- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Climbers are just as afraid of heights as the earthbound, says mountaineer Joe Simpson — if not more so.

“We know what happens when we hit the ground,” says Mr. Simpson, who has lost plenty of friends to the extreme sport. “It’s not a matter of being scared. It’s a matter of acknowledging the fear and controlling it. If you didn’t have fear, you’d have no safety valve, and you’d be dead.”

The 43-year-old Brit has written volumes on the subject — seven, in fact.

His most heralded book, “Touching the Void,” focuses on his unprecedented 1985 climb of the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes with fellow climber Simon Yates. The duo completed the upward journey in less than four days, but Mr. Simpson shattered his leg on the descent and dragged himself to safety despite the staggering pain, dearth of supplies and blizzard conditions.

That impossible mission forms the dramatic core of “Touching the Void,” a new quasi-documentary opening tomorrow.

By all rights, Mr. Simpson should have died during that descent, but to listen to him tell his story is to hear a carefully argued defense of mountaineering, not of personal courage.

Mr. Simpson shared snapshots of his tale this week in the District to promote “Void,” which captures his adventure in all its improbability.

Director Kevin Macdonald, best-known for his Oscar-winning 2000 documentary “One Day in September,” blends recent interviews with the two climbers with a top-notch re-creation of the actual events. The results prove more dramatic than your average documentary, more realistic than the most carefully researched blockbuster.

“The chance to do a drama documentary, I thought, was the way to make the best film, honest and accurate,” says Mr. Simpson, who in years past nearly saw his tale become a major motion picture starring Tom Cruise.

And what a story it is, the kind of whopper that might not fly if told as straight fiction.

Mr. Simpson, then 25, set off on a two-man alpine-style climb — few supplies, little room for error — of the Siula Grande with Mr. Yates.

The two ascended the 21,000-foot mountain in a little more than 3 days, tethered by rope.

On the way down, Mr. Simpson slipped on the snowy mountainside, splintering his right leg. Mr. Yates tried to ease his comrade down the rest of the way via their rope connection, but he inadvertently lowered Mr. Simpson over a ledge, leaving him dangling in midair, far out of view and earshot.

Mr. Yates waited — and waited — for any sign of life below. After a long spell of nothing, Mr. Yates cut the rope between them and descended the mountain himself. That act likely saved both their lives — the weight of Mr. Simpson’s body eventually would have dragged Mr. Yates down. Mr. Yates became a villain to other climbers, nonetheless, for an act deemed taboo in climbing circles.

Mr. Simpson’s solo journey down the mountain is the heart of the film.

The trim, compactly built Mr. Simpson says he never wanted to write the 1987 book on which the film was based. He did so to defend Mr. Yates.

When the movie deal came together years later, Mr. Simpson did more than submit to 20 hours of interviews to flesh out its narrative. At times, he subbed for the actor re-creating his descent, shooting scenes on the very mountain that once nearly claimed his life.

“When I found myself there, I just lost it,” says Mr. Simpson, who resumed climbing after six operations on his injured leg.

The same holds true for his reaction to the film. “The first time I saw it, I was quite traumatized by it,” he says.

He betrays little obvious emotion in conversation, but he makes it clear he wished the director hadn’t pushed so hard during the film’s interviews.

“He was trying to get something new and fresh out of it,” he says of a story told countless times. “It became almost a battle where he wanted to make me cry. I don’t believe in showing your emotions openly.”

“I almost won,” he says.

He learned that stoic approach from his father, an army officer, and from life in England’s public school system.

“I was taught boys don’t cry,” he says.

What stung him looking back at his descent was that, for a moment, his iron discipline abandoned him.

“I was ashamed because I lost control. You will not survive if you throw a tantrum,” he says.

Apart from the pain and fear, what haunts Mr. Simpson is the isolation of what could have been his final moments alive.

“What I recall is this appalling sense of loneliness,” he says. “I remember the most powerful thing was feeling Simon’s hand on my shoulders [when the two reunited at the base camp]. It was like a reprieve, like walking to the gallows and somebody putting their arm on your shoulder and saying, ‘Come with us; you’re OK,’” he says.

Mr. Macdonald does the story justice, but Mr. Simpson says it won’t necessarily bridge the divide between those who climb and the rest of us.

Before the director shot “Void,” “the only ice he saw … was in a gin and tonic,” Mr. Simpson says. Now, after working with climbers, the director told Mr. Simpson “he knows no more about our mind-set than before.”

To Mr. Simpson, it hardly matters.

“You don’t need to understand us to understand the things we experience are relevant to all of us,” he says.

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