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Touching The Void

Before Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out on a fateful expedition to climb the west face of "Siula Grande," a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes that had never been scaled, a fellow mountain climber dryly assessed the task as "a challenging day out." In other words, prepare for last rites. Based on Simpson's best-selling memoir, Kevin Macdonald's stirring documentary Touching The Void skillfully recreates their adventures as a near-constant brush against death, skirted through equal parts ingenuity, courage, survival instinct, and dumb luck. With almost mantra-like regularity throughout the story, Simpson recalls, "I knew then I was dead," and at every point it seems like an impossible marvel that he lived: Seeing him is almost like seeing a ghost. The grandson of the late Emeric Pressburger–who, along with director Michael Powell, produced The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and other classics–Macdonald has inherited Pressburger's instincts for spotting a ripping yarn and going the extreme lengths necessary to get the story right. With Simpson and Yates along as technical advisors, extensive reenactments were shot in Peru and the French Alps at heights up to 15,000 feet, under grueling conditions that stain the film with authenticity. In 1985, after scaling many challenging peaks in Europe, Simpson and Yates felt ready to tackle Siula Grande in the aggressive Alpine Style, which involves climbing a mountain in one single push with limited supplies rather than pre-establishing base camps along the way. After a steep, arduous journey marked by deceptive "meringues" of powdered snow draped over slopes of rock, they made it to the top, but as Simpson is quick to note, "80 percent of accidents happen on descent." Trouble started not far from the peak, when Simpson slipped and broke his left leg. That was grave news for both climbers, considering the high altitude and the dwindling gas supply needed to keep them hydrated. Since each climber had 150 feet of rope, Yates decided to tie the ropes together and rapidly lower his crippled partner down the mountain, which worked swimmingly until Simpson was lowered over a cliff above a giant crevasse. With Simpson's body weight threatening to pull them both over the incline, Yates cut the rope with a pen knife, a decision that later caused an uproar within the mountain-climbing community. Once Simpson fell into the crevasse, an even more harrowing adventure began. Rather than address the rope-cutting controversy, which prompted Simpson to write the book in the first place, Macdonald allows events to speak for themselves, daring critics to protest Yates' actions. At its heart, Touching The Void contends with the physical and spiritual dilemma of facing the unknown and overcoming paralyzing fear in order to emerge reborn on the other side. But the film's appeal is even more fundamental than that: It's just one of those stories that catches the breath, no matter how often it's told.


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