Mountaineering & Expeditions

Touching the Void | Exploring The ‘Why We Climb Mountains’ Question Through Performance Art

How the tale of Simon Yates' and Joe Simpson's infamous climb in the Andes was brought to life on stage

Featured Image: ‘Touching The Void’ on stage || Credit: Geraint Lewis

The question over why people climb mountains is one that has been asked for generations.

In the 18th and early 19th century, mountains were seen as places of peril, not attraction. No one in their right mind would climb one. In the years that followed, solutions to the everyday hardships of the time arose, however. Mountains were glamorized as urban developments became the norm and the landscape paintings of the Romantic artists were popularised. Fear was replaced with fascination and mountains, for many, came to symbolise freedom.

“People who aren’t mountaineers want to know what on Earth is going through your head”

In 1923 George Mallory would provide the New York Times with probably the most famous ever response to the question of why one would climb a mountain: “because it’s there.”

It seems to be the question that draws the mainstream to the world of mountaineering most often, and to its rich artistic heritage, which encourages more people to climb every day. Heinrich Harrer’s remarkable The White Spider launched a generation to follow him up the Eiger. Alex Honnold’s oscar-winning Free Solo is arguably the most heralded film in any sporting sphere in years, and – for better or worse – is likely to inspire more free-climbers.

Possibly the most frequently told mountaineering tale of our time, though, is that of Simon Yates and Joe Simpson’s ascent of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, which would lead to Simon having to cut Joe’s rope, Joe surviving and crawling back to safety, and the story being immortalised as Touching the Void; an award-winning book, film, and now, a play.

Screenshot: ‘Touching The Void’ (Film, 2003, directed by Kevin MacDonald)

“The play makes you think a lot more about why people climb mountains,” says Yates. “For me, that’s kind of the most interesting thing about climbing. Particularly for people who aren’t mountaineers – they want to know what on Earth is going through your head. I don’t think that really came across in the film.”

The film was famously controversial for ending on a note which suggested Yates received widespread criticism in the climbing community for cutting the rope upon his return to Britain, when in fact, that was not the case. Simpson has always defended Yates decision, stating numerous times that he made the right call and put his own life in considerable danger trying to get Joe back down the mountain. Yates, for his part, describes the film as a “car crash”.

“Because it’s there”

I ask Simon how, having had his story told by so many third parties in so many different mediums and forms, he views the adaptation of outdoor expeditions for mainstream art.

“I think the problem with [climbing] crossing over to a mainstream audience is that they don’t completely understand the mechanics of it,” he says, “and unless you completely understand the mechanics of it, you can’t fully understand the rest; how much danger they’re in, whether someone is at fault or not, the big things there, so they’re viewing it on a different level.”

Credit: Geraint Lewis

For Simon, where art can excel in dealing with mountains is in that age-old question of why exactly mountaineers do it, and in capturing the unique moments that provide the answer.

“If you can get moments that touch people, then that’s big,” he says. “There’s a moment in the play that really touched something for me. The mountain is depicted with this fantastic aluminium sculpture and they’re stuck in a snow hole on the mountain and they’re enthralled. It’s this magical moment. They’re looking saying ‘nobody has ever seen this before’. A little moment like that captures for me why you do it.

“In his books he’s kind of tortured about climbing. He finds complexity in it”

“The problem with filming, unless you were filming someone like Ueli Steck, is that it all happens at a snail pace, and people don’t do snails pace anymore.

A lot of the time [while climbing], it’s not dull, it’s just not a lot is happening. The thing that you spend more time doing than anything else is sitting in the tent making snow to melt water to make brews. It’s one of the most important things you do, but it’s not interesting TV.”

Touching the Void was adapted for the stage by David Greig, Artistic Director at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. The production makes creative, engaging use of the space and props and tells the story of Joe and Simon in what, at this point, is a surprisingly refreshing manner. It garnered great crowds and better reviews, including five stars from The Guardian.

David is a self-proclaimed “back of the pack” ultra runner, too.

“I love ultras and I run a lot of them,” he says. “I’m not accomplished, but I understand why people would throw themselves up mountains or put themselves in extreme situations.”

No stranger to writing about mountaineering, having also penned Himalayan expedition play “8000m” in 2004, I ask Greig how he handles the challenge of taking a rock face to the confined walls of the stage.

