Mountainside Miracle: Climbers Survive Ordeal : Partner Cuts His Rope, but He's Still Thankful

Times Staff Writer

Joe Simpson, one leg badly broken, was dangling helplessly above his doom in the Peruvian Andes, connected to life and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, by a 5/16-inch nylon line. Then Yates cut the rope to save his own life.

That's the crux of the story Simpson survived to tell in his book, "Touching the Void" (Harper & Row, $17.95). Simpson touches a nerve of the mountaineering community and the hearts of others who agonize with both men.

It's a different kind of mountain climbing book, one without recriminations among fellow climbers of a failed or tragic expedition or the glory of ascending Everest with an army of Sherpa porters.

Simpson and Yates were the only ones on the mountain Siula Grande in the spring of 1985, so the drama is sharply focused.

Until Simpson crawled into base camp three days later, Yates, about to start home the next morning, was so certain he had sent him to his death that he burned Simpson's clothes. He was wondering how to explain what had happened to their friends and Simpson's parents back in England.

Yates noted in passages he taped for the book, "I was as much a victim as Joe. No one cuts the rope."

And yet, Simpson's first words to Yates afterward were, "Thanks, Simon. You did right."

Simpson dedicated the book to Yates "for a debt I can never repay."

The way Simpson sees it, Yates saved both their lives by cutting the rope--incidentally, with Simpson's Swiss army knife that Yates had in his pack. If both men had gone over the edge, Simpson is certain they would have been linked in death.

"Simon made one mistake," Simpson said later. "He should have left me as soon as I broke my leg. We both knew then I was as good as dead."

Instead, Yates chose to try to lower Simpson down the mountain by rope, 300 feet at a time, battling storms, avalanches and frostbite.

Simpson said: "It is tragic that after the brilliant rescue that Simon carried out . . . after he saved my life, all anyone wants to talk about is how he cut the bloody rope. It was exactly the right decision."

Was Yates simply following some traditional code of climbing, a law of the mountain: "If you can't save the other guy, save yourself."?

Dan McConnell, media coordinator for expeditions out of Seattle, where many of America's top climbers are based, said: "Things like that have happened, but it's an experience that few have survived. Those situations, while few and far between, are real and have to be dealt with according to the conditions of the moment. There are no rules and guidelines."

Simpson and Yates achieved the first ascent of the difficult 4,500-foot west face of 21,000-foot Siula Grande and were descending when Simpson fell and broke his right leg.

Yates already had lowered Simpson 3,000 feet and was holding him unseen over a precipice when the snow seat he was using for leverage started to collapse.

Yates then executed the decision that would leave him twisting between guilt and reality for the next three days: "Joe was dead. I might as well have put a gun to his head and shot him. . . . I should feel guilty. I don't. . . . I hated the place for what it had made me do."

Unknown to Yates, Simpson barely missed a 3,000-foot drop and fell 100 feet into a cavern of snow and ice, from where he hopped and dragged himself back to camp. He figures he was lucky.

"If I had landed five feet to the left and gone down that big hole, I'd just have disappeared," Simpson said. "If I'd broken my leg on the first day (of the descent), there's no way Simon could have rescued me from high up on those fluted hills. No chance."

Simpson, 28, passed through Los Angeles on a promotional tour for the book recently and reflected on how the event has changed his life.

After receiving a Masters degree in philosophy and English from the University of Edinburgh, he was content just to climb mountains, even if it meant washing dishes to earn a living. He moved to Sheffield, which he calls "the capital of British climbing," as Seattle is to the U.S.

Then came Siula Grande, and initially, he said, "The climbing community was just stunned. I got some sort of folk fame in the climbing world, which I feel very embarrassed about because Simon has done far more climbing than me, and yet I'm better known for surviving something.

"Among the people I live among and respect, I'm really not deserving of that. You should get respect from climbing mountains, not from just having one accident.

"The other sad thing was that the face we climbed was a brilliant effort. It was a first ascent, a very hard ascent, we did it with style, and that has got completely forgotten."

In the book, Simpson writes that although he knew he "was done for," he feared death less than the possibility that both he and Yates might "disappear without a trace (and) they'd never know we did it."

God would have known, but that didn't interest Simpson. In the narrative of his ordeal, from when he broke his leg at 11 a.m. on June 8, to when Yates cut the rope at about 7:30 that night and until Simpson slumped into camp at 1 a.m. on June 11, he writes graphically of his fears--"My legs began to tremble . . . my nerve failed me"--but nowhere is there the slightest hint that he ever prayed for Divine assistance.

"My mother is southern Irish and as Roman Catholic as you can get," he said. "I was brought up going to monasteries, catechisms and all that, and at 16 I found I didn't have any faith.

"I did wonder, before Peru, if it came to a crunch whether I would think, 'Oh, sorry, I really didn't mean it.'

"When the rope was being cut, I knew I was going down, I absolutely and totally believed that this was the moment of my death. I never thought of calling out to God. I just thought, 'This is it.'

"I wonder if I was a stronger religious person, if I thought there was some life after death or anything else, whether I would have tried quite as hard, because I believe when you're dead you're dead. That's the end of everything."

Simpson will leave that debate to theologians, while he sorts out his new life of riches unknown to most mountaineers.

Yates, meanwhile, has shunned the spotlight and returned to his mountains, at peace with himself and his decision to cut the rope.

"It's quite clear to a mountaineer," Simpson said. "I don't think he gives a damn what a non-climber thinks. It's not his world and they don't really understand."

Asked what his parents would have thought of Yates, had Simpson not returned, Simpson said, "They would have reckoned he was guilty of homicide or something like that."

Simpson is 5-foot-8 1/2 and about 150 pounds. Dehydrated and starved, and after two days on a mule and another in the back of a pickup truck getting back to Lima, he said he lost about "three stone" (42 pounds) during the ordeal.

His right knee, where the bones jammed and crushed together, remains somewhat stiff when he walks, and after six operations his doctors tell him he may need an artificial hinge in a few more years.

In a way, Simpson seems to envy Yates.

"He's getting on with his climbing life, and my life has been irrevocably changed and will be again by whatever happens to my leg, but also by the fact that I've gone from being like Simon, which is penniless and living the anarchistic style that you do live, just to climb. You don't give a damn about a pension or security.

"I seem to have been accidentally catapulted into something I'm still trying to come to terms with. I got a big advance off the American (publishing) company. I've never seen that amount of money in my life. Don't know what to do with it.

"I wonder whether the whole rest of my life will get dictated by this one event, like people who fought in the war, and then the war finished, and they had nothing else in their lives but to feed back that experience."

The book was first published in Britain, where it sold about 10,000 copies.

"I thought it would sell about 2,000, which is what the average climbing book sells in Britain," Simpson said.

"What I get worried about is that I live in Sheffield. I have all my friends there, and people I live with are miles away from this world. Part of the reason for stuffing all the money into some investment accounts is to pretend I haven't got it. I don't want to lose that."

There is talk of a film being made from the book.

"I think it would be a very difficult film to make, to make it sensitively," Simpson said. "You could make the death and glory on the mountain top adventure, but a lot of the action in the book is in my head and in Simon's head."

Simpson has climbed a little since, but nothing as demanding as Siula Grande.

"It doesn't mean I climbed beyond my limits," Simpson said. "Simon and I were at the top end of mountaineering levels (where) your risk levels are so much higher. (But) I wouldn't push the boat out quite as far as Simon is doing now. Maybe I got a bit too scared."

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