Photo: Touching The Void
In 1985, two young British climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, became the first to ascend the west face of Siula Grande, a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes.What happened next has become the stuff of mountaineering legend.
The saga of the five days that followed is one of the most remarkable and inspiring survival stories ever. It’s also an extraordinary example of self-reliance, decision-making under extreme duress, and force of will.
One of the climbers, Joe Simpson, wrote a book about the experience called “Touching The Void.” In 2003, the story was made into a docu-drama directed by Kevin Macdonald. The movie was narrated by Simpson and Yates, with actors re-enacting the events in Peru and the Alps.
Both the book and movie are extraordinary.
DAY ONE: The route to the mountain passed a glacial lake, followed by a long hike up a valley and the glacier itself.
The western face of Siula Grande had never been successfully climbed. It had been attempted, however, which was part of the appeal.
Climbing at high altitude leads to severe dehydration, so the climbers had to melt snow for water. They were carrying a very limited amount of food and fuel.
It's hard to convey how tiring it is to climb vertical ice, snow, and rock, even at sea level. At 18,000-20,000 feet, it's torturous. Your heart races, and you gasp for breath.
Deep powder snow clung to extremely steep slopes. They had to fight their way upward, with nothing to hang onto.
Darkness had fallen, and the wind chill was brutal, so they dug another snow cave and again slept on the face.
DAY THREE: In the morning, the weather cleared, and they saw what had been giving them such trouble.
And, upon reaching it, became the first climbers to successfully scale the west face of Siula Grande.
Behind schedule, low on food and fuel, they headed down quickly, knowing that most climbing accidents happen on the descent.
The conditions were so treacherous that, at one point, Yates fell through a cornice and off the ridge. The rope stopped his fall, and he struggled back to the ridge.
Then Simpson reached a section of the ridge that dropped off sharply. He turned around to descend it, using his ice axes for holds.
Simpson fell, landing with his right leg fully extended. The impact drove his lower leg bone through his knee joint, shattering his knee.
When the first shock of pain had subsided, he tried to stand on the leg, hoping he had just torn ligaments. He heard the bones grind and collapsed in pain.
Yates gave Simpson some pain killers. Simpson assumed that Yates would then leave him. They were out of food and fuel. They couldn't stay where they were. No help could reach them. And Simpson couldn't move. So, what else could Yates do?
To Simpson's surprise, Yates did not leave. Rather, he started to dig a seat in the snow. Then he sat in it and set about lowering Simpson down the ~3,000-foot face.
The climbers only had two 150-foot ropes. They tied them together. Simpson lay on his belly. Yates sat above him and let out the rope. Simpson began sliding down the face on his belly.
Simpson was lowered feet first. Fast. Every time his shattered leg hit the snow, he felt a shock of excruciating pain.
When Simpson had descended the 150 feet of the first rope, Yates tugged the rope. Simpson set his ice axes and took his weight off the rope. Yates unhooked the rope and moved the knot through his belay plate. Then he lowered Simpson another 150 feet on the second rope.
When they reached the end of the second rope, Simpson set himself and Yates started climbing down. Then Simpson stood on his good leg and began digging another snow seat. When Yates reached him, they repeated the lowering process again. And again. And again...
Remarkably, the climbers repeated the lowering process successfully around 10 times. They were nearing the bottom of the face when, once again, something went wrong.
On his belly, sliding fast, Simpson felt the snow turn to ice beneath his elbows. The steepness of the slope increased, and he began to accelerate. realising what was happening, he screamed at Yates to stop the rope. The wind was so strong that Yates couldn't hear him.
When the end of the first rope reached Yates's belay plate, Simpson found himself hanging in mid-air, about 80 feet above the glacier at the bottom of the face.
Simpson pulled himself to a sitting position and tried to reach the face of the cliff with his ice-axe. It was too far to reach.
Simpson yelled up to Yates, who had no idea what had happened. The storm was raging, and Yates couldn't hear him.
Yates tugged on the rope--the signal for Simpson to take his weight off of it so Yates could move the knot through the belay plate. Simpson, hanging in mid-air, couldn't take his weight off. Still unaware of what had happened, Yates just hung on.
150 feet below, hanging in mid-air, Simpson realised that the only chance he had was to find a way to climb up the rope to the top of the cliff.
He took his gloves off and tried to use his frozen hands to tie knots in small pieces of rope that might allow him to ascend the main rope.
He got the first ascender knot tied, and then went to work on the other one. In the freezing wind, his hands were like clubs.
A hundred and 50 feet up, Yates' position was becoming increasingly desperate. He was exhausted and freezing. And his snow seat had gradually begun to collapse. Yates could feel it giving way beneath him.
Yates held on for an hour and a half. He still had no idea what had happened. He couldn't understand why Simpson hadn't taken his weight off the rope. All he knew was that he couldn't hold on much longer.
Yates' seat continued to crumble. He knew it was only a matter of time before it gave way and he came off.
Then he remembered that he had a pen-knife in the top of his pack. He made the decision instantly. He shifted the rope to one hand and used the other to fumble for the knife.
Up the mountain, still clinging to the face, Yates dug himself a snow cave. He crawled into his sleeping bag and spent an awful night in the hole, sure that his friend and partner was dead.