“They’re looking saying ‘nobody has ever seen this before’. A little moment like that captures for me why you do it”

“The stage isn’t very interested in physical drama,” he says. “It’s interested in emotional conflict and particularly conflict between humans. In film you can have someone climbing and a rock wobbles and you see their sweat and think ‘oh god’. It’s very easy to film that in a way that gets people feeling the drama but it’s very hard to do on stage for a lot of reasons, but not least that the audience know the person is on stage, so it’s difficult to get excited.

“However, what the stage is incredibly good at is getting inside people’s minds, their relationships and desires, so what we decided very early on is that we were going to start by putting elements of human drama in there. The way that we did that was by digging into a little moment in the book where Joe talks about a voice in his head that really drives him on during his long crawl down the mountain. He doesn’t say too much about the voice but Tom [Morris, director] noticed that in one of Joe’s other books, This Game of Ghosts, he talks about his sister, when he’s growing up, and the way in which she kind of taunted him.

“In his books he’s kind of tortured about climbing. He finds complexity in it. Why do we do it? Why do we enjoy it? What are the morals around it? When do we have responsibility for the people we’re climbing with and when do we have responsibility for ourselves?

Credit: Geraint Lewis

“He asks all these very angonised questions, so we thought there may be a way to dramatise the internal conflicts Joe has and let them be the conflicts of the piece. The way I approached that most simply was by bringing Joe’s sister as a character in the story.”

The character of Joe’s sister, not involved in the original Touching the Void at all, was used to address the fact that not everyone in the audience would be a climber. She plays a pivotal role in the audience’s understanding of various parts, including the cutting of the rope, and how the act isn’t a callous decision, but rather a horrifying yet life-saving necessity.

“You can’t assume the audience is going to know about climbing but at the same time you don’t want to spend an enormous amount of time pretending they don’t,” David says.

“One of the first things I kept thinking about non-climbers was that it was going to be very difficult to get them to care about Joe, because they were going to start by thinking ‘they shouldn’t have been there to start with.’

Credit: Geraint Lewis

“So the only way this was going to work is if I won over the audience very early on to root for these two boys. We begin with Joe’s funeral and the idea that the story should’ve ended with Joe dying. We start with the sister who’s left behind and this brother who has died far too young climbing and the drama of what she’s going through as she tries to understand why he would do that. Then spoiler alert, he didn’t die, and there’s a way in which we realise what’s going on, and then we can get into the story.

“I really wanted climbers to like it too, though. I think it’s fair to say that climbers are kind of an outsider group, so my way in for the climbers was to recognise that, to let them see we had done our research and hope that then they would let their guard down and come with us on our journey. That was little things like using the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe as a setting.”

Simon certainly thought that it worked.

Credit: Geraint Lewis

“There are elements of This Game of Ghosts in it, Joe’s third book,” Simon says. “In my mind it’s by far the best book that he’s written. A large part of that book is about why people climb mountains and a large part of the play focused on that. The sister works as a great tool. It kind of touches on much bigger questions and it’s just much more interesting and much more thoughtful than the film.”

The events of Touching the Void didn’t put either Simon or Joe off climbing. Simon was climbing the Alps weeks later, and scaled the North Face of the Eiger that summer.

“Basically… it didn’t change anything,” he admits. “Obviously it was a traumatic and unpleasant thing to live through but already at that stage I’d seen people die climbing. Our friend was killed climbing, so when you put it against that it wasn’t a bad outcome, was it?”

Pictured: Simon Yates

Simon is now 56 years old. He’s climbed all over the world for the best part of a lifetime, spending April climbing in Alaska, and shows no signs of getting off the wall anytime soon.

“Personally, as I get older I actually enjoy climbing mountains more and more in the moment,” he says. “Because I’m less and less scared basically.

“To kind of blow it at 56 when you’ve spent 35 years climbing mountains… at least you’ve done something with your life, haven’t you?”

“When I was younger there was a certain amount of anxiety and fear which is gone now, largely because of my mountain experience and, well, there’s more to lose on some levels, if you’ve got a family, but on another level, you haven’t got a whole life in front of you.

“To kind of blow it at 56 when you’ve spent 35 years climbing mountains and you’ve been to pretty much every group of mountains bar one or two that you want to go to… if you blow it then, at least you’ve done something with your life, haven’t you?”

We’ll leave it to the playwrights and the philosophers to grab the life lessons there.

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