult. The altitude is exhausting and difficult and the temperatures are very cold indeed. They reach 20 000 feet, leaving the ice-walls, which are relatively easy to climb, for vertical cliffs of powdery snow, which are unstable and dangerous, causing small avalanches with every step. To the climbers' dismay, a storm arrives, blowing ice-cold powder all over them, coating them with a layer of ice. The climbing becomes very treacherous and slow, and it takes them 6 hours to climb 200 feet. They are suffering minor hypothermia by the time they dig a snow cave and settle in for the night, taking a long time to warm up. The next morning, day three, the weather is excellent. However, the powdery cliffs provide a dangerous challenge. By midday the men have reached the Northern Ridge, which they follow to the summit of Sulia Grande. Joe and Simon are triumphant and exhausted, but they know that the descent is what is dangerous, being responsible for 80% of climbing accidents. As they descend the ridge, a whiteout cloud covers them and limits their vision to the point that they get lost, wandering along what they think is the ridge until night falls. They dig a snow cave for the night. Since they had expected to finish the climb that day, the gas from their stove runs out and they are unable to melt snow for drinking. Day four is the day where disaster strikes. Joe Simpson stands on a cornice which is unstable and it collapses beneath his weight, causing him to fall and break his leg, pushing his lower leg up through his knee joint. Joe thinks, "If I've broken my leg, I'm dead". Simon, instead of abandoning Joe as Joe expects, stays with him and helps him to descend, lowering him down metre by metre and holding him from a solid foothold. A storm rages around them, and they are both freezing cold, exhausted, and dehydrated. The climbers continue descending the almost-vertical snow cliff metre by metre. Suddenly Joe, who is hanging from Simon's rope, falls over an overhang and is suddenly hanging 150 feet in the air, suspended only by rope. He yells for Simon, but the storm makes hearing impossible. Simon is bewildered by the sudden weight on the rope, and tries to jerk the rope to communicate with Joe, but Joe cannot respond because he is hanging in such a precarious position. Simon tries to hold Joe up for two hours, when he becomes so exhausted that he is unable to hold his position and begins to slide from his foothold, the powdery snow giving way under him. When Simon approaches the overhang, he realizes what has happened and that he must cut Joe loose to save himself from falling over the cliff. He takes his penknife and cuts the rope, letting Joe fall into the abyss below him. He then digs a snow cave to spend the night, tormented by thoughts of what he has done to his friend.

Joe has not died, however. He has fallen into a crevasse in the glacier, where a 3 foot ledge has saved him from falling into its deathly bottom. Joe has concluded that Simon has died and has fallen from the cliff, but when he tugs on the rope it comes down with the severed end. In an excruciating amount of pain, Joe realizes that he is to die in the crevasse in the pitch dark. He cries and screams all night, enraged that he will die so young. The next morning, on the fifth day, Simon lowers himself to where Joe has fallen but sees only a crevasse and presumes that Joe is dead. Dehydrated and severely frost-bitten, Simon stumbles down the glacier to the base camp, where Richard is waiting for him. Joe is desperately seeking a way to escape the dark crevasse where he is trapped. It seems the only way to go is down, and he lowers himself with ropes and clips to the bottom, where he drags himself along the crevasse's floor to where he can see a hole far above him with sunlight pouring through: his way out! The following brutally painful climb up an ice wall takes several hours in which Joe almost faints from the pain in his leg with every step. However, he finally reaches the top and climbs out of the snowy hole, free from the crevasse. Before him, however, is the near-impossible task of crossing the treacherous glacier and climbing the many kilometers down to base camp. Initially, Joe can use Simon's tracks to see where to go, but a windstorm fills them in until Joe must navigate around the crevasses on his own. Night passes, with Joe freezing, exposed, on the glacier, and Simon and Richard in the tent, waiting for Simon's health to return so that they can leave. The next morning is day six, which consists of Joe's excruciating and slow descent of the glacier. Joe is near death, highly dehydrated, out of food, and severely frostbitten. Each step takes all his will and energy to take. He reaches a surreal plane where he has hallucinations and feels himself the victim of the evil mountains surrounding him.

On day seven, Joe is convinced that he will die, but he is desperate not to die alone and drags himself towards the camp, hoping that Simon and Richard have not left. In reality, the two have burned Joe's clothes as a symbolic "goodbye" gesture and are preparing to leave in the morning. Around midday, Joe finds water, which saves his life and re-fuels his body. He drinks litres and litres of it, vomiting, urinating, at the edge of his humanness. He continues down the mountain until nightfall, when he reaches a rocky spot where he chooses to die, overcome by exhaustion and confusion caused by starvation and trauma. It begins to snow, and Joe is ready to die. Suddenly, a strange smell alerts Joe that he is in the latrine area of the base camp! He begins to scream "SIMON!" repeatedly until Simon and Richard hear him and come to find him, unable to believe that he is alive. Joe is saved. The film ends with a written statement telling the viewer that Joe lost one third of his bodyweight in the ordeal, and that it took two years and six operations until he could climb again. Apparently Simon received a great deal of criticism for his actions on the mountain, but Joe continues to defend him. No one has ever successfully repeated Simon and Joe's climb to the summit of Siula Grande.

The Peruvian Andes in the film are portrayed in all their white jagged grandeur. Their grandeur is a malignant, threatening one. They are volatile and treacherous, with sudden storms and avalaches endangering the climbers with every step. The vast hostility of Siula Grande commands the climbers to stay away, that any attempt to conquer the mountain will result in certain death. But the climbers, with their disregard for the power of nature, are eager to have victory over the mountain. In the end, Siula Grande wins; although Joe and Simon have summited the peak, they have done so at an astronomical cost, the cost of losing their humanness and their trust in eachother. These European and North American men who think that they can conquer the world risk their lives to beat nature, unlike the South Americans, who respect and fear nature. In the end, the Andes will break any men who try to beat them, remaining hostile, proud, and omnipotent.