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Hell in the Andes: Brendan Mackey endures the great south white in 'Touching the Void.'

Mountain Main

'Touching the Void' chronicles a nerve-racking descent that tested two climbers to the limit

By Richard von Busack

AMERICAN filmgoers are fascinated with the English, especially the particular calmness they are supposed to muster in times of stress. Because of recent movies, however, we are beginning to regard this coolheadedness as more myth than fact. The new-model Brit is something of a Hugh Grant gabbler and ditherer.

Now comes the mercilessly taut true-life thriller Touching the Void, based on climber Joe Simpson's memoir. This excruciating story of a famous mountaineering accident is directed by Kevin Macdonald, who did the equally gripping documentary about the Munich hostage situation, One Day in September.

The simple machinery of the movie winches the nerves. Meanwhile, the matter-of-fact narration by Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, buys you some breathing space. Recalling the sort of situation that would make most men start composing their last will and testament, Simpson says, in the tone of a man who's missed a golf swing in a tournament, "Things were seriously not going my way."

The climbers' account of their ordeal in the Andes reminds us of some cold facts. Sometimes, the decision to save your life or to die on the spot is a choice made in tiny steps. Moreover, God doesn't necessarily lend a helping hand when your life is on the line. (The film's vague title becomes clear in the scene of Simpson's near-death delirium.)

Having one's life in one's hands isn't necessarily a grandly ego-boosting experience; it's agonizing and frightening.

Though this isn't in the movie, Yates noted that on his return to the Andes, he was once again terrified by the mountain that almost killed him: "I had forgotten just how appalling it was being reduced to almost nothing."

In the Peruvian Andes in 1985, Simpson and Yates set out to climb the still-virgin Siula Grande, a 21,000-foot peak. For the first part of the trek, Simpson (Brendan Mackey) and Yates (Nicholas Aaron) face no unanticipated trouble. The two are Alpine climbers--no base camps, backup supplies or sherpas. Getting to the top means slipping and slogging through a powdery snow that has formed "cornices"--whipped-cream-colored mounds sculpted by the winds.

On the way back down, something goes wrong. Simpson plummets, driving his lower leg through his knee joint. The climbers, out of food, water and fuel, must inch their way down the mountain. That's about the time the snowstorm returns. What Yates did to his partner in the middle of that storm is still a matter of ethical debate among climbers.

When Macdonald concentrates on Simpson's solo return to earth, the film turns into an existential ordeal that's more like an Albert Camus story than Cliffhanger. Simpson lies there, perishing of thirst, freezing on the rocks, with those strange Southern Hemisphere constellations wheeling overhead, in what kind of pain sympathetic viewers can all too easily imagine.

At this moment, is Simpson feeling the unity of all things, the presence of a Great Unknown that wants him to live? Not at all--in fact, he's tormented by an awful Boney M. song that he can't stop from buzzing in his head. This may be heroism, but it's also the human condition.

Half the movie takes place in close-up: Simpson and Yates, whose demeanor and ever-polite voices are like a pair of characters in a Wallace and Grommit cartoon, comment on the footage of the climb, which is mostly silent (except for the occasional cries for help). But we cut to Yates' camp at a lake, where he recovers from the climb at the foot of this Murderhorn. Aaron's Yates looks like a man with a fresh case of leprosy: he's clown-faced from severe wind and sunburn, with a few fingers black from frostbite.

But the film also goes wide, forsaking the satisfying microshots of steel screws biting into the ice or nylon ropes inching through Prosset loops. This ominous mountain, which most sensible people would be happier getting to know through a postcard, is a character, too. The camera detects the climbers, little beads of white on the edge of a rock, ants amid the Rorschach-test maze of ice crevices. Touching the Void is about the kind of remote annihilation that makes drowning in the ocean look like dying in bed.

Strangely, the film has a happy ending, with the sunlike glow of candlelight through an orange nylon tent. Perhaps an even greater happiness is that a producer named Sally Field and an actor named Tom Cruise didn't adapt this book as they proposed to do at one point. The film is as honorable as it is thrilling. It has moments of grandeur, but its focus is small and knife-sharp. You can ask no more from an adventure film than to have it be a brutal subject told by sensitive people.

Touching the Void (Unrated; 106 min.), directed by Kevin Macdonald, written by Macdonald and Joe Simpson, photographed by Mike Eley and Keith Partridge and starring Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the February 12-18, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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