Review: Into the Void by Joe Simpson

Ah, the joy of finishing a book after a streak of not finishing anything! It’s been January since I finished a book, and I was getting very discouraged and feeling like reading was a burden instead of a pleasure. Thankfully this book came along to help break me out of that funk.

The idea of the short, finish-able endeavour is not only my experience of reading this book, but it was the premise under which the protagonists  of this true story, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, decided one summer day to climb up an obscure peak in Peru. How hard could it be they thought? Little did they know what was in store for them.

Why did I choose this book? I had a paper copy of this that a friend gave my ex-husband, and it looked interesting so I kept it when I threw all of his other stuff out. I was drawn to it because years previously I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and I absolutely loved it. I saw the IMAX film a few years after that and was astonished that the whole thing had been filmed in much greater detail than I had assumed from references in the book.  It instilled in me a fascination with all things mountain-climber ever since. I’ve seen a few documentaries on the Eiger (this BBC one is very good), the Clint Eastwood film The Eiger Sanction (spoiler: it’s rubbish!), and a documentary on the  race to the south pole where Amundsen pips Scott to the pole in a triumph of indigenous methods over Victorian industrialisation (a good book of that is also here).

Touching the Void tells the story of Joe Simpson’s survival after a broken leg and a fall down a crevasse during a mountain climb in Peru. The story starts building from the point where Joe breaks his leg, and then follows how he got down on his own. Simpson includes the point of view of his climbing partner Simon Yates, who he was tied to via a safety rope during the climb. Because Simpson gets tangled in the rope during his fall, Yates was forced to make a choice that mountaineers dread: cut the rope, killing my partner but saving myself, or don’t cut the rope and we both die. In all of these documentaries and books, much has been made of this choice and the what we believe it says the person that chooses cut versus stay together. The book highlights a couple of other tragic endings for mountaineers, framing them in a way to either show how dangerous this all is, how courageous they can be, how foolish they can be, or maybe all three at the same time.

The will-I-or-won’t-I-cut-the-rope is one of those games that some people who love a hypothetical consequence-free-argument-slash-discussion like to have. We sit around with our wines and beers and ask do you know what you would do? Answers don’t really matter as much as the opportunity to question morals, blame society, probe character and quote philosophy. My answer is no, I don’t know what I would have done, and since there were not a lot of mountain climbers at our book club discussion we were left to speculate outcomes on our own. I don’t think any of these types of conversations are worth having if none of us have been there, much less by readers around the table over sauvignon blanc and bitter ale.

Where we disagreed during our discussion was over whether these stories are interesting or not. Is it a worthy human struggle to put yourself in serious danger, and then write about how you got yourself out of said danger, and then have some people cast you as a hero? What’s heroic about climbing up a mountain, getting stuck, and then needing a rescue team to come after you and put themselves in danger too? We see a lot of this with unprepared hikers, lost skiers, sailors who forgot to check the weather, and on and on and on. If you choose to do something dangerous, what is society’s responsibility towards your health and welfare? Do we decide not to come and get you if you didn’t take a map into the wilderness? How would we know you did or you didn’t? Who decides who is and who isn’t worth saving? The common approach used for much of human history seems to be that everyone was worth helping, either because they were needed by the human tribe or people were compelled to help because of an ideology or religion. Should this still be the case? I can’t tell where helping is ‘taking advantage’, so maybe we need a more nuanced discussion around rescue for sport. I don’t know who would decide this so maybe don’t change the original ‘save everybody’ policy? It seems to be working.

What propels people to climb up dangerous things? Mount Everest has a Death Zone above 28,000 feet that you need oxygen for (yes, it’s really called that!). Why would you do it? Yes, it’s beautiful and yes, it’s a challenge and yes, it’s sacred to some cultures but why? I keep reading climbing stories and watching mountaineering films for the answers and I struggle to find them. I don’t think I’ve come any closer to a reason. Some say it’s the thrill, some say they need to explore, some say other things. There are all types of reasons, as many as there are people, and it seems fitting that there is no one answer to why.

Joe Simpson has another book I will try to read, The Beckoning Silence, as I will probably need another mountaineering fix soon. Also I recommend this book be read in paper format, because you will probably keep flipping back to the maps and the pictures as you go through the story.

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