And discovered that he was lying on a thin ice ledge about 80-feet deep in the crevasse. He wasn't at the bottom of the crevasse. He was on a ledge. If he had fallen a couple of feet to the right or left, he would have plunged to his death.
Then he began hauling in the rope, which extended upwards to a hole in the snow about 80 feet above him. He assumed Yates had fallen off the mountain and landed beyond the crevasse on the glacier. So he expected to feel the rope become taut as the slack disappeared and he pulled against Yates' body. But it didn't.
He tried to climb out of the crevasse, but the only route out was 80 feet of vertical ice. He couldn't have done it with two good legs, let alone one.
DAY FIVE: In the morning, Simon Yates emerged from his snow hole, and rappelled down the last part of the face. As he descended, he passed the cliff that Simpson had fallen over, and he finally understood what had happened. He also saw the enormous crevasse at the base of the cliff and became certain that Simpson was dead.
Weeks later, back in Britain, Yates would be heavily criticised by the mountaineering community for cutting the rope on his partner. Both Simpson and Yates, however, agree that Yates had no other choice. One mistake that Yates did make was not spending more time the next morning yelling into the crevasse to make sure that Simpson was dead. In Yates' defence, he was desperately exhausted, starved, and dehydrated, and he had no doubt that his friend was dead. Devastated, he headed back down the glacier, alone.
Deep in the crevasse, Simpson woke up covered with new snow. Perversely, discovering that the rope had been cut had given him hope: It meant that Yates had not fallen off the mountain and, therefore, might be able to rescue him. For several hours, clinging to the ledge, he yelled for help. By 10am, he knew it wasn't coming.
Simpson couldn't go up--there was no scaling a wall of vertical ice with only one leg. With no food or water or any expectation of help, he also couldn't stay where he was. So, gradually, he realised that there was only one thing he could do. It meant almost certain death. But almost-certain death was better than the alternative.
He hadn't tied a knot at the end of the rope. (Why bother? If he came to the end of it without hitting anything, he was dead.)
Then, early that afternoon, he poked his head through the hole and hauled himself out into the sun, feeling reborn.
The sun felt wonderful, and he lay in it and soaked it up. But then he realised that his predicament was almost as dire as before.
He had been climbing for five days. He had no food or water. His right leg was shattered. And he was five miles from help.
The distance seemed impossibly long. But he saw Yates' footprints leading away down the glacier. So he picked a point a couple of hundred yards away from where he sat. And he gave himself 20 minutes to reach it...
For the rest of the day he crawled and pushed. When he reached one short-term goal, he picked another in the distance, and gave himself a certain amount of time to reach it.
If he made the goal in time, he felt a wash of accomplishment and hope. If he didn't, he plunged into despair.
He crawled late into the night, despite the risk of falling into a crevasse. Then, eventually, in yet another snowstorm, he stopped to sleep for a while.
Base camp was still inconceivably far away. So he kept picking points he could see and giving himself specific amounts of time to reach them.
By the middle of the day, starved and dehydrated and exhausted to the point of hallucination, Simpson reached the end of the snow and ice.
He could no longer slide himself, so he had to hop. One step forward, then a shock of pain and a collapse onto the rocks.
And then, when the pain subsided, the gathering of resolve to struggle back to his feet and do it again.
Late in the afternoon, he finally found running water--a thin stream running down over the rocks. He pressed his face into the rocks...
He moved until he couldn't move anymore. Then he lay back and looked at the stars, drifting in and out of consciousness. For the first time in a week, the night was clear, and he didn't wake up covered with snow.
DAY SEVEN: The next morning, back at base camp, Simon Yates burned Simpson's clothes. It was a way of saying goodbye.
A friend at base camp urged Yates to leave that day, to put the nightmare behind him. Yates refused. He just wasn't ready to leave. They would wait one more day and then begin the two-day trek back to civilisation in the morning.
A couple of miles away, Simpson awoke in the heat of the sun. The warmth felt wonderful, and he had little strength left with which to move on. It still seemed inconceivable that he could make it all the way to the tents. He also knew that the tents, and help, might no longer be there even if he reached them. But he staggered to his feet and began to move on.
Increasingly, as he realised that he might actually be able to make it back to base camp, he became haunted by the idea that Yates had already gone.
But he kept moving. And, by late afternoon of the seventh day, the more than three days after the accident, he finally reached the glacial lake.
He knew that if he reached the end of the glacial lake by dusk he would be able to look down the rest of the valley and see the tents. So he picked up the pace and moved as fast as he could.
He reached the end of the lake by dusk. But the weather had deteriorated again. And the valley was filled with fog and clouds.
He kept crawling through the darkness. By now, he was so drained that he kept blacking out, coming to, and and drifting in and out of consciousness. When his head cleared enough for him to be conscious of where he was, he crawled forward again.
Sometime through the night, it began to snow again. A song he hated entered his head and played over and over again. When he was aware enough to think, he thought that he was going to die to a song he hated. And he kept on crawling.
A hundred yards away, asleep in the tent, Yates heard what sounded like an animal wailing. He listened hard, and there it was again. To his utter shock and disbelief, he realised that there was only one thing it could be.
After searching through the rocks, five miles and four days from where he had last seen him, he found the partner he had left for dead.
Simpson was in absolutely awful shape, having lost a third of his body weight. Yates helped him to the tent.
The first thing Simpson did when they reached the tent was to thank Yates for helping him down the mountain.
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