Joe Simpson and Simon Yates were young, fit, skilled climbers who set their sights on the west face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes--a feat that had not yet been accomplished. Summiting in three-and-a-half days, the pair had no choice but to descend in worsening weather when Simpson slipped a short distance, driving his lower leg bone through his knee cap. With little discussion Yates began to lower Simpson 300 feet at a time--the length of their rope--down the mountain in a slow, painful process, ultimately unknowingly dropping him over the lip of a crevasse. The rope did not slacken, and with the whipping wind inhibiting any communication, Yates had no choice but to assume his partner was dead and cut the rope. Amazingly, this desperate act is only the beginning of the story.
Through a reenactment with actors--a sometimes questionable technique in documentary filmmaking that here only gains credibility as the story progresses and one gets to know the characters intimately--and interviews with the survivors, Macdonald viscerally recreates Simpson's survival and descent. Driven by a fierce, primal instinct to survive, Simpson climbed down the rest of the mountain and hobbled across a vast glacier on a shattered leg, starving and dehydrated, clinging to the hope that his partner hadn't already left base camp.
Macdonald resolutely refused to shoot the film's pivotal moments--such as Simpson's spiritual crisis in the crevasse--among molded plastic props on a soundstage, instead insisting on taking the production into the very mountains (as well as the European Alps) where the event took place. The result is not only stunning imagery but a sense of actually being there, experiencing the horrific journey with Simpson and Yates.
Simpson shares his story with a sometimes startling honesty. He doesn't paint himself as a courageous hero; rather, he admits that, as an ambitious Type-A personality in his early 20s, he thought he would have been