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Worth reading as well as watching
on December 21, 2004
A few weeks back, in search of something good to watch at the video store, I picked up Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void documentary from the shelf. As I was skeptically reading the back of the DVD case, the fellow standing next to me said that it was a "really good movie." I took him on his word and later disovered a movie that I have since been raving about to all who will listen. It is a riveting story in which an injured climber is left for dead on a Peruvian mountain and manages to crawl his way off. It sounds like fiction, but, as is often the case, this true story is incredible beyond what a writer could believable construct. So, when I found out that Joe Simpson (the climber left on the mountain) had written a book, Touching the Void about his harrowing adventure, I knew I needed to read it.
The movie and the DVD extras take the viewer on an emotional path where one at first dislikes the arrongant and impetuous Simpson, while his climbing pal Simon Yates seems more sympathetic. However, as the movie continues and especially if you watch the Return to Siula Grande DVD extra, it becomes hard not to empathize with Simpson's reaction to returning to the place where he had faced so much trauma and to, in contrast, find Yates cold and unfeeling, as if the experience they shared so many years before no longer affected him personally. The end of the movie leaves one with the impression that Simpson, although understanding at what Yates did, does not really like Yates and does certainly not consider him a friend.
The book, written several years earlier, certainly leaves a more positive impression of Yates. While Simpson admits to having written the book in part to clear Yates's name in the climbing communitry, his storytelling takes the reader beyond a defense of Yates's actions. In fact, Simpson's description of Yates's attempt to lower the injured Simpson down the mountain portrays an act that is nothing short of heroic. It is clear that his cutting the rope was a last, desperate resort to end a situation in which there was no way out.
While the book and the movie both tell very closely the same story, reading the book and seeing the movie is neither a redundant experience nor an exercise in detecting differences in the two plots. In fact, the one enriches the story in the other. The maps and the first-person telling in the book complement the documentary-style script and the sweeping vistas caught on film.