fri 06/12/2019

'By the end I’d lost me': Joe Simpson, mountaineer and writer - interview | reviews, news & interviews

'By the end I’d lost me': Joe Simpson, mountaineer and writer - interview

'By the end I’d lost me': Joe Simpson, mountaineer and writer - interview

The story of Touching the Void has been told and retold. Its author explores its appeal

Joe Simpson: the rime of the ancient mountaineer?

In Peru in 1985, Joe Simpson - then 25 - and his 21-year-old climbing partner Simon Yates were descending the remote Siula Grande, which was hard to get up but even harder to get down, when Simpson broke his leg. They both assumed it was a death sentence, but Yates gave him a couple of paracetamol, dug himself into a bucket seat in the snow and lowered the stricken Simpson down the mountain slope, paying out 300ft of rope, then climbing down and doing it again, and again, for hours.

A blizzard blew in, Simpson was lowered over an overhanging ledge, and at that point the rope ran out. Dangling above the yawning maw of a crevasse, Simpson knew - and knew that Yates knew - that eventually his partner would lose his seating and tumble past him, killing them both. Yates made what seemed the only possible choice: he severed the rope to save himself. The next morning Yates trudged back to base camp, believing Simpson was dead. He wasn’t.

How he survived is a story that insists on being told and retold, first in the bestseller Touching the Void, followed by countless lectures and talks all over the world, then in the documentary film of 2003. More than three decades on, Simpson’s story has become a play, adapted by David Greig and directed by Tom Morris for Bristol Old Vic last year, now transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre (pictured below by Michael Wharley). He talks here about an epic escape that has assumed the form of a grand eternal myth – how Simpson's story, like Simpson in that story, refuses to die.Touching the Void. Photo by Michael WharleyJASPER REES: How many times have you told the story of Siula Grande?

JOE SIMPSON: God’s teeth. I don’t know. Thousands. I free-talk it every time. I don’t read from notes, it’s not structured in that sense. You’ve got to tell a story.

What is the most common question?

There’s three. Are you and Simon still friends? Everyone asks that. When you were in Peru did you call on God to help you? I understand why people ask that. Would you have done the same thing? Yeah.

Is there a part of you that wishes that cock-up had never happened?

Yeah, at the end of a day of interviews. Or going and telling the same story again and again. But no not really. There’s something I’ve been asked a few times and I’m always staggered that I’m ever asked it. In book signings someone will come up to me and said, “Look, given the success you’ve had with the writing and all that, would you think if you knew you were going to have all that success it would be worth having that experience?” I looked at him and thought, I think you’ve missed the point. Hypothetically you’d have to go back and have that experience, knowing that you were going to die all the time – just no way.

Are you manacled to this story?

All that happened in Peru was that we had an accident. That wasn’t an accident, given the level we were climbing at. The surprise was that we survived it. I by the same token am the guy who fell off a mountain and crawled home. Now I’ve done a lot more things in my life, which I didn’t do to be known by but are important achievements to me, whether they are other climbing expeditions or paragliding expeditions or books I’ve written or things like that. So the first book I wrote, certainly the mountaineering one has become an all-time classic, a much loved book everywhere else. I never intended to be an author. Am I manacled to it? No. A good book is first and foremost a good story. Well this is one hell of a story. It doesn’t mean it was necessarily easy to write it well, if I did write it well. I wrote it in seven weeks. It almost wrote itself. It came from the heart. So I don’t think I’m manacled because I don’t think of it in those terms. I don’t think, well I’ll never beat Void. But that’s what Simon and me will be famous for. But there’s a lot worse things to be famous for. It’s not as if it’s done us any harm.

If a golfer was losing his golfing partner every year, he’d stop playing golf

Is your story of survival Shackletonian?

My favourite book before I became a mountaineer was Apsley Cherry Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. I thought that was an extraordinary book – this whole concept of walking in the dark in winter, and then the next book was The White Spider which just took me to pieces. It’s one of the grimmest books. Jesus it’s grim. It’s very old-style. But I was 14 and it inspired me to climb. My logic was, God this is so awful what they’re doing, there must be something really good in this if they think this is worth enduring. I get young climbers coming up to me saying, “I read Touching the Void and it inspired me to climb.” And I look at them and think, you off your head? But I did exactly the same thing.

It’s not about climbing though.

