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Cutoff point

Times Staff Writer

The three questions Joe Simpson fields most often concern God, friendship and the life-or-death decision that in many ways made him the sort of character strangers walk up to and ask intimate, philosophical questions.

So far, no one has asked him the question he finds most intriguing, says the British mountaineer, now 44. But that too no doubt will come with the growing chatter about “Touching the Void,” a docudrama that seems likely to blast Simpson past Jon “Into Thin Air” Krakauer as the most famous living mountaineer/author-turned-quasi-hero-of-a-semidocumentary-film-based- on-a-nonfiction-high-altitude-thriller.

“Touching the Void,” which opens Feb. 6 in L.A., recounts the story Simpson told in his bestselling book of the same title. The year was 1985 and he and a climbing partner, Simon Yates, had just made a 3 1/2-day first ascent of the western face of Siula Grande, a remote, notoriously tough 20,853-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes.

As they worked their way down, Simpson blundered off an ice cliff, driving the bones of his lower leg through his knee and jerking taut the rope attached to Yates on the cornice above.

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Faced with as wretched a situation as a climber can imagine, Yates began the tedious, treacherous process of lowering himself and Simpson down the snow-encrusted face.

For a long time, the two made excruciatingly slow but hopeful progress.

Then Simpson plummeted off another ledge and hung twirling in space, his weight slowly jerking Yates down the slope.

The decision Yates finally made became climbing legend. Using the only knife the two had between them, he sawed through his fully conscious partner’s lifeline. As Simpson wrote: “Like something come alive, the rope lashed violently against my face and I fell silently, endlessly into nothingness, as if dreaming of falling.”

Yates, logically assuming him dead, continued down on his own. Simpson landed 150 feet below at the bottom of a dark crevasse, where he began the days-long crawl to beat death that is the heart of “Void’s” tale.

Sappy celebrity

Simpson snorts derisively at the surge of celebrity-style adulation that’s swept over him as a result of the film, in which he and Yates appear on camera narrating while actors re-create the events.

As a species, high-altitude climbers make a show of their disdain for all things phony, hyped or melodramatic. Time after time the community has collectively cringed as even the best stories -- including Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” -- got tarted up for the screen.

“I was worried,” Simpson says of the people who bought the rights to tell his story on camera, “that they’d make a bad movie, like ‘Vertical Limit.’ ”

John Smithson, who (with Sue Summers) co-produced “Void,” says he had climbers’ reputations as harsh critics in mind from the start. He immediately brought on a team of British mountaineers to check the authenticity of every knot and 1980s piece of gear and clothing. And aside from digitally erasing in post-production a few extraneous ropes or tracks in the snow, the team eschewed special effects and shot entirely on location, grabbing long shots at high altitudes in the Peruvian Andes and doing the re-creations as real storms roared through the Alps in Europe.

Like others on the crew who lacked mountaineering experience, director Kevin Macdonald learned to use ropes, an ice axe and crampons. He also hiked for three or four days to reach some sites, and slept in tents or mountaineering huts on location, gulping down Diamox for altitude sickness.

“We never had the money to build a crevasse in a studio,” says Smithson. “Plus, we realized early on that you can’t beat the ferocity of a mountain storm to get actors to react -- you can’t beat that realistic jeopardy.”

“We wanted actors to be acting as little as possible,” says Macdonald.

Not everyone is entirely persuaded by the film.

George Butler, who directed the Arnold Schwarzenegger documentary “Pumping Iron” and the Imax documentary “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure,” believes Macdonald strayed by re-creating scenes in a mountain range continents away from where the events occurred. “Suppose I made ‘Pumping Iron’ again and put Arnold back into a contest he wasn’t in?”

So far, though, climbers seem smitten.

“I’m running the reels through my mind, and off the top of my head it’s the best [mountaineering film] I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them,” says Jed Williamson, past president of the American Alpine Club.

Smithson recalls sitting in a Soho theater beside Simpson as the climber got his first glimpse of the movie. “If Joe had hated the movie, he’d have said so, and that was more frightening than being lowered down a crevasse.”

But Simpson’s own take on the film is reflected in the shy pride that sweeps across his chiseled face as he recounts one legendary mountaineer’s critique: “Conrad Anker called it ‘the best mountaineering film I’ve ever seen.’ ”

Simpson takes some credit for the film’s credibility. “Without blowing our own trumpets, Simon and I were just scrupulously honest,” he says. “Kevin spent the better part of a month trying to make me cry on camera. I wouldn’t do it.”

The answers

That understated, straightforward approach comes through as Simpson discusses the questions people most frequently ask him: Do you believe in God? Are you and Simon still friends? If you were in Yates’ place, would you have cut the rope?

Answer No. 1: “I never thought an omnipresent being would come and save me.”

Answer No. 2: He and Yates have had a falling out of late, but even in 1985 they were just climbing partners, not -- “this is the biggest load of primal-screaming, tree-hugging, male-bonding [British expletive] ...” -- “bosom buddies,” as some seem determined to believe.

Answer No. 3: Yes. There was no alternative.

And the better, bonus question that no one asks?

What few realize, Simpson says, is that he and Yates had only one knife between them -- his knife. If it had been in his pocket, as usual, and not with Yates, the situation would have been reversed.

As Simpson dangled there, slowly dragging his partner toward catastrophe, he would have been the one with the God-like power.

Simpson cocks an eyebrow. “I’d have been effectively killing myself for someone else,” he says. “Would I have done it?” Pause. “No.”

Facial shrug. “Dying is a big deal.”


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