All men dream: but not equally.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.
- TE Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
The quote which opens Joe Simpson's 1988 book Touching The Void is a perfect one for the story, describing exactly the attitudes of the key men involved. Chris Bonington1 describes it as 'one of the most incredible survival stories of which I have heard', and it is certainly an epic mountaineering tale that will be retold for generations.
In May 1985, Joe Simpson, Simon Yates and Richard Hawkins arrived at Siula Grande Base Camp in the Peruvian Andes. Elite climbers Simpson and Yates were planning an assault on the as yet unclimbed West Face of Siula Grande, and had convinced Hawkins, a backpacker on a six month trip around South America, to watch base camp during their attempt. Both climbers were experienced Alpinists and, although neither had experienced altitudes above 18,000 feet2 before, they were confident of reaching the 20,854 feet3 summit by this new route.
Of course, they knew it wouldn't be easy. The next fortnight was spent scouting out routes, adjusting to the altitude (known as 'acclimatising') and getting over nicotine withdrawal - both had agreed to maximise their chances by giving up smoking for the expedition. Pulmonary oedemas and altitude sickness in this remote region could easily be fatal.
After three expeditions on lesser routes, none of which were successful, the pair decided they were ready for their main objective and began their climb on 4 June. Leaving Hawkins to mind the gear, Yates telling him 'we'll be back in five days - if we're not back in a week, you'll be the proud owner of all our gear!', they began making their way up the mountain.
First there was a long walk-in, past high altitude lakes and a confusing series of crevasses, and the pair finally slept in a snow-hole at the bottom of the West Face. The next day, all their energies would go into the ascent proper.
Initially, the pair made steady progress. The climbing was difficult, but they were both climbing within their abilities. Route finding was often tough, although this was to be expected on a route that no-one had ever attempted before. They were occasionally bombarded with small stones from an enormous wall of rock, but eventually managed to circumvent this. Their objective was a gully below the main ridge, where they were planning a night in a snow hole and, despite a small avalanche that almost swept Yates off the mountain, they made it before dark. They spent the night at 19,000 feet above sea level, having climbed 2,500 in the day; there was still 2,000 feet of climbing to go.
Understandably confident after such great efforts in day one, Yates and Simpson made excellent progress before faltering a little 1,000 feet before the top. The route had become precarious; it seemed that every gully petered out into a flat, unclimbable wall, and everywhere they looked there was poor snow - powdery stuff that provided no grip for crampons. Simpson admitted to being 'gripped' with fear4 on a relatively easy section 4,000 feet up. 300 feet from the top, and with the previous 300 feet having taken eight hours, the exhausted climbers found a snow hole and decided to attempt the summit the following day.
With the dawn came fresh vigour, and after three fairly straightforward sections the pair were standing on the summit ridge. A brief stroll later, they were celebrating their first 'first ascent' - meaning no-one had ever climbed the mountain by this route before - on top of Siula Grande.
If you succeed with one dream, you come back to square one and it's not long before you're conjuring up another, slightly harder, a bit more ambitious - a bit more dangerous... it always unsettled me, this moment of reaching the summit, this sudden quiet and stillness after the storm, which gave me time to wonder at what I was doing and sense a niggling doubt that perhaps I was inexorably losing control...
- Joe Simpson in the book Touching The Void5.
Coming Down Fast
The pair returned to their packs, which they had left on the ridge, and considered their descent. The plan was to traverse along the East Face, below the summit, then join the North Ridge and descend to a col6 - from here, reaching the base of the mountain would be straightforward. However, things were about to start going seriously wrong. A sudden blizzard left the pair disorientated until Simpson spotted the ridge high above them in a brief break in the cloud. Yates headed up towards it, with Simpson paying out the rope in case of a fall. Then, suddenly, there was an enormous rumbling crash, the rope whipped through Simpson's hands and he was pulled chest-first into the snow. Then nothing. Clearly something big had given way, and taken Yates with it. The rope was tight on Simpson, with Yates a dead weight on the other end - whether this meant dead literally, only time would tell.
After 15 long minutes, the rope went slack. Yates was alive; pumped with adrenaline and shaken, but very much alive. The corniced ridge was clearly crumbling, and extremely dangerous. A further trauma followed when Simpson, following Yates along the ridge, slipped and slid into Yates, almost taking them both clean off the mountain. With Yates' fingers becoming frostbitten, they spent another night in a snow hole, using the last of their cooking gas, food and water. Tomorrow, they must get down.
