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Joe Simpson: My journey back into the void Joe Simpson: His first reaction, he recalls, was straightforward horror. Why, the schoolboy wondered, would anyone want to risk their life climbing mountains?
In , 11 years after reading the book, Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, made the first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. On the way down, things went badly wrong.
Simpson, with a broken leg, ended up dangling helplessly on a rope over a crevasse the depth and scale of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral. Yates, believing him dead, cut the rope. It is to promote his latest film that he has agreed to meet in a hotel in central London.
His status as a superhuman hero who has survived against all odds had made me expect a colossus. Instead, opposite on the plush sofa sits a compact, tanned, and intense man, square-jawed and neatly dressed in the sort of sensible clothes essentially outdoor types wear when they pitch up in the city. For The Beckoning Silence, Simpson has returned to the Eiger and to those tales of doomed summit attempts that have remained imprinted on his memory since childhood.
One name in particular stood out: Toni Kurz, a year-old from Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, who, in July , went with three companions to Switzerland to climb the then still unconquered North Face. They failed after one of the party, Austrian Willy Angerer, suffered a severe head injury just as they looked set for the summit.
During the descent, an avalanche swept another of the quartet, Andreas Hinterstoisser, to his death, while two of the remaining three were left dangling on the rope over a crevasse. Angerer, now dead, was swinging at the bottom end of the rope. The fourth man, Edi Reiner, with the other end anchored round his middle, had been slowly asphyxiated by the pressure of the two bodies pulling on the rope, crushing his diaphragm.
That left Toni Kurz hanging in limbo, all alone between his two dead friends. The echoes of Simpson's own experience are unmistakable — and are fully explored in the new film. For he is uniquely well-placed to understand what Kurz must have been going through, all alone on that mountainside for 24 hours while frantic efforts were made to rescue him. That Simpson had begun his own climbing career after reading about Kurz gives a particular power to the story he is telling.
That was what took me and Simon to Siula Grande. So there will be people who watch the programme expecting it to work out fine. Even knowing the story as I do, I still want it to have a happy ending.
But it doesn't. That will come as a bit of a kick in the stomach. Kurz was encouraged to cut the rope beneath him to free himself from the body below.
Then he climbed up it — despite having frostbite in one of his hands — to a ledge where he found Reiner's corpse. But even after such a feat, he found he did not have enough rope to lower himself down to safety. So, with his one good hand, he set about unpicking the hemp rope they had been using, tied the three strands it was made of together like a piece of string, and dropped it to the rescuers below who attached a longer rope to it.
Kurz hauled it up and then started to abseil down, but got stuck at a knot in the new rope. He just couldn't get past. Only a matter of feet away from safety, and after a ferocious struggle to get by the knot, he gave up and, in full view of the rescuers, died. It made me cry when I watched the preview. Real men don't cry, of course, and sports don't come much more macho than mountaineering — pitting yourself against the elements with death just one wrong step away.
But on screen, at the moment of Kurz's death, Simpson was clearly moved. His eyes filled up and his voice broke. Face-to-face, however, he prefers to emphasise instead the heroism of Kurz. Most of us would not want to spend one day there.
So they were tough, very tough. And then it all went wrong at the very last moment. Three of them were dead and Kurz was hanging there, limping slowly down a rope in a nightmare storm towards the rescuers. It was almost as if he had come out of the past so he could tell their story to the guides before he died. And it has brought its own challenges.
What is it like, being forever seen as the man who cheated death? They're very good mechanics but with a very high opinion of themselves. It was the physios who got me going again. And I climbed if anything at a higher standard afterwards, but perhaps never quite with the same commitment. So he reels off his six attempts on the North Face of the Eiger between and — all beaten back by bad weather.
And how he has now hung up his boots and ropes, though he has come out of retirement briefly to film the climbing sequences in The Beckoning Silence. And arthritis. It wasn't that I couldn't climb any more. It was just that it hurt so much and I didn't want to be doing it any more. Two of them, Simpson recalls, died in when he was making his first attempt. Unfortunately the two lads above us were swept off. It shouldn't really have happened, but they were. It was quite distressing.
Bad stuff happens. Don't dwell on it. But doesn't the death toll among those he has known, not to mention his own brush with mortality, make him wonder if it is all worth it? I've climbed mountains all over the world. I had the most fabulous experiences. Yes, I lost friends. And some parts of it were sad.
And some parts of it were just immense. Simpson has homes in Sheffield — "only 10 minutes from the Peak District" — and in County Kerry, near Listowel, where his mother came from. There are his enthusiasms for fly-fishing and paragliding. It's beginning to sound a bit lonely. Simpson's colleague Simon Yates, by contrast, is now based in the Lake District with his wife and children and teaches climbing. Some have carried on climbing.
It is, arguably, a good word to describe Toni Kurz's obsession with climbing the North Face. It is one of the key themes of The Beckoning Silence, and an area where Simpson can cast much light on Kurz's mindset.
Perhaps once you have glimpsed the immensity, as Simpson puts it, at the top of a mountain, you are never quite the same again. The Beckoning Silence will be shown on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.
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