Photo Of The Day

Joe Simpson - Photo: Film Four / Channel Four / Darlon Smithson Productions / UK Film Council.Photo from the multi-award winning mountain drama "Touching the Void (Touching the Void)" shows the struggle for survival of two climbers in the Andes.

Joe Simpson – Photo: Film Four / Channel Four / Darlon Smithson Productions / UK Film Council.Photo from the multi-award winning mountain drama “Touching the Void shows the struggle for survival of two climbers in the Andes.

Touching the Void

It’s hard to debate the badassitude of any hobby that can potentially get you killed, and mountaineering is no exception.  I mean, these climbers go out and push their bodies to the limit to the extreme gonzo balls out, risking life and limb for no good reason except to prove how hardcore they are and to feel the rush of adrenaline that can only come from hanging off the side of a mountain 25,000 feet above the ground with nothing but your grip strength and a bungee cord between you and an incredibly painful death.

Probably the most extreme/insane mountaineers are those who specialize in ice climbing, which is to mountaineering what sword-swallowing is to fencing.

Ice climbing is pretty much where you try to scale a giant sheet of solid ice with nothing but a warm jacket, a Viking-style battle axe and some rope.  I can safely say that I find some dumbass way injure myself trying to operate the ice machine in my freezer at least once a week, so I can only assume that I would last about two seconds as an amateur ice climber.

The good news is that I don’t think I have the arm strength to get myself more than about one foot off the ground, so I’d probably just end up breaking an arm or something else as I plummeted back to Earth, but some of these nuts can just race up a slippery ice-slicked cliff face like they were some combination of an elevator and the Abominable Snowman.

In 1985 Joe Simpson, then 24 and his buddy Simon Yates, then 21, decided to travel to the Andes and climb to the top of Siula Grande using a path that had never successfully been completed, just to prove that they had balls the size of small automobiles.

They chose to ascend the West face of the mountain, which was almost completely vertical and absolutely covered in nothing but a sheer layer of ice, loose dirt, flat rock, motorcycle grease, melted butter and used cooking oil.

It was 6,350 meters to the summit, which means very little to me but it’s safe to say it was really, really high up, and nobody had ever completed the climb before. Well Yates and Simpson just grabbed their crotches in a threatening manner (experienced climbers do this to try and intimidate the mountain they are about to ascend), threw on their climbing gear and hacked their way up the side of the previously unconquerable mountain face.

They reached the summit after an arduous trek, and gave each other a jumping high-five at the peak to symbolize how incredible they were.  Then they immediately started their journey 3,000 feet back to their base camp where they could chill out and drink some coffee.

Unfortunately, before they got very far the ground gave out underneath Simpson and he busted his bottom like a bad skateboarder. When he smashed into the ground, his tibia bone splintered like a toothpick and shards cracked up into his kneecap, stuffing it up royally.

He could barely move his leg or stand, and they still had a long ways to go back to camp. So Yates took two cords of 150-foot rope, lashed them together, tied one end around his waist, and used the other end around Simpson. For the next several hundred feet, Yates slowly lowered Simpson down the mountain and together they made their way back to safety.

But then just as you thought things couldn’t get any worse for our intrepid heroes, a huge blizzard swept in and started kicking up snow like a drunken ski patrol snowmobile party. In the whipping wind and unrelenting snow, Yates unknowingly lowered Simpson off the side of a huge cliff, and before they realized what was going on Joe Simpson found himself dangling 100 feet above the ground suspended only by a thin rope being held by his buddy. Yates finally discovered what had happened and tried to yell down to Joe, but the unrelenting winds made communication impossible.

High in the Peruvian Andes, a blizzard raging around them, the two men were fighting the longest of odds for their lives. Simpson had shattered his right leg in a fall near the summit of the Siula Grande Mountain, leaving Simon Yates, with the almost impossible task of getting himself and his crippled climbing partner off the mountain alive.

For hours he had been lowering the pain-wracked Simpson 300 feet at a time. Then, just as they were daring to hope, Simpson began slipping faster and faster, his body tobogganing with gathering speed through the deep snow. He tried to brake himself, but his ice axe refused to bite. He kicked his left boot into the snow, but the loose powder would not hold. Suddenly, Simpson swung out into space. The rope jerked hard, and he found himself spinning in the air, over a crevasse that was hundreds of feet deep.

