Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I started reading this book at Holden Village in July and didn't get back into it until last week (I had to get it out of the library in Portland). Mike went to prep school with Joe Simpson in England (although Simpson's a few years older than him), so I've often thought about reading this book before it called to me from the Holden Village library.
Joe Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, climbed a mountain peak in the Andes--the 21,000-foot Siula Grande. While ascending, Joe broke his leg...which can be an immediate death sentence for mountain climbers. However, Simon risked his own life to lower Joe 3,000 feet down the mountain while Joe kept digging "belays" into the mountain, allowing Simon to stretch out the rope once more. When the rope did not go slack (allowing him to affix a new hitch), Simon had no idea what was going on. He had no choice but to cut the rope, knowing that by doing so Joe would die. If he hadn't cut the rope, they both would have died on the mountain. When the rope was cut, Joe fell into a very deep crevasse.
The amazing piece is that Joe did not die--in fact, he survived. Over the ensuing three days, somehow he was able to crawl out of the crevasse and all the way down the mountain, and then 6 miles to base camp, just before Simon left to return to civilization. Joe writes about the deep loneliness, exhaustion, and terror that beset him on the mountain. He did not give up when most people would have. Not only did he survive with a horribly broken and painful leg, but he also did not have food and water for several days. The only thing that kept him going was a voice in his head--prompting him to keep moving and surviving.
Meanwhile, Simon was being tormented with guilt, even at the same time as he realized he had no choice in the matter. Joe writes from Simon's perspective as well (in italics), giving us a more complete picture of what was happening in both men's minds.
I woke up at night thinking about this book--it will stick with me for a very long time. It's clear that Joe is a mountain climber first and a writer second, because I often had difficulties following the technical descriptions of climbing and picturing everything in my mind. I didn't discover the glossary in the back until I was 1/3 of the way into the book. But even the glossary couldn't really help me understand fully.
Joe includes an afterword in the edition I read. He writes about returning to Siula Grande to film the documentary and experiencing post-traumatic stress (previously he had not even believed in its existence). It's the second book I've read recently where a British person discounts the value of psychotherapy--thinking it to be an American whim. When he calls the National Health Service to make an appointment with a therapist (realizing he needed to deal with his PTSD), he doesn't receive a call back until six months later. At that point, he's too disgusted to go forward with it. Instead, he realizes the healing, therapeutic power of telling one's story...and that's how he works through the stress and the trauma. At least he did come to realize the importance of working through it and the downsides of the British stiff upper lip.
He also writes about traumatic emotions and terror traveling hard-wired neural pathways in the brain...that's why what we think will be an easy task or experience can bring up all sorts of PTSD effects if we've experienced a trauma. I've experienced this phenomenon a few times myself.
Next I plan to watch the documentary, and I'm sure it will help me have a better understanding of what exactly happened to Joe and Simon on the mountain. Joe Simpson wrote this book partly to defend Simon Yates' actions on the mountain. From the very beginning, he understood that Simon made the only decision he could have at the time. He's truly grateful to him for doing everything he could to save him--most other climbers would have left him on the mountain without even trying to save him.
A therapist friend of mine used to show this movie to the boys he counseled: they were sex offenders in treatment. It was chosen as a testament to the power of the human spirit and the ability to conquer seemingly impossible odds.