The tortuous state of the ridge meant that getting down in a day would be difficult. Simpson was leading the pair down along the ridge when he fell into a crevasse, then another, then another. After scrambling out of the fifth in quick succession, he noticed the entire West Face of the mountain spread out below his feet, and realised he was standing on an enormous cornice - forty feet of snow hanging over a drop of a hundred times that height. Now keeping well back from the edge, Simpson could see with some relief that the col, and safety, were just past the next minor summit.
However, one final obstacle presented itself. The line of the ridge was broken by a 25 foot high ice wall, and there was no choice but to climb down it. Simpson had just swung over the top, in a precarious position, and was trying to find a hold with his ice-hammer when:
...there was a sharp cracking sound and my right hand, gripping the axe, pulled down. The sudden jerk turned me outwards and instantly I was falling.
I hit the slope at the base of the cliff before I saw it coming... I felt a shattering blow in my knee, felt bones splitting, and screamed.
In the 2003 film, Simpson explained in graphic detail what had happened to his leg:
The impact drove my lower leg straight through my knee joint. As the bone went into my tibia it split the tibial plateau straight off.
Simpson was as good as dead, and he knew it. Above 19,000 feet, with no hope of rescue - it would be enough for Yates to get himself off the mountain alone, let alone carrying a dead weight.
When Yates got down the cliff and joined Simpson, his analysis agreed:
He told me very calmly that he had broken his leg. He looked pathetic, and my immediate thought came without any emotion, You're f****d, matey. You're dead... no two ways about it! I think he knew it, too. I could see it in his face. It was all totally rational. I knew where we were, I took in everything around me instantly, and knew he was dead.
Coming Down... Even Faster
I knew I couldn't leave him while he was still fighting for it...
- Simon Yates.
While Yates was sorting out his ropes, Simpson was desperately dragging himself along the ridge towards the col. To help Simpson would put Yates in grave danger himself and, although it sounds cold and emotionless, it is not uncommon for injured climbers to be simply abandoned at height in remote locations. This is simply an accepted fact of high altitude mountaineering. To leave Simpson would have been desperately sad, but no shame on Yates.
Together, they came up with a plan. Yates would lower Simpson down the slope to the end of the rope, then climb down behind; the ropes would have to be tied together to speed things up, so there would be a precarious moment each time - Simpson would have to stand on his good leg so that Yates could untie the knot and retie it on the other side of the belay plate7, and this with frostbitten fingers, too. Yates himself would be in a dangerous position, lowering the injured climber from a rather unsafe stance - sitting in a snow 'bucket' dug to try to keep him in place during the operation. But it seemed to work; somehow they made it down to the col, and decided to lose as much height as possible before dark.
On they continued, with Simpson in continual agony as his bad leg kept catching on the snow and on rocks. They still had 3,000 feet from the col to the relative safety of the glacier below, but despite everything they were somehow progressing at a good rate. Optimism grew; though both men were exhausted and increasingly frostbitten as the weather worsened, they even managed to share the odd joke. They were almost down; just one or two more lowers to go.
Yates had just begun lowering Simpson down what they hoped would be the penultimate section, when Simpson noticed he was sliding faster than usual. Suddenly he realised; a steeper slope could only mean one thing - a cliff was coming! Frantically he shouted, tried to stop himself with his ice axe and good foot, but the snow was too loose for him to find purchase. Helplessly, he slid off an edge and found himself dangling in space. He was six feet from the wall but, more pointedly, over 100 feet from the ground. Directly below him he could make out an enormous crevasse. His only way out would be to climb the rope using a prusick8 knot tied from two loops of cord, but his frostbitten fingers couldn't hold it. After a few fumbles, it finally fell from his fingers into the void. There was now nothing he could do.
Far above him, Yates was similarly powerless. He could feel from the actions of the rope that Simpson had gone over something, but, even if his fingers had not been frostbitten, there was nothing he could do to help. In fact he was in great danger himself. His snow bucket was collapsing, and an avalanche had filled the gap behind him so he was almost on the edge. Any moment, he could be pulled off the mountain. After an hour hanging on in the hope that Simpson could get into a safe position, he now had no choice.
The knife! The thought came out of nowhere. Of course, the knife. Be quick, come on, get it.
Simon Yates cut the rope on his partner.
The cruelty of it all sickened me. It felt as if there were something deliberate about it, something preordained by a bored and evil force... All that time struggling just to cut the rope.
Yates spent the night on the mountain, having expanded the snow bucket into a small hole. The following morning he found a way down the rest of the slope and realised what had happened to Simpson. Presuming Simpson was dead, he shouted into the crevasse and, getting no reply, turned for base camp. Becoming delirious with dehydration, he somehow made his way back over the field of crevasses and eventually found water and Hawkins, who had made his way up the valley to see if there was any sign of them. The two made their way back to camp. Nursing a horrible guilt about his lost friend, Yates recovered from his ordeal very slowly, but after a few days had accepted Simpson's fate. Certain that his partner was dead, he burnt Simpson's spare clothes as a symbolic farewell and began to make preparations to leave.
