by Kelly Bates
January 28, 2004
With the US release last weekend of Touching the Void, the lights have once again been all on Joe Simpson: an extraordinarily long appearance on Letterman, reviews from everywhere on the movie, and personal appearances for Q&A in L.A. last week and Denver two nights ago the buzz is all about Joe’s movie in climbing circles these last two weeks.
With good reason. The movie is fantastically done, and lives up to the book and unbelievable story that it is based upon. Even having read the book a month ago, I was riveted by the film, the first feature climbing movie since perhaps Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction to show climbing in a positive and realistic light.
Joe’s latest book is The Beckoning Silence. Written with perspective and breadth rather than just the depth of a single week in the mountains, as Touching the Void does, Simpson touches deep into the mountaineer’s heart and soul by describing how and why he wants to finish with the excess hazards of alpinism. Finishing with a tale of his last aborted alpine tick, the Nordwand of the Eiger, he again comes face-to-face with the reasons why he has to walk away.
The Beckoning Silence is a contemporary history of modern mountaineering, and a must-read for alpinists who want someone who can communicate, rather than just put down a series of historical events on paper and call it a book. If you don’t understand its purpose after the first chapter, you haven’t been in the mountains long enough yet.
The Beckoning Silence is consistently riveting and extraordinarily well crafted. By mixing wit and exquisite description in his writing, Simpson gives readers a breath from the gloom and doom of the book’s heavier topics. Climbing magazine
Renowned mountaineer Joe Simpson perhaps best know for his stunning self-rescue from a crevasse after Simon Yates cut the rope that bound them together on the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Alps, as told in the best-selling account Touching the Void has experienced ample shares of both tragedy and triumph. In The Beckoning Silence, Simpson gives an intimate portrait of why at age forty, after the deaths of close friends and heroes, he decides to give up mountaineering. Devising a tick list of climbs he must complete before quitting the sport forever, Simpson takes readers to the Eiger’s North Face his final adventure. Through his description of the mountain’s history and his own experience (which would also be touched by tragedy), Simpson reveals the inner truth of climbing, exploring the power of the mind and the frailty of the body.
From climbs in the Alps to the Bolivian Andes, from the Rockies to Spain, Simpson explores the attraction of rock and ice and the forces that drive him to climb in the face of extreme danger. In The Beckoning Silence, Simpson also includes hysterically funny anecdotes; rants about perceived travesties, including the discovery of Mallory’s body; and a grippingly personal description of his mother’s death all of which add depth and complexity to this tale-telling book.
Among Simpson’s adventures and reflection:
On an ice climb in poor conditions about the valley of La Grave in Hautes Alpes, France, Simpson realizes he has lost his desire to take big risks:
I had had to stand there and watch while the rest of my life was determined by the shaky adhesion of a few millimeters of frail, melting ice and the dubious friction of a tiny point of metal scratching against a flake of rock. In the past I might have felt that this was what it was all about. This was where you defined yourself, balanced tenuously between life and death. As I stood shakily on a fragile ledge of frozen vegetation, all my justifications for climbing seemed suddenly meaningless.
-Reflecting upon the deaths of fellow mountaineers and the dangers of nature:
Mountains are not especially well versed in the notions of fairness. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t always known and willingly accepted this simple fact, but increasingly I felt unhappy about choosing such risks. The attrition of friends over the years had begun to eat away at my confidence, at my nerve, if blind disregard for unavoidable risk can be described as such.
-On finding the sublime side of the mountain:
It seemed, sometimes, fleetingly, you could come close to the ineffable edge of perfection when it all goes to glory for the briefest of moments, an inarticulate moment, that leaves you with a vulnerable shattered sense of wonderment. It was life enhancing: pure emotion.
-On the emotional processing of the infamous incident with Simon Yates:
Over the years I had told and retold the story so many times that it had become slightly unreal to me, I began to wonder whether my memory was betraying me. Perhaps it hadn’t been so bad; maybe any good crawler worth his salt would have covered the distance in half the time without so much as a wince to betray the perfection of his stiff upper lip.
-On conflicted emotions in the face of tragedy:
I felt detached and thought of the lads falling and what it must have been like. I thought selfishly of myself and felt ashamed. We wouldn’t have to attempt a rescue now. I watched as the light and colors danced to the dying storm clouds. For a long silent moment I was lost, trying desperately to understand what had happened. I lowered myself to the mat and put my head in my hands. I wanted to cry for them, but I didn’t know how.
Joe Simpson is a well-known climber and author of the best-selling Touching the Void, for which he won the Boardman Tasker Award. His other books include This Game of Ghosts, Dark Shadow Falling, and Storms of Silence. A documentary based on Touching the Void and directed by Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald has just been released. For more information about Simpson, his books, and the film, visit www.noordinaryjoe.co.uk. Simpson resides in Sheffield, England.