Touching the Void rapidly entranced me as I fell into its pages. The ease with which I was captivated into this adventure narrative was less likely an effect of Joe Simpson’s descriptive prowess, and more likely due to the staging on his part of imminent danger that I was intentionally dropped into as a reader. Simpson chooses to begin his harrowing tale with a map. Notably, instead of a mountainous route describing someone’s ascent to the summit of a mountain, Simpson’s map is illustrated with disasters. “Snow Hole” sites quickly give way to “Accident” sites, “Rope Cut” sites, nights spent alone, cliffs, and crevasses. Following this intimidating map, the story begins at the mountain’s base. There is no forward to climbing besides a single reconnaissance trip that is described as little more than an afternoon hike. Both Joe Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates seem equally surprised at the ease of the exertion, stating that “it’s a height record for both of us, and we seem hardly to have noticed” (cue ominous music)(22). The next few pages are subsequently fraught with descriptions of being “bloody frightened,” of “trying not to worry,” and jokes about obituary photos, all of which added to my feeling of an impending doom (26,27). Obviously, I was expecting tragedy with an after-title like “The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival,” but my reading of the narrative was nonetheless affected by the tone of the early chapters.
This narrative excels at putting a reader into the mindset of the climber as they are climbing. This is unique from the other narratives that we have read, and significant, in that thought processes and doubts are included into the story. Decision-making, dealing with unforeseen circumstances (i.e. climbing ahead of your partner and forgetting to get their ice screws), and conferring between group members whilst confronting personal doubts and fears, is undoubtedly a huge part of what it is like to climb, so it’s something of a surprise that this level of insight is new to me. I suppose these aspects of mountain story telling are exaggerated by the method and style of the climb itself. The plotting of routes, the conference of teammates, and the decisions that are made are done against a vertical wall of ice, with nothing but foot spikes and ice tools separating the storyteller from death. I’m not saying that the previous adventures we have read about lacked strategy, danger, or gut wrenching views to a ground below, but that those aspects of the climbs were far more removed from the reader’s eye.