Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What if? The Story Of Joe Simpson And Simon Yates

West Face of Siula Grande -- Photo by J. Bryndell

A lot of great ideas for memorable stories start with “what if?” What if a young farm boy is destined to save the galaxy and his job is to kill his enemy, who happens to be his father? What if a robot is sent from the future to kill the mother of a future resistance leader? What if a couple of climbing buddies have an accident and one of them has to make the decision – cut the rope and save himself or stay with his friend and they both perish? They’re all interesting premises for stories, right? But what if I tell you the latter happened in real life? What would you do if you had to make this choice? 
Touching the Void is Joe Simpson’s account of the ordeal he and Simon Yates endured in 1985. Determined to be the first team ever to summit the west face of Siula Grande, a mountain in Peru, Simpson and Yates set out on an adventure that ultimately changed their lives. After summiting successfully, they descended via the north ridge, and that’s when the trouble began. Simpson slipped down an ice cliff and broke his tibia and knee joint. As their expedition had taken longer than expected due to bad weather in the days prior, they were dangerously close to running out of fuel for their stove, which meant they couldn’t melt ice to water, a necessity for keeping hydrated at high altitude.
Dark skies announced another bout of stormy weather and daylight started to fade, along with their hopes of surviving another night on the mountain. They needed to descend 3,000 feet to a glacier below, but Simpson’s injuries made it a very difficult, and dangerous, task. The quickest way was for Yates to belay Simpson down, so they decided to tie two 150 feet ropes together. When the knot on the rope refused to feed through the belay plate, their problems increased ten-fold. Darkness surrounded the men, and the increasing winds whipped up ice particles, obscuring their vision. Yates found a way to continue lowering Simpson, but it took a while before they realised Simpson was dangling over a massive cliff face. Simpson tried to work his way back up the rope but because of badly frost-bitten hands, he couldn’t tie the knots needed to successfully ascend. During his attempts, Simpson accidentally dropped one of the cords needed to get back up the rope.

With stormy conditions, his climbing partner hanging over a cliff, and equipment not working properly, Yates had a myriad of obstacles to overcome. The pair remained in the same position for some time, but snow gathered around Yates’s belay, and it became obvious his strength and equipment were about to give out. Yates had to make a decision – cut the rope and save himself, or stay tied to Simpson and both of them be pulled to their deaths.

Yates cut the rope.

Simpson plummeted in the dark and landed in a deep crevasse. Yates dug a snow cave, survived the stormy night, and descended the mountain the following morning. He found the crevasse Simpson had fallen into, called out numerous times for his friend, but didn’t receive a reply. Assuming Simpson had died, Yates continued on to base camp.

Unbeknownst to Yates, Simpson had very much survived. He’d landed on a small ledge 150 feet down in the crevasse but had lost consciousness, which is why he hadn’t heard Yates. After he’d come to, he realised Yates would have presumed him dead and moved on. The only way for him to make it out alive was to abseil to a thin ice roof further down the crevasse and traverse along the glacier. The five mile journey took three days and without food and virtually no water, Simpson crawled and hopped to base camp. He reached camp a few hours before Yates had intended to leave for civilisation.

In Touching The Void, Simpson takes the reader a traumatic journey that blows the mind of most people, including climbers. His captivating writing helps us understand his emotional and physical challenges and why he doesn’t blame Simon Yates for cutting the rope. Simpson has said in many interviews that had he been in Yates’s position, he would have done exactly the same.

During many of my own climbing expeditions, someone has inevitably brought up the, “What if you had to cut the rope?” question. The debate would rage on for hours with some fellow climbers saying they had no qualms about slicing the rope if they had to. Hearing this the night before I was due to rope up and climb a mountain with them left me a little nervous, to say the least.

When I first stepped into the world of mountaineering, I learnt very quickly that this sport is undertaken by nature lovers, risk-takers, and people with wills of steel. Spending weeks, and sometimes months, in the wilderness with a small band of people creates a camaraderie I’ve not experienced in any other situation. The friendships that are made are deep, in the moment, and will continue on long after the climbing gear is packed away. With the elements working against us a lot of the time, there’s nothing to do but rely on a fellow climber and at times, put your life in their hands. Even now, after numerous expeditions, I find it extremely difficult to imagine what Joe Simpson and Simon Yates went through.

Since Touching The Void, Joe Simpson has written the sequel, This Game of Ghost. In Ghosts, Simpson bares his soul and tries to analyse what pushes himself, and others, to the limits, and why he takes the risks he does. Simpson has a tendency to get into all sorts of strife while climbing, and he’s had many more close calls since his fateful trip in Peru, but none of this has slowed him down and lucky for us, he documents his adventures beautifully in fascinating books. His other titles include The Beckoning of Silence, Dark Shadows Falling, and Storms of Silence. They all follow Simpson’s amazing life and delve into his deepest thoughts and emotions. Reading about Simpson’s adventures makes one wonder at how resilient the human spirit is.

You don’t need to be a mountaineer or to have camped in a tent to be enchanted by Joe Simpson and his stories. I can guarantee once you’ve read Touching The Void, you’ll be hunting down more of his books. Who knows, you may be inspired to undertake your own adventure. His books are addictive, and the ease with which he weaves a story will leave you emotionally exhausted and playing your own game of what if

I have to ask. If you had to make a choice between saving your friend and living, or both of you perishing, what would you do?


  1. This is an amazing story, Alli. You've hooked me into wanting to read these books. Do you know how Simpson and Yates got on after their ordeal? Did they remain friends? Did they ever go climbing together again?

  2. I can't imagine having to make a decision like that. Very interesting post.

  3. Thanks, Barrie! It would be such a tough decision - no matter which way you choose, someone's going to suffer.

    Heidi, the books are fabulous. As far as I understand Simpson and Yates are still talking to each other but I'm not so sure if they're the buddies they were prior to this expedition. It would take a toll on their relationship, for sure.