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Joe Simpson


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

There can be few mountaineering stories as dramatic as this one. Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out to climb the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. They reached the summit at 21,000 feet but on the way down Simpson fell and shattered his right knee. Simon succeeded in lowering him down the near-vertical slope for many hundreds of feet but eventually Joe fell over a cliff and it was quite impossible for Simon to haul him up. He therefore cut the rope. Although Simon knew that he had no choice and would certainly have died if he had not done this, and although Joe later fully endorsed the decision, it took Simon ten years to come to terms with his own action.

When the rope was cut Joe fell into a crevasse. He managed to crawl out and over the following days he made his way down the mountain to their camp, dragging his useless leg and suffering agonies of hunger and thirst. He describes this horrific journey in prose of extraordinary vividness. Although we know, of course, that he survived, the feeling of suspense never lets up as we read his narrative. It seems nearly incredible that anyone could survive such an experience.

Survive he did, however, and six operations later he continues to climb. He also became a fine writer, going on to give us other impressive books about mountaineering. This one contains excellent photographs that bring out the great beauty of the terrain that came so near to costing Simpson his life. My only quibble is that it would have been useful if the book included a glossary, since some of the mountaineering jargon is likely to be obscure to non-specialists.

18 March 2004

%T Touching the void
%A Simpsonx Joe
%I Vintage
%C London
%D 1988, 1997
%G ISBN 0-09-977011-2
%P 207 pp
%K travel
%O paperback edition
%O illustrated

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