Some 100 feet above, Yates felt the nylon rope suddenly yank taut and knew Simpson had gone over a vertical drop. He strained for the sound of Simpson’s voice through the howling winds that had hit them shortly after completing the first-ever ascent of Siula Grande’s West Face the previous afternoon.

Frostbitten and exhausted, Yates waited helplessly for an hour, knowing that any movement might send them both tumbling to their deaths. Suddenly, the snowseat Yates had dug into the mountain began to give. Instinctively, he reached for the Swiss Army knife in the pocket of his backpack. “There was no other option left to me,” he later told Simpson. “The taut rope exploded at the touch of the blade, and I flew backwards into the seat as the pulling strain vanished. I was shaking.”

Despite falling one hundred feet and landing flat on his back, Joe Simpson somehow managed to not die. He looked around at his surroundings and discovered he was alone, freezing, horribly injured, and trapped in an increasingly deadly situation.

After trying to climb out and then spending a long night on the ledge, Simpson decides his only option is to rappel deeper into the crevasse. “I pretty much thought it was a form of suicide, I didn’t have the courage simply to jump off. I didn’t put a knot in the end of the rope—it would be quick that way.”

At this point two things are running through his head – his unrelenting survival instinct and the song “Brown Girl in the Ring” by 1970s pop/disco super group Boney M. Joe closed his eyes and told himself, “there’s no way I’m going today with this crappy disco song stuck in my head”. He pulled himself up onto his one good foot and started moving.

Certain he had sent his friend plunging to his death; Yates continued down the mountain and finally made it to base camp six miles away. Miraculously, Simpson himself arrived there three days later. By cutting the rope, Yates had saved his partner’s life; Simpson fell onto a shelf of soft snow and then managed to limp, hop, and crawl to safety. “By cutting the rope he got me down the mountain,” says Simpson. “I wonder how many climbers would have the balls to do the same thing—I’m not sure I would.”

But though Simpson knows, rationally, that cutting the rope was Yates’s only choice, emotionally it was horrifying on that bitter night of June 8, 1985. He pulled in his rope and saw the splayed pink and white nylon filaments. “Cut! I couldn’t take my eyes from it, I turned off the torch and sobbed quietly in the dark, feeling overwhelmed.”

Simpson took heart, however, from the good luck of his landing on a narrow shelf in the crevasse. “Five feet to the right, I would have gone rattling down that hole,” he said. Instead, Simpson was able to climb up the side of the snowy cavern the next morning. For the next 60 hours, Simpson somehow dragged himself six miles to base camp, following his partner’s footsteps. “The flares of agony never diminished, but I stopped screaming when I found that it made no difference.”

Nearly dead from dehydration and starvation, Simpson (who lost 42 lbs. over three days) pulled himself into camp just hours before Yates was preparing to leave. Lying on the ground in the dark, he managed to bleat out Yates’s name. His partner rushed from the tent, wide-eyed and disbelieving. For three days, Yates nursed his friend. “And at every gesture, a touch on the arm, a look, they shared “an intimacy we would never have dared show before and never would again.”

But the ordeal was far from over. After a painful three-day trip by donkey and flatbed truck to Lima, Simpson had his mangled right leg operated on by less than state-of-the-art orthopaedists. Back in England, Simpson underwent numerous surgical operations as a result of the leg injuries sustained on Siula Grande. The doctors told him he would never climb again and he would have trouble walking for the rest of his life. After 2 years of rehabilitation, he was back on the mountains.

Simpson and Yates remain good friends, and both men continue to climb. “It’s a little like falling off a horse,” says Simpson. “I had a bit of difficulty getting out again because I was scared of hurting myself.” But danger is part of the thrill of climbing. “It’s a life-enhancing thing to do,” says Simpson, “because it makes you aware of how important it is to be alive.”

LESSONS: Looking back, Simpson concludes that decisions they made before the climb contributed to his fate. Though they were trying to go light, they should have packed extra food and stove fuel, he says. “The lack of gas and food meant that when we reached the col after breaking my leg, we couldn’t hunker down in a snow cave in warm sleeping bags, drinking hot tea,” he explains. “For the sake of a few gas canisters, we lost control of events and felt forced to descend in the dark. The rest is history.” The other lesson from this episode is perhaps obvious but deserves to be stated: Humans can endure far more than what anyone might think possible, as long as they don’t give up.

Touching the Void

No Ordinary Joe


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