A recent article on "Touching the Void" focused on the reactions of mountaineers to films about their often deadly avocation. Many commented that virtually no movie dealing with mountain climbing felt real to them. I suspect that Kevin MacDonald's gripping part re-enactment, part-documentary may be the rare exception that will capture the interest of amateur and professional mountaineers. (I haven't climbed since 1966 when I and two fellow Army officers set the record for summiting Seoul, Korea's Namsan from its almost inaccessible east face.)
Simon, a very experienced climber, and Joe, a younger devotee, sought to be the first to reach the top of Peru's Siula Grande through a forbidding and unconquered approach. Before heading to a remote location to establish a base camp they picked up Richard, a traveler with no experience or interest in climbing but a hale-fellow-well-met willing to babysit the camp while the two adventurers climbed.
Getting to the top of the summit via an often near-sheer face was daunting enough and the duo made it. The trip back was the disaster. As one commented, eighty percent of injuries and deaths occur on the way down. Joe took a fall sustaining a very serious leg injury causing limited mobility, intractable pain and major damage. Simon figured out a way for the two to continue their descent but Joe later went crashing over the side and hung helplessly swinging in the air, his dead weight immobilizing Simon. Arguably both would have perished if this condition continued.
In what remains a roiling full-fledged controversy amongst the mountaineering fraternity, Simon believed he could only save his life by cutting the rope from which Joe, with whom he could not communicate, dangled. The rope cut, Simon made his way back to base camp sure that his companion was dead. Simon's descent was perilous but compared to the still living Joe's evolving ordeal it was a walk in the park.
Over almost a week, Joe survived on no food, virtually no water and sheer guts and determination to live. His trip down the mountain to within range of the tent where his weak voice was heard by the about to decamp climber and assistant is a truly unique and compelling survivor story, one of the most dramatic ever brought to film.
Both the real climbers and Richard are narrators whose story unfolds between re-enactments by non-speaking but truly athletic actors. The make-up crew did wonders here to capture the brutal battering each sustained, especially Joe, during the climb and descent. The photography is magnificent.
Joe has always maintained that he too would have cut the rope had his position and Simon's been reversed but his open and repeated acceptance of Simon's desperate act has been rejected by many mountaineers. I was particularly fascinated by this issue since as a law professor I begin my Criminal Law course, as do very many colleagues, with the very issue of necessity as a justification for one person to save his life by sacrificing the lives of others (no mountains but two celebrated cases involving the sea, one English, the other American, provide very similar moral and legal dilemmas to Simon and Joe's excruciating situation). While no legal action ensued from the Peru near tragedy, the same issues are there and remain for viewers to think about and discuss.
Both Joe and Simon continue to climb, Joe after six operations to his shattered leg. Their accomplishment in scaling Siula Grande has not to date been duplicated. That must give each extraordinary satisfaction.
This film is almost in a class of its own and I suspect it will become a talking point for climbers. For today's audience, attention was rapt and sighs and gasps escaped involuntarily as the climbers, and Joe especially, encountered one near fatal obstacle after the other.