Touching the Void

Monday, September 22, 2008

Personally, I find the idea of climbing a mountain about as appealing as repeatedly watching The Sound of Music for seven days. Both would leave me cold, dizzy and rather nauseous. But although I'm a lazy city-dweller that hates heights and who is far from physically robust, I can understand the appeal. To be able to scale such heights must fill an individual with a certain amount of pride, a pride that can't be obtained by kissing your boss's arse and by completing a crossword in a newspaper. And like the climbers in the film say, in a world that is getting increasingly safe and coddled, scaling a mountain makes them feel alive; they like the risk. It really is man versus nature.

The opening part of Touching the Void shows the fun of climbing. It shows the excitement of getting to the top and of conquering the elements. But the film really kicks in when nature rains on the parade, when it shows that survival is really the only positive outcome that can come from such a challenge.

The moment when Joe, one of the two mountaineers who climbed the Andean mountain Siula Grande, breaks his leg, shows how vulnerable we are, no matter how well equipped we might be or how much experience we might have. We can be snapped at any moment. But Joe's battle to survive the mountain also shows how strong we can be, how through determination and will we can sometimes get through the toughest situations.

But the film's also a testament to Joe's climbing partner, Simon Yates. It really is quite heroic how he almost manages to complete a single-handed rescue. I mean, he's on a mountain with a man who has a broken leg, but instead of leaving him to die, he risks his life to get his partner to the safety of camp. His effort is remarkable. And the only reason his rescue 'fails' (it can't be deemed a complete failure because without Simon's efforts Joe wouldn't have survived) is because the two are cursed with bad luck (although Joe does have some good luck in not dying after he falls into a crevasse…if surviving a fall into a crevasse can ever be deemed as good luck).

However, before the fall, there's the rope. Now the cutting of the rope was the film's main selling point. Was it wrong or was it right for Simon to cut the rope as his climbing partner hung off the side of the mountain? Well, I don't think it should even be debated. Cutting the rope saved the lives of two people. And it's not like Simon didn't try. He held on to the rope for a long time, not knowing that his partner was hanging off the side of an ice cliff. But all the time Simon was being dragged off the mountain. To hang on would have killed two people. So while the cutting of the rope was an act to save one (which itself would have been a better result than two deaths), it ended up saving the pair of them.

The real horrifying part of the film occurs after this moment, the part when Joe is stuck in the crevasse. Reading about such a predicament is one thing, but seeing it is another thing altogether (the film is superb in the way that it dramatises the events). The crevasse looks like a tomb. It looks like a place where no life can exist. And the moment when Joe screams and swears, and the bit when the real Joe says that he just cried and cried, hits the point home. This is a place you're not supposed to get out of. Therefore it's inspiring that Joe finds the strength to escape.

And it's doubly inspiring when Joe says that he doesn't believe in god and that at no time did he pray or give the almighty any thought. Perhaps the believer has the comforting daydreams of heaven and a life after death, but the atheist realises that we only get one shot at life and that we have to rely on ourselves if we want to survive. Maybe that gives the atheist an added kick to not sit down and die.

However, there are moments in the film when Joe says that he contemplated doing exactly that. And the candour with which Joe speaks is quite moving. But for some reason he keeps going.

A sequence that made me squirm was the one when Joe has to hop over the rocks. He keeps falling over and damaging his broken leg. I can't begin to imagine the pain. But the most powerful sequence is when Joe starts losing his mind. He even begins to think that Simon and Richard (their non-climbing companion) are following him as he crawls across the rocks, but he thinks they aren't helping him because they know that he'd be embarrassed about crying and wetting himself. Then he realises that they aren't there and that he's alone. It would take a man with a heart of stone not to be affected by that, and deep down I'm a complete softie.

But there is a moment of humour in the final moments. Joe gets a Boney M song stuck in his head, leading to the immortal quote: "Bloody hell, I'm going to die to Boney M." A truly miserable end for anyone.

The ending, though, while lacking in tension (because you know Joe survived), does come as an immense relief, especially as Joe thought he'd crawled all that way for nothing (the others might have left camp). So the final moments have an emotional wallop (although I felt like shouting at the grinning buffoon Richard: "I was holding back because I didn't really feel it was a human being out there." Just help the poor bloke, you fucking idiot!). But, idiot aside, it's a great film.

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