By an enormous stroke of luck, however, Simpson had survived. He was lying on an ice bridge in the eerie surroundings of the crevasse, with steep drops either side; soft snow had somehow cushioned his fall. Believing that Yates had been pulled off the mountain, Simpson realised the dead weight on the other end of the rope would enable him to get up the rope. He pulled on the rope, expecting it to go tight, and was surprised to find the frayed end. It had clearly been cut.
He should have left me on the ridge. It would have saved so much... I'll die here after all that. Why bother trying?
There were only two options. Go down, or die on the bridge. Simpson screwed an ice screw into the wall and lowered himself further into the crevasse.
By another stroke of luck, a thin crust of snow had formed 35 feet below the ice bridge, and Simpson 'let out a cry of delight and relief'. Sunlight was streaming in from high up on one side, at the top of a snow slope, and Simpson could see that he had found an exit. As he crawled towards it, he could feel the snow was very thin - chunks were falling from the ceiling below him, and at any minute the whole thing might give way. He got to the snow slope, and painstakingly made his way up it, inch by inch. Simpson took five hours to cover the 130 feet of slope.
But he did, and finally emerged, exhausted but relieved. His joy at having escaped the crevasse was soon tempered by the realisation that he still had six miles to go to base camp. But he realised he now had a choice:
[Death] wasn't a dark, black terror any more, just fact, like my broken leg and frostbitten fingers, and I couldn't be afraid of things like that. My leg would hurt when I fell, and when I couldn't get up I would die. In a peculiar way it was refreshing to be faced with simple choices.
Simpson hopped the 200 feet down to the glacier, slipped on some ice and slid a short distance into a snowdrift. By some coincidence, he was just ten feet from Yates' footprints. He began crawling, with something he describes as the voice in his head taking over and giving him instructions. Dehydrated, frostbitten and exhausted, eventually he grew tired; the voice told him to find a snow hole, and he slept.
The next day, he somehow managed to continue. Random snatches of Shakespeare ran through his brain, almost like a second voice but this one malevolently distracting him. He ate snow to try to stave off the dehydration, and tried walking on his bad leg resulting only in a collapse and despair. The voice brought him back to consciousness; he made his way painstakingly and randomly across the field of crevasses, and there was only the rocky section of lakes and moraines to go.
It wouldn't be possible to crawl over the boulder field, so Simpson was forced to hop, aided by his ice-axe. He was now totally disorientated and becoming delirious. The voice urged him on, he collapsed a number of times, drifted in and out of consciousness and spent another night sleeping in the boulder field. Close to death, he found the most annoying thing was that a particular pop song he despised, Brown Girl In The Ring, by Boney M, kept going around and around in his head. 'My God', he recalls, 'I thought I'm going to die to Boney M'.
Eventually, resting against a boulder, he realised there was an odd smell of faeces around. It was very strong. He sniffed his mittens, and slowly realised he must have crawled through the camp's latrine.
Within minutes, Simpson was beginning his long recovery in the safety of a tent. He had arrived at camp just three hours before Yates and Hawkins had planned to leave.
A Story Told
Joe Simpson wrote the book Touching The Void as an account of the experience, and dedicated it to Yates 'for a debt I can never repay' and 'to those friends who have gone to the mountains and have not returned'. It won the Boardman Tasker Award (presented for contributions to mountaineering literature) and the NCR Award for non-fiction :
Not just a book about mountaineering... It is about the spirit of man and the life force that drives us all
- Magnus Magnusson, on presenting the NCR Award.
In 2003, Touching The Void was released as a motion picture, with Simpson, Yates and Hawkins describing events reconstructed by actors. The film won several awards.
Simpson has also appeared on various TV shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and David Letterman and has been interviewed by many publications, both general and mountaineering. One of these was Climber magazine. He eventually recovered, despite being told by doctors that he'd never walk again, and still climbs today - although, by his own admission, he doesn't feel the need to climb harder and more extreme routes. Now considered one of the foremost authors in mountaineering circles, he has gone on to publish half a dozen other books on various trips. He has always defended Yates' actions in the ethical question of cutting the rope:
No man takes a 300-foot fall on the off-chance that his mate is going to fall as well. It's not Hollywood. If you're standing on top of a skyscraper with your friend and someone says to you 'You must die, so your friend can live', you will not do it, you will not jump off for him. You might do it for your child, but you wouldn't do it under those circumstances.
- On the Oprah Winfrey Show.