Scaling the Depths

‘Touching the Void' & ‘Eternal Sunshine'

In 1985, British mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates scaled the twenty-one-thousand-foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, making a daring ascent up a treacherous and previously unconquered face of the mountain. On the way down, disaster befell the two, a horrifying mishap that quickly achieved notoriety in the world mountain-climbing community. In Touching the Void, Scottish documentarian Kevin Macdonald recreates the climbers’ grueling ordeal of survival.

Macdonald’s film consists of reenacted mountain scenes, performed by actors and a pair of climbing doubles, wrapped around studio interviews of Simpson and Yates. Matter-of-factly, the two describe the risks involved in scaling remote peaks with minimal equipment and no support team. “There’s no line of retreat,” Simpson explains. “If you get badly hurt, you’ll probably die.” That the pair come off as normal English blokes only highlights the extreme nature of their passion. The climber’s fixation on an essential spiritual truth-that to live without confronting one’s own mortality is hardly to live at all-makes him a mortality junkie, craving the thrill of having life reaffirmed over and over, in the most literally death-defying circumstances. “This is what we live for,” Simpson and Yates confess. “That mixture of power and grace.”

With this, the filmmakers bring into focus the themes that make...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.