Early on in Touching the Void, Joe Simpson explains a basic principle of Alpine Style mountain climbing: "At some point, you're going to have to rely, wholly, on your partner." On that point turns Simpson's dramatic story, which became a lauded bestseller and now a documentary feature by Kevin Macdonald (2000's Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September). In 1985, Simpson's climbing partner Simon Yates, in a no-win moment of desperation, did what no climber should do: cut the rope of his partner. The moment of truth for Simpson and Yates—as they descended the 21,000-foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes—has been endlessly scrutinized by climbing experts and emphasized in the film's publicity. In fact, the film's most dramatic moments follow, as Simpson touches the void which is the mountain and his own mortality.
Macdonald tells the story with two distinct elements: new talking-head interviews with Simpson, Yates, and Richard Hawking (who alone manned the base camp) and recreations with twenty-something actors playing the trio in 1985. Macdonald lays much of Simpson's commentary over the performance of his screen counterpart Brendan Mackey. Interviews and recreations always make awkward bedfellows, but these recreations are all the more unnerving for being executed so fully. Macdonald collected authentic footage of Siula Grande, then filmed Mackey, and Nicholas Aaron as Yates, going through various climbing paces in the Alps. Some of the actors' recreations fail to match the intensity of what Simpson and Yates describe (perhaps because they speak, conversely, so calmly), but Mike Eley's marvelous photography and Justine Wright's clever editing build a sense of place and time, and create the substantive illusion that you are there.
Stories of frostbitten peril and endurance are eternal, and at first, Touching the Void smells like a typical "because it's there" climbing tale, suffused with little more than hubris and dread and the mocking beauty of sheer faces and snow powder rolling in the wind. Many will already be familiar with this story, but the initial appearances of Simpson and Yates make clear that this is a story of survival; foreboding comments, like Simpson's that "80% of accidents happen on descent" put the tension on how the story will unfold, especially when the odds seem impossibly out of Simpson's favor.
When Simpson and Yates become separated, a broken-legged Simpson faces those odds and has to make a series of choices, both of strategy and his own will to live. Simpson faces low point after low point, trapped in a deep crevasse and repeatedly facing the realization that he's a dead man crawling (over a week, Simpson weathered severe dehydration, hypothermia, and lost a third of his body weight).
Simpson tells the camera, at the outset, the appeal of climbing: "What's so compelling is stepping into that unknown." Simpson refers, of course, to delicate footholds and virgin peaks, but he also refers to his own existential journey into himself. The film's greatest strength is its refusal to submerge into nobility. Both climbers honestly confess to their horrid, morbid thoughts as circumstances turned for the worst. Yates recalls wondering which man would make it back alive, and his secret desire that Simpson would make it easy on him and succumb. Simpson recounts his experience of finally knowing, without doubt, how he would face death: godlessly. Even then, life goes on.