Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Day 356 - Touching the Void

Touching the Void (2003) directed by Kevin Macdonald

I'm always fascinated by these survival stories where people go through great lengths to get themselves out of impossibly harrowing ordeals. It is a true test of human courage and the sheer will to live. Stories like the guy in 127 Hours where he cuts off his own arm to free himself from a rock are just incredible to me. Of course it makes me wonder why people even climb mountains, explore the wilderness, and run across deserts in the first place. I guess part of what makes us human is our curiosity, our sense of adventure or our desire to simply conquer the world.

In 1985, two British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates went to Peru to climb the treacherous west face of the Siula Grande. It had never been successfully climbed before and they were going to do it "Alpine style", climbing the mountain in one great push carrying all the gear with them. (Typically these climbs are pre-planned ahead of time with base camps set up along the way.) The climb to the top takes several grueling but uneventful days. The scenery is deadly but serenely beautiful and I can only imagine the feeling of standing on top of the world. But the tricky part is on the way down as 80% of all climbing accidents occur on the descent. I'm not giving anything away by saying something happens and that they live to tell about it because the real life Simpson and and Yates are interviewed recalling these events. But that doesn't make the film any less gripping and terrifying even though we know we are only watching a reenactment and that they survive.

The descent is hazardous and the worst possible thing happens; Joe lands awkwardly after slipping off a cliff face and breaks his leg, a virtual death sentence 20,000 feet high with no support. Recalling the incident Joe admits to being surprised that Simon stayed with him rather than going on ahead, decreasing his own chances of survival greatly. They devise a plan to attach two 150 foot ropes together to make one longer 300 foot rope where Simon would lower Joe down. The key moment of the film occurs when Simon inadvertently lowers Joe off the side of a cliff leaving him dangling in the air. Simon has no idea what is going on below him except that all of Joe's weight is on the rope. He is stuck holding his position unable to pull him up while Joe is stuck dangling in the air unable to get down or up. They are stuck in this position for quite a while when it becomes painfully clear that Simon will have to cut the rope or risk them both plummeting to their deaths once Simon's precarious position in the unstable snow gives way. But cutting the rope would mean almost certain death for Joe who may fall who knows how far below. It could be just 10 feet, it could be 5000. What a terrible decision Simon has to make but he makes the only logical one and one that Joe himself said he would make. He cuts the rope.

And this is where the story gets really dicey. Simon has no idea where Joe could have possibly landed when he cut the rope and can only assume the worst, that he's dead and goes on ahead alone. But as we all know, Joe is alive and well (sort of). Incredibly he falls relatively safely into a deep crevice. Unable to go back up and not content to just sit there and die, he gambles by going down even further into the crevice, into the unknown. Amazingly he manages to find a way out, but that is only the beginning of his ordeal. He still has thousands of feet to descend with a broken leg and limited supplies. This portion of the film is a testament to human courage and sheer will power. Of course we know he survives but the ordeal is so impossible we can hardly believe it is true. When Joe and Simon are finally reunited together, the emotional power of the moment is almost too much.

Touching the Void is an incredible story that is both terrifying and inspiring. It is also perhaps the best docudrama I've ever seen. I know the actors playing Joe and Simon are reenacting the scenes with the safety and supervision of stunt coordinators but I was genuinely scared for them. Shot on location in the Andes the scenery is breathtaking and daunting. In one scene we see Joe bravely crawl and hop his way twenty yards at a time when the camera dramatically zooms out revealing the entirety of the mountain and just how tiny we really are in the world. That Joe was able to survive is simply amazing.

Grade: A

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