Saturday, September 21, 2013

Touching a Void

Not that I was waiting with bated breath (not after ten years anyway), but I finally watched the film Touching the Void (2003) a few nights ago, and I found it both a fulfillment of my expectations and something less. What I expected was another paean to mountain climbing in general, a celebration of what compels perfectly healthy and seemingly contented people to risk losing it all scaling the world's highest mountain peaks - going where few people (or no one in Touching the Void) have gone before. What I didn't expect, even after reading Stanley Kauffmann's less than laudatory review, was that the film should ultimately be so, well, vacuous. Not because it is poorly made. It's actually quite beautifully made.(1) I found it vacuous because it's far more impressive than its subject.

With neither elaboration nor embroidery, the film - a "docudrama" (with the dramatic events re-enacted as described by the real participants of the drama) - tells the somewhat belated story of how, in 1985, two experienced mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, climbed the West face of Siula Grande, a 20,813 foot high mountain in the Peruvian Andes. These two Englishmen arrive at their decision because no one has ever attempted to climb the West Face, for excellent reasons (as the film makes clear), and also to attempt an "Alpine Climb," without any preparation, proceeding directly from their base camp to the top of the mountain, carrying all that they think they will need in backpacks. They take on this challenge with a strangely and ominously casual manner, like it's a weekend outing.

The "void" in the film's title is left undefined. It could refer to the void beyond the earth's atmosphere to which standing atop a 20,000 foot mountain puts one a little closer. Or the title could refer to the void to which we all go eventually. Both climbers come up against this second void during the course of their descent from the mountain peak. As I expected, however, the film doesn't come close to living up to its vaunted title.

Leaving all their gear at base camp with a fellow they barely know (he doesn't even know their full names), Simpson and Yates set out and manage to reach the mountain peak without complications. On their descent, however, they choose the North Ridge, and soon find themselves running out of supplies and poorly equipped to get down. While Yates is slowly lowering Simpson, Simpson painfully fractures his leg. With his hands frozen and with poor weather bearing down on them, Yates is faced with no other choice but to cut the rope bearing Simpson. Simpson falls into an ice cave, banged up but alive. When Yates arrives there, he assumes that Simpson is dead, and continues down the mountain. The rest of the story is "re-created" quite effectively. But one has to wonder if the risks that the film's cast and crew took to re-create the events of 1985 weren't greater and more impressive than the events themselves.

What the film also left me wondering, as all these moutaineering movies do, is, finally, why? Why do they do it? The old answer, as George Mallory put it ("because it's there"), was never intended to provide an answer. Another answer I've heard is "if you need to ask why, you'll never understand the answer." This sort of evasiveness makes me think that the mountain climbers themselves don't have a clear grasp of their reasons for so routinely and, to me, foolhardedly risking their necks for such a dubious achievement.

George Plimpton once said that ordinary people admire great athletes because of their ability to perform physical feats with ease and grace that are extremely difficult for us mere humans. A mountain climber is called an "athlete," but climbing a mountain requires neither talent nor athletic ability. A tiny but - significantly - growing number of people climb mountains. There are so few of them, obviously, not because it is so difficult but because, like sky diving, it is inordinately hazardous. Most of us would rather avoid putting our lives at risk. We prefer safer, even vicarious, thrills (like movie thrillers).

The pride that mountain climbers presumably attain in the pursuit of their hobby comes at a price that the vast majority of people is unprepared to pay. In his review of Touching the Void, Stanley Kauffmann was more explicit:

"Mountain climbing, of all dangerous sports, has always seemed to me the silliest . . . The very word 'sport' seems fraudulent. Other risky pursuits have some grace in them, some sense of competition, of victory or defeat: mountain climbing has none. Worse, what we may take for admiration of the climber's courage is - admitted or not - a decline into degeneracy. Death is what we are watching for . . . Further, mountain climbing, more than any other risk-taking, is wrapped is vacuous philosophy, even theology, flourishing out of its physical aspects."

Practitioners of "extreme sports" like mountain climbing have become known, contemptuously, as "adrenaline junkies." But I think this is inaccurate. I think that it is for something much more basic that these people go to such extremes. When a mountain climber reaches the peak and looks out over the world below, is he not feeling, at last, what the rest of us feel upon waking up in the morning? Who we are, where we are, what day it is, what time it is? Neurologists may one day discover, as some already claim to have done, that a chemical present in a sufficient quantity in the brains of most people that is responsible for their feeling of sentience, of being alive, is conspicuously lacking in a few others, who have to climb mountains to attain the same degree of sentience.

(1) Directed by Kevin Macdonald and photographed (spectacularly) by Mike Eley and Keith Partridge.

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