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Touching the Void

For mountaineers, Nepal's Mount Everest will always be a key summit in a career of climbing — with an elevation of nearly 30,000 feet, it's the highest peak in the world, and with obstacles and weather that can turn treacherous. However, Everest's nearest neighbor, K2 — which is less than 1,000 feet lower — often ranks as the world's most dangerous peak, with just one hundred successful ascents and a 50% fatality rate. It's figures like these that call to true adventurers. And peaks that have never been scaled can be even more tempting. In 1985, two British climbers — Joe Simpson and Simon Yates — set off for Peru to tackle the west face of a 21,000 foot behemoth known as Siula Grande. While several attempts had been made, none at that time were successful. For Simpson and Yates (then just 25 and 21 years old), Siula Grande's reputation should have served as a warning — at that point, the two climbing companions had scaled several peaks in the Alps, but this would be their first trip to the Andes. Adding further risk to the challenge, the duo decided to make the attempt in "Alpine style," not bothering to set rope-lines or create camps with supplies, but simply hacking their way up the mountain's face with axes, ropes, and rucksacks. After encountering a storm that held them in place for one night, the climb was successful. But 80% of all climbing accidents happen on descent, and Simpson and Yates' return from Siula Grande has since become a matter of legend — and controversy — in mountaineering lore.

Based on the book by Joe Simpson, director Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void (2003) is an ambitious documentary that attempts to recreate Simpson and Yates' week on Siula Grande. And Simpson's first-hand account was written not for the sake of an adventure tale, but merely in defense of his climbing partner. In fact, the mountaineer only expected a few thousand climbers to read it and was surprised when it sold one million copies. What Simpson didn't take into account was the reading public's appetite for harrowing life-and-death dramas drawn from true events — it was on the descent from Siula Grande that Simpson, in a freak accident, fell and shattered his right leg with such force that his tibia was driven into his femur, splitting it above the kneecap. In a climb of this magnitude, Simpson realized that his life was all but over and he was doomed to die in the Andes. But Yates selflessly attempted a one-man rescue mission, laboriously sliding his injured partner down the mountain's face with the aid of two 150-foot ropes. It was only after Simpson fell over the side of an ice-ledge, and Yates' precarious footing became compromised, that he did the unthinkable — cutting the rope, he chose to save his own life in the face of dying alongside the badly injured Simpson. Upon returning to England, Yates endured such fierce criticism from the climbing community that Simpson felt bound to defend his partner by writing Touching the Void. But it was Simpson's odyssey of survival and escape within the mountain's crevasses that made the book an international best-seller.

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Touching the Void was bound to become a motion picture, but there was some question as to just what sort of film it should be. Without question, re-creating the ascent and return from Siula Grande would present its own set of technical problems. Furthermore, there would be little opportunity for dialogue with just two main characters who are separated for the second half of the story. But director Macdonald's quasi-documentary solution is inspired — getting Simpson and Yates on camera 17 years later, he captured their recollections, with further details added by base-camp companion Richard Hawking (a non-climber). This narrative is then bolstered by a cinematic re-creation of events, using actors and professional climbers to illustrate high-risk mountaineering with the sort of accuracy to make even casual viewers' palms sweat. For some close-up, detailed sequences, Alpine slopes doubled for Andean peaks. But Macdonald also insisted that the production utilize as much of Siula Grande as possible — with a five-person film crew, a small expedition force, and 70 donkeys carrying six tons of film gear, the filmmakers made the week-long journey from Lima, Peru, to Simpson and Yates' 1985 base-camp, filming many of the sequences along the mountain's lower slopes, glacier bed, and rock-strewn bottom. Simpson, Yates, and Hawking also were invited to join the expedition, none having been back since their traumatic ordeal nearly two decades earlier. The two climbers agreed to do some stand-in work (doubling for the actors who doubled for them), but their reactions to Siula Grande — included on this DVD's supplements — form a compelling, equally dramatic coda to a story that's been recreated with painstaking detail.

MGM's DVD release of Touching the Void offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include "The Making of Touching the Void" (22 min.), with comments from director Kevin Macdonald and a behind-the-scenes look at the film crew in the Andes. "Return to Siula Grande" (22 min.) includes some footage also found in the "making-of" spot, but is more fascinating — Simpson claims to be uninterested in revisiting to Peru, but upon returning to the original campsite he's overwhelmed with emotions he struggles to contain, and he later confides in his video diary a barely concealed contempt for the film crew and an anathema toward re-living his own life-and-death struggle on camera. Meanwhile, Yates insists that Siula Grande was just one of his many climbing adventures, that he and Simpson are not particularly close friends, and that he's agreed to come to Peru primarily because it's a vacation paid for by the film's producers (camp companion Hawking later offers a perceptive insight into Yates' reputation as the climber who "cut the rope," and how the story of Siula Grande continues to haunt him). "What Happened Next" (9 min.) includes comments from all three on the journey from Siula Grande to Lima, and then London, and the theatrical trailer is on board in addition to an MGM trailer gallery. Keep-case.
—JJB



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