Has there ever been a more aptly titled movie than Kevin Macdonald’s Touching The Void?
In just over an hour and a half the director takes you to the edge of human experience and has you gazing into the pitch black maw of oblivion.
Touching The Void is an icy figure of Death sat upon your chest, daring you to breathe.
The film is the true story of two mountain climbers suffering a harrowing accident while climbing an unclimbable peak—the West Face of the mountain Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes.
In 1985 Joe Simpson and Simon Yates succeeded in being the first people to ascend the perilous mountain, but it would be a success that came at a dear cost.
Kevin Macdonald is a talented Scottish documentarian who has also made The Last King Of Scotland, State of Play, and Black Sea.
Especially State of Play.
But nothing compares to Touching The Void.
Just thinking about that movie makes me short of breath and incapable of communicating in anything but short, staccato sentences.
Here’s the thing: Kevin Macdonald has a gift for making his telling of real life events far more gripping than any conjured narrative.
And nothing demonstrates that more than Touching The Void.
I’m not sure which is more harrowing: Actually climbing the fucking mountain, or watching Macdonald’s movie about it.
Because what happened to the two men on their fateful climb in 1985 is the stuff of mountaineering legend, and how Macdonald chooses to tell their story is a masterclass in immersion.
Terrifying, horrific immersion.
Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two experienced mountain climbers, approached the West Face of the Siula Grande with confidence and expansive reserves of technical prowess. They ascended to the peak, achieving what no human had ever achieved, and without serious incident. On their descent, however, they ran into deadly trouble, with Simpson losing his footing and sliding down a vertiginous ice cliff, landing badly and breaking his leg, still tethered onto Yates with a rope. Needing to think and descend fast due to worsening weather and dwindling supplies, they agreed that Yates should lower Simpson down a ridge with a fashioned-together double length of rope. But the deteriorating weather and negligible communication between the two meant that Yates accidentally lowered Simpson off a cliff, with neither eventually being able to see nor be aware of the other’s situation. Only the precariously dangling Simpson’s weight on the rope pulling on Yates further up the mountain linked the two men, with Simpson unable to climb back up on his own due to frostbite and Yates incapable of pulling Simpson up. Soon, night had fallen. Eventually, after an agonising stalemate against their condition and the encroaching weather, Yates had to make a decision. With all the weight of Simpson pulling on him and the snow threatening to unseat him and thus send both men plummeting to their lonely deaths, Yates cut the rope. Simpson, hanging there for dear life, suddenly found the rope that held him go slack, sending him into free fall in the darkness. He fell off the cliff and into the yawning mouth of a terrifying void as a deep, dark crevasse swallowed him whole. Yates took shelter over night and the next morning descended. On the way down he found the crevasse into which Simpson must have fallen. Calling out repeatedly and hearing no answer, Yates made the heart-rending assumption that his climbing partner must have been killed by the fall into the black abyss and so he continued on the descent back to base camp, alone. But Joe Simpson had not died. Somehow surviving the fall and landing on a small ledge, he realized after waking in the pit and seeing the cut rope what Yates must have done; that he was alone, abandoned and presumed dead, and there would be no salvation for him unless he himself delivered it. He would have to somehow make his way back to base camp, thousands of feet below, with a broken foot and no supplies, through the most hostile landscape imaginable.
I remember being sat in in the front row of the cinema watching Touching The Void when it was released in 2003, brought there by word of mouth.
The front row seemed like a good idea—all that leg room, and unlike in most front row scenarios—thanks to a relatively small screen—no strained neck.
Lord did I ever regret sitting in that seat.
That blissful leg room space became a sea of sinister darkness once the movie started; the yawning crevasse that Joe Simpson had fallen into seemingly stretching out of the screen and into the cinema, aiming to claim my legs.
The movie itself claimed my soul.
It remains to this day one of the most powerful cinematic experiences I’ve ever had.
Combining frank, at times painful-to-hear direct-to-camera testimonials from both Simpson and Yates with on-location re-enactments, Touching The Void is an exercise in brutal simplicity.
It provides an account of events that need no embellishments, and so it trades in none.
As clear and sharp as an icicle, it lets the men’s words mingle with the awe-inspiring natural scenery in order to tell a story that—despite its conclusion being not just known but the stuff of legend—is the very height of dramatic tension.
I feel like the movie left a shard of something inside me fourteen years ago, something that I’ve never quite been able to shake.
The creative decisions taken by Macdonald in its shooting—the honest and frank interviews with the two climbers, the dangerous looking re-enactments on the very peak that had almost claimed their lives, the complete lack of sensationalism—give Touching The Void an aura of authenticity that its larger-than-life story of survival demands.
When I left the cinema that evening in 2003 I shivered on the way home, and a chill still runs up my spine to this day when I think of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, lonely and forsaken on the snowy slopes of Siula Grande.
The Buddhists say that one of the great tragedies of our lives is purposefully pushing awareness of their innate fragility and impermanence away, out of mind.
To watch Touching The Void is to be brought face to face with the oh-so-thin line that divides this world from oblivion.
It is fucking intense.