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Touching the Void - Review

Non-fiction, and specifically autobiography, is a new genre for me. I've been dabbling in it lately, having read Caitlin Moran's How To Be a Woman, and Marilyn Manson's The Long Hard Road Out of Hell (a teenage nostalgia!) However, Joe Simpson's Touching The Void is the first autobiographical novel I have read without having previous experience of the author. I chose to read Touching The Void based on the story alone.

I first noticed my dad reading the book on our recent trip to America. It's very rare to see my dad with a book, so I asked him about it. He told me it was about a climber who shattered his leg close to the summit of a mountain. He then continued to tell me of how "amazing" he found it (my dad does not use superlatives lightly) and how "unbelievable" it was that a human could undergo so much and survive to tell the tale.
I was intrigued. Mountain climbing is not something I am necessarily interested in, but then it's nothing my dad is interested in either and he was hooked! I asked if I could borrow the book when he was finished. It turned out I had to wait a few months, because my dad was so eager to share it with others, he had forgotten about me! However, I have finally read it, and here is what I thought:

Touching the Void is an inspirational recount of human survival against ridiculous odds.

When Joe and his climbing partner Simon reach the summit of Siula Grande, Peru in the 90's, having climbed the West Face, they achieve something no one has ever done before. When Joe takes a disastrous fall soon after, however, everything changes and they face the possibility that no one may ever know they made it. As their luck turns, both men stare death in the face - both literally and metaphorically - and display human endurance as "unbelievable" as my dad testified.
Joe's leg literally breaks in two on his fall, and though Simon lowers him through the night on 300ft of rope towards base camp, he soon faces a moral dilemma it is hard to imagine: Unable to walk, and half way through a "lower", Joe hangs on the end of a rope attached to Simon above an abyss, as an avalanche pushes Simon closer towards the edge of a ledge. Does Simon save himself, by cutting the rope at his waist to be free of the already-doomed and injured Joe? Or does he stay attached, holding Joe but fated to fall over the edge to join him?

I wont tell you what he chooses, if you don't already know, but the resulting story is gripping.

Image from Wikipedia

Initially, I found reading Touching The Void a bit of a struggle. I found I didn't like Joe, and thought him a little arrogant. That soon changed however, as I realised his head-strong attitude is probably what saved him. It even began to endear him at the hardest parts of his journey.
The second struggle I had was that I wasn't a climber. Joe tells his story in a very uncomrimising slew of mountaineering terms without explaination of what they mean. This is probably what made me think him "arrogant" at the beginning. Once I had taken the time to Google a "belay plate", a "col" and "moraines", however, the story began to flow more for me.
The third struggle was in coming back to the book after a break. Re-establishing myself in the story took longer than any other book, due to the similarity of all the situations the climbers experience. Which crevasse were they on? Where were they during this storm? Was this ice cliff a decent or a traverse?

Once these small obstacles of the book were overcome, Touching The Void became inspiring. Never again will I look at the amount of things I need to achieve in a day and feel it's impossible!!

The most interesting part of Touching The Void, for me, was the retelling of the emotion at certain points in the journey. The way the climbers felt about death, injury and about each other. How Joe welcomed danger amounting to death, but couldn't face suicide. The way achievements were not truly felt until the moment had passed, and they looked back at where they had come.

Touching The Void is an eye-opening insight to the world of mountain climbing, and a book to give anyone the motivation to Keep Going.

There is a film that was made of this book - I now have it on my "to watch" list.


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