It wasn’t the pain, I felt sorry for myself, childishly so, and with that thought I couldn’t help the tears. Dying had seemed so far away, and yet now everything was tinged with it. I shook my head to stop the tears, but the taint was still there. (73)
Perhaps I’ve been living under a rock—or in a crevasse—all my life, but despite my love for survival-adventure non-fiction stories, I had never heard of Joe Simpson or his odds-defying escape from the Peruvian Andes until a climber buddy of mine loaned me his book. For whatever reason, I wasn’t sure at first that I would enjoy Touching the Void as much as I have other books in the genre—like Alive and Into Thin Air—but once Joe and his buddy, Simon, were nearing the summit, I simply couldn’t put the book down. I’ve realized that Simpson has been praised for his writing skill, and I agree with everyone’s assessment: as far as true-life, fast-paced, psychological thrillers go, Touching the Void is top-notch.
Hopefully it’s no spoiler to describe the scenario of Joe’s broken leg near the summit of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes and his ultimately being left for dead once his climbing partner, Simon, lost contact with him at the lip of giant ice gorge. The Foreword to the book says as much. Knowing what would take place in the coming pages was no deterrent to my wanting to read on, however, for as Janet Adam Smith noted in 1988, it’s not so much the question of Joe’s survival that keeps the reader glued to the book, but rather the suspenseful improbability of his journey to survive.
Simpson recounts not only his experiences crawling down the mountain and over glaciers and boulder fields, but also his physical pains, his emotions, and even his hallucinations. Though tempted to give up nearly every hour of his terrible journey, Joe felt spurred on by a Voice, a subconscious coach encouraging him to fight on, to just take those next few steps, to wake up when he rested and to rest when needed. This Voice got lost at times midst a whirlwind of faces and memories, songs and poems which ran incessantly through his dehydrated mind like so many internet pop-ups, and yet it always found a way to break through the noise and prod him on.
While it takes a bit of mountaineering know-how to make sense of some of Simpson’s descriptions and terminology, I didn’t feel that these unintelligible portions detracted from my understanding of the event. I did Google what a “Prusik knot” looked like, and was then able to visualize just what Joe was thinking as he hung suspended over the foreboding mouth of the gorge; but for the rest of the unfamiliar terms, I just let them go.
If you’re hoping to get into mountaineering, this book is one that might help you change your mind. If you’re already a mountaineer and your wife knows very little about the sport, you might want to never let her read this book. If you’re more like me and you know you’ll never get into the sport and yet still enjoy reading about other peoples’ adrenaline rushes, then this might be a good book for you. Note that Joe and Simon love their obscenities, so be wary of that. Otherwise, enjoy the climb!