No. But as mountaineers – we perceive ourselves a mountaineers – that was a very fine route. It took 17 years before anybody repeated it. But actually it’s dismissed in 40 pages because it was the psychological trauma of two people that was the story. And that’s why of all the people who’ve read it, 85 percent of them are not climbers. So there’s something in this story that is almost like an everyman thing. George Steiner would have called it a document of philosophical witness or something. And the irony is the only two people who don’t get it are Simon and I because it was our reality. And we just think, we’re not being casual when we say we had a bad day at the office, it was an accident, we survived, we learnt from the lessons and became better mountaineers, and went mountaineering again.

What did you find out about yourself in your slow journey back to the base camp?

I’ll tell you one thing. I’ve read a lot of adventure books. This thing about survival. You read them and they become heroes to you and I seem to think that there was something heroic – bullshit word for a start - and just something extraordinarily glorious or whatever, and discovered to my increasing dismay that it wasn’t that. It was a low slow sordid destruction of self. Anything that you thought of yourself as a man, whether you were strong or brave or any of these things, they were all just taken to pieces in a very slow destructive way. By the end I’d lost me. And when I came back, that Joe has never been there again. Somebody described me as having an ego the size of K2. I was really pissed off with that. Jesus, the one thing serious climbers are not is egotistical. The one thing these mountains do to you is make you humble. If you have an experience like that you are not a lesser person for it but you are a humbled person. (Pictured below: Josh Williams in Touching the Void. Photo by Bill Knight for theartsdesk)Josh Williams, Touching the Void. Photo by Bill Knight for theartsdeskWhy do climbers make good writers?

It’s extraordinary, the quality of literature that mountaineering has produced over the years. Philosophical and psychological documents of extraordinary things. Not high-altitude willy wavers. You get that as well, saying how great they are, but some extraordinary books. And you don’t get that out of football or golf. I always say that if a golfer was losing his golfing partner every year he’d stop playing golf. You still carry on climbing. Now that says something about climbing, not the people who are doing it. It says that the quality of the literature, you know the risk and you still take it, credit the people who are doing it with some intelligence. There must be something quite powerful in here for them to want to do that. That fascinates me. The irony is the more you write about it and the more you think about it the less you can do it. Because you’ve opened this Pandora’s box and you shouldn’t think like that. You can’t rein in your fear then. You let it all out and start examining it, you really get stuffed.

What do you make of commercial mountaineering?

Why would you want to go to the highest mountain in the world to sit at a base camp with three hundred other climbers of all nationalities, to climb the same route using enough oxygen to get you to the moon and back, more fixed ropes than they used in ‘53, climb in a worse style than they originally climbed, pay a huge amount of money to do so, to connect yourself on your sat phone immediately you get through to base camp and be in contact with the real world? The whole point about climbing is going off and having an adventure somewhere where you’re not in contact with the real world. The whole point about climbing like we do is we didn’t have walkie talkies. We wanted it to be real. That’s not why I go to the mountains. The money it would cost you to get guided up Everest you could go on 10 expeditions to remote mountains and go and climb 6 or 7,000-metre mountains that nobody’s climbed before and have wonderful adventures and keep looking over ridges that no one has never looked over.

When was your first scary climb?

My first rock climb when I was about 14. First ice climbing when I was about 18. Serious mountains, 18, 19. The first climbing I remember is the Alpine climbing group which is an elite part of the Alpine club. You can only be a member of the Alpine climbing group if you’ve done six of the hardest routes in the Alps and proved to be doing progressive climbing, which means either exploration or new routes. Although Simon and I seemed young we’d done an awful lot of climbing. We’d go and live all summer and winter in the Alps and we’d do in one year what somebody else would do in 10.

You were at Edinburgh University. What did you study?

My honours was in world theatre, in drama, studying it rather than poncing around like an actor. I was fascinated by stagecraft. But I was involved in an avalanche in the middle of it and went a bit off the rails. And so I left for a year and when I came back I couldn’t finish my honours, so I did philosophy, and that gave me an MA. My dissertation was on "The Strengths and Limitations of Existentialism as a Form of Literary Criticism". I couldn’t possibly have thought of a harder thing. You had to define existentialism, which nearly killed me.

  • Touching the Void at Duke of York's Theatre until 29 February
If you have an experience like that you are not a lesser person for it but you are a humbled person

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters