Touching the Void

October 5th, 2007

In my previous blog about the Cordillera de Huayhuash I mentioned the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates which has been turned into a book and a film both entitled Touching the Void.

Joe Simpson

Although previously attempted, Yates and Simpson were the first people to ascend to the summit of Siula Grande in the Cordillera Huayhuash via the almost vertical west face. Disaster struck, however, on the descent. Simpson slipped down an ice cliff and landed awkwardly, smashing his tibia into his knee joint and breaking it. The pair, whose trip had already taken longer than they intended due to bad weather on the ascent, had run out of water and gas (which could have been used to melt ice and snow) and needed to descend quickly to their base camp, about 3,000 feet below.

They proceeded by tying two one hundred and fifty foot long ropes together and then tying themselves to each end. Yates dug himself into a hole in the snow and lowered Simpson down the mountain on the 300 feet of rope. But because the two ropes were tied together, the knot wouldn’t go through the belay plates, so Simpson would have to stand on his good leg so it could give Yates enough slack to be able to unclip the rope, and then thread the rope back through the lowering device, with the knot on the other side. A second disaster struck however when Simpson was lowered over a 100 foot overhanging cliff and left dangling in mid-air. Yates could not see Simpson, but felt all his weight on the rope, very slowly pulling Yates down the mountain. He held on for about an hour but convinced that Simpson was unable to secure himself, and while his bucket seat was collapsing, was forced to cut the rope linking them, dropping Simpson into a crevasse.

The next morning Yates descended the mountain alone, and found the cliff. He saw the crevasse below and realized what must have happened to Simpson. He was certain that Simpson must have died in the crevasse and safely descended the remaining dangerous leg of the journey.

In fact, Simpson had survived, despite a 100 foot fall and broken leg. When he took in the rope, he discovered the end was cut. He eventually abseiled from his landing spot on an ice bridge (which broke his fall and therefore presumably saved his life) to presumably the bottom of the crevasse, a thin ice roof, and crawled out back onto the glacier via a side opening.

From there, he spent three days, without food and only splashes of water from melting ice, crawling and hopping five miles back to the base camp. Almost completely delusional, he reached the base camp a few hours before Yates intended to leave the camp to return to civilization.

Simpson’s survival is widely regarded by mountaineers as amongst the most amazing pieces of mountaineering lore in history.

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