Nicholas Aaron (as Simon Yates) crawling across the moraine in Touching the Void
The opening scenes pan over the Peruvian Andes and its immediately clear that the mountains, in all their menace and beauty, will do for this film what the sea did for Jaws. The ice-capped peaks are so dangerously alluring that we almost almost understand why the subjects of this dramatized documentary, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, felt so compelled to reach them. But watching them hack their ice picks into the slick, sheer façade of the Siula Grande 20,000 feet above their basecamp, its obvious they are insane.
Or at least drunk with bravado. Which is why its not until tragedy descends that we are able to really start caring about this expedition beyond its aesthetics. At first, Joe and Simon are foreign creatures, doing something that no one else has ever done and no one in his right mind would ever do. Theyre interesting only in the way of a Discovery Channel program about bears or tigers fascinating to watch for awhile but we dont exactly relate. Until Joe, the more hardheaded of the two (and the films writer), loses one crucial step. Suddenly the men are not just human; they are the incarnation of humanitys deepest, darkest dilemmas.
Tied together by a rope, they are entirely dependent on each other for survival. But there are inevitable limits to their trust even in good conditions. Joe recalls thinking to himself at moments throughout the climb, For gods sake Simon, dont fall here.
It is at one of those fearsome moments that Joe, himself, falls. The two men have already summited it took them three days and they are on their way down when a blizzard hits and Joe slips and breaks his leg. So begins our journey into the mind in desperate survival mode.
The ever-gentle Simon, partially wishing that his mate would just fall off the mountain so he could avoid the life-threatening burden of getting an injured partner down from the top of the icy monster, devises a plan. He uses a rope to lower Joe 300 feet at a time (as Joe shouts in bitter, bone-chilling agony and blizzard rips between them); then Joe anchors himself so Simon can join him and repeats the sequence. It works, until Simon accidentally lowers Joe off a cliff, where he dangles above a deep crevasse. The two cant see, hear, or locate each other, and soon Joes dead weight begins pulling Simon off the mountain. So Simon cuts the rope.
This moment defines both the film and their lives from that point. (Its kosher to reveal that both men survive; after all, they narrate the story 15 years after their ordeal from a London flat as actors and cameramen recreate it for us.) Simons belief that he has sent Joe tumbling to his death haunts him through his journey down the mountain; Joes feeling of abandonment, even though he says he would have done the same, plagues him as much as the dehydration, the -70ºF wind chill, and the driving pain and hemorrhaging inside his leg.
Joes loneliness, his certitude that he will die, combined with his physical deterioration after escaping the depths of a crevasse and hauling his broken body over glacier and rock for four days, redefines despair. Add to that the anxiety of Simons choice to, literally, cut Joe loose, and mix in the knowledge that they will soon have to face each other again. The film is no longer just a breathtaking panorama of natural wonders, but a riveting close-up of the moral obligations between men and their paradoxical relationship with nature.
Today the men are self-possessed and articulate in their retelling, though shockingly candid. They reveal all the sordidness of their thoughts on the mountain, but still are able to support and forgive each other in the storys telling. They also manage to find language that complements the beauty and detail of the films images: they describe the seduction of the meringues and mushrooms of snow atop the Siula Grande that drives them to its peak and that feeling of being held after four days of near-death solitude. They have experienced something utterly foreign but still manage to draw from us not only curiosity from a distance, but empathy up close and personal.