Left for Dead on a Peruvian Peak, Joe Simpson Survives to Write Movingly About the Climbers' Code

updated 05/01/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/01/1989 01:00AM

High in the Peruvian Andes, a blizzard raging around them, the two men were fighting the longest of odds for their lives. British climber Joe Simpson, then 24, had shattered his right leg in a fall near the 21,000-foot summit of the Siula Grande Mountain, leaving Simon Yates, then 21, with the almost impossible task of getting himself and his crippled climbing partner off the mountain alive. For nine hours he had been lowering the pain-wracked Simpson 300 feet at a time. Then, just as they were daring to hope, Simpson began slipping faster and faster, his body tobogganing with gathering speed through the deep snow. He tried to brake himself, but his ice axe refused to bite. He kicked his left boot into the snow, but the loose powder would not hold. Suddenly, Simpson swung out into space. The rope jerked hard, and he found himself spinning in the air, over a crevasse that was hundreds of feet deep.

Some 100 feet above, Yates felt the nylon rope suddenly yank taut and knew Simpson had gone over a vertical drop. He strained for the sound of Simpson's voice through the howling winds that had hit them shortly after completing the first-ever ascent of Siula Grande's West Face the previous afternoon. Frostbitten and exhausted, Yates waited helplessly for an hour, knowing that any movement might send them both tumbling to their deaths. Suddenly, the snowseat Yates had dug into the mountain began to give. Instinctively, he reached for the Swiss Army knife in the pocket of his backpack. "There was no other option left to me," he later told Simpson. "The taut rope exploded at the touch of the blade, and I flew backwards into the seat as the pulling strain vanished. I was shaking."

Certain he had sent his friend plunging to his death, Yates continued down the mountain and finally made it to base camp six miles away. Miraculously, Simpson himself arrived there three days later. By cutting the rope, Yates had saved his partner's life; Simpson fell onto a shelf of soft snow and then managed to limp, hop and crawl to safety. "By cutting the rope he got me down the mountain," says Simpson. "I wonder how many climbers would have the balls to do the same thing—I'm not sure I would." The book Simpson has written about this extraordinary ordeal, Touching the Void-already a best-seller in England and just published in the U.S.—is dedicated to Yates, "for a debt I can never repay."

But though Simpson knows, rationally, that cutting the rope was Yates's only choice, emotionally it was horrifying on that bitter night of June 8, 1985. He pulled in his rope and saw the splayed pink and white nylon filaments. "Cut! I couldn't take my eyes from it," he writes. "I turned off the torch and sobbed quietly in the dark, feeling overwhelmed."

Simpson took heart, however, from the good luck of his landing on a narrow shelf in the crevasse. "Five feet to the right, I would have gone rattling down that hole," he says. Instead, Simpson was able to climb up the side of the snowy cavern the next morning. For the next 60 hours, Simpson somehow dragged himself six miles to base camp, following his partner's footsteps. "The flares of agony never diminished," he writes, "but I stopped screaming when I found that it made no difference."

Nearly dead from dehydration and starvation, Simpson (who lost 42 lbs. over three days) pulled himself into camp just hours before Yates was preparing to leave. Lying on the ground in the dark, he managed to bleat out Yates's name. His partner rushed from the tent, wide-eyed and disbelieving. For three days, Yates nursed his friend. "And at every gesture, a touch on the arm, a look," writes Simpson, they shared "an intimacy we would never have dared show before and never would again."

But the ordeal was far from over. After a painful three-day trip by donkey and flatbed truck to Lima, Simpson had his mangled right leg operated on by less than state-of-the-art orthopedists. Despite five more operations and months of physiotherapy back in England, Simpson may lose the injured leg in 10 years due to arthritis and joint damage.

The son of a British Army officer, Simpson has been hooked on climbing since the age of 14. After graduation from Edinburgh University, he moved to the "climbers' ghetto" of Sheffield, near the Derbyshire Peak District, and supported himself doing odd jobs. Back home after the accident, he wrote up his experience for a climbing magazine and subsequently received a £2,000 advance from a British book publisher. The $75,000 advance for a U.S. edition, which he received last year, "is enormous to me," says Simpson, "I've never made any money before."

Simpson and Yates, now a cycle courier in Perth, Australia, remain good friends, and both men continue to climb. "It's a little like falling off a horse," says Simpson. "I had a bit of difficulty getting out again because I was scared of hurting myself." But danger is part of the thrill of climbing. "It's a life-enhancing thing to do," says Simpson, "because it makes you aware of how important it is to be alive."

—Susan Reed, Laura Sanderson Healy in Sheffield, England

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