In 1985, two young British climbers set out to make the first ever ascent of the west face of Siula Grande, an imposing peak in the Cordillera Huayhuash, a snow-capped mountain range in the Peruvian Andes. The summiting has become famous not for being the first, but for what happened on the way down.
Not far from the top, 25-year-old Joe Simpson slipped and shattered his leg in two places – an excruciating but rarely life-threatening injury at sea level; an extraordinarily dangerous and deadly trauma at 6,000 metres. With no possibility of rescue, and dwindling food and water, Simpson’s climbing partner, the then 21-year-old Simon Yates, could have made an excuse about going for help and left his friend there to die. Instead, Yates came up with a daring evacuation plan: he would anchor himself in the snow, then lower Simpson down the mountain on the end of a rope, 90 metres at a time. Once secure, Simpson would tug on the rope and Yates would downclimb to join him and repeat the process.
‘Some people might consider it heroic but I’m a pragmatic person,’ Yates says. ‘I think most climbers in that situation would try and do something to get the other person off the mountain.’
The plan was an exhaustingly slow grind but it worked. Until night fell and the weather turned, and in the near-zero visibility Yates unwittingly lowered Simpson over an outcrop. Hanging on the rope in mid-air, with severely frostbitten hands and a broken leg, the injured climber was unable to scale back up the rope and unable to relay what had happened. For his part, Yates was unable see or hear Simpson; nor was he able to pull his friend back up. He held onto the taut rope for several hours, getting no slack and no response, slowly freezing and slipping towards the void himself.
‘Two young men didn’t want to die. What a surprise.’ – Simon Yates
Understandably thinking his partner was already dead, Yates faced a dilemma: hold on and die as well, or cut the rope and save his own life. He cut the rope. Simpson fell through a glacier into a crevasse and passed out; Yates, exhausted and battling grief, guilt and hypothermia, spent the night in a snow cave before making his way back to base camp the next day to break the news.
In the months and years that followed, there were plenty of media reports that inappropriately criticised or blamed Yates but Simpson maintains he would have done exactly the same if their roles were reversed. He has always staunchly defended his partner’s actions; indeed, by cutting the rope Yates paradoxically saved Simpson’s life.
An adaptable, adapted life
In 1988 Simpson released his first book, Touching the Void, revealing the story of how he survived after Yates cut the rope. Touching the Void has since been translated into dozens of languages. By 2012, it had been added to the GCSE English reading list (resulting in the author being abused on Twitter by ‘hormonal’ teens who failed their exams). It was adapted into a ‘docudrama’ film in 2003, and a stage play in 2018.
‘The story has had so many different reincarnations, some of which are completely bizarre,’ Yates tell me with a laugh from his home in Cumbria, England. ‘Some nutter in the US wrote a whole book about the religious significance of it all! They never talked to me, and I’m not in the slightest bit religious. I took no religious messages from those happenings whatsoever. In fact, I think the most profound thing that I took from the whole story is that neither of us wanted to die. Two young men didn’t want to die. What a surprise.’
Yates is a down-to-earth, cheerful type. Following the infamous trip with Simpson, he has continued to climb around the world, though he became a bit more cautious once his children were born. He runs his own small-group expedition company, has authored several books (Against the Wall, The Flame of Adventure and The Wild Within, plus contributions to Simpson’s Touching the Void), and is a motivational speaker.
‘I don’t think it’s Joe’s best book. His best book is one called This Game of Ghosts. It touches on why people climb mountains in quite a profound way, unlike any other book I’ve read about mountaineering.’ – Simon Yates
Although he and Simpson are no longer in contact, there is no bad blood between them; they are simply different people with different lives. The same cannot be said of Yates and Kevin Macdonald, the Oscar-winning director behind the film adaptation. ‘I wasn’t entirely on board with him,’ Yates explains. ‘He lived in a fantasy world, basically; and I don’t. I realise that might be useful for making films, but it’s not great for communicating with other people.’
He is far more positive toward Touching the Void playwright David Grieg. ‘David is an outdoor person,’ Yates says. ‘He’s not a climber but he hangs out with this Scottish author, Andrew Greig (no relation), who was a climber and who knew and wrote about this guy Mal Duff, a mountaineer who I used to work for [and who was a good friend of Simpson’s]. So there was some connection there already, and his world does overlap a little with climbers. He obviously has an understanding of them.’
Why climbers climb?
This is evident in the play, which is as much about the psychology of climbers – why they climb – as it is about the particular story that gives it its name. One of its more illuminating lines in this regard has the character of Joe insisting that it’s not climbing that’s weird but so-called normal life with its desk jobs and mortgages and polyester shirts.
‘The thing that so great about the play are those moments; they are what make the play most interesting to me,’ Yates says. ‘And I think it’s probably the most interesting thing for non-climbers, non-mountaineers: that question of why do you do it, what is your mindset while you’re doing it? And there are moments during the play where you actually do see that, an answer to that question. I didn’t see that in the movie,’ he continues, ‘and I didn’t really see it so much in Joe’s book either.’
Simpson’s book is dedicated to Yates, but Yates is forthright in his assessment of it: ‘I don’t think it’s Joe’s best book. His best book is one called This Game of Ghosts. It touches on why people climb mountains in quite a profound way, unlike any other book I’ve read about mountaineering. And I think Dave has taken more from that book than from Touching the Void actually.’
‘If you’re playing golf and you’re losing a golfing partner once a year, you’d stop playing golf wouldn’t you?’ – Joe Simpson
In a conversation with Tom Morris, artistic director at Bristol Old Vic where the play had its world premiere, Simpson confirmed the contribution to the play made by This Game of Ghosts. He notes that the book ‘wasn’t about why climbers climb; it was about why I climb’, and he wrote it to address the fact that in the first 25 years that he spent climbing, 25 of his climbing friends were killed. ‘If you’re playing golf and you’re losing a golfing partner once a year, you’d stop playing golf wouldn’t you?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘But we didn’t stop.’
In seeking an answer, lapsed Catholic Simpson sometimes takes a spiritual approach. Yates is more down to earth. ‘Mountaineers come in all different shapes and sizes, from all different backgrounds, and there are lots of different reasons why they go climb mountains. For me, it’s just a profound way of reconnecting with the natural world.’ It’s also about beauty, he admits. ‘Mountains very beautiful. When you get up high on them, they’re even more beautiful. They’re surrounded by this incredible space and beauty. And being in that space and beauty, and moving through it, gives you a kind of euphoric feeling.’
The play’s recreation of the mountain is pivotal to telling the story, Yates believes. But what he most appreciates about it is how smart and dryly funny it is. ‘It’s clever. It really works: it does transport you to a mountain,’ he says. ‘I also enjoy the humour in the play. It’s quite nice to tell this story with a bit of humour in it because there is quite a lot of humour in climbing. We do it for fun; we do it because we enjoy it, because we love it. And when you love something, generally you’re having a good time, and you’re cracking jokes. So it was nice that that came out in this particular telling of it.’
He acknowledges that the humour is, by necessity, pretty dark. ‘Obviously we have a sort of dry, dark humour,’ he says of climbers and mountaineers. ‘But I think Australians will be very much on the wavelength of the humour.’
Published on 29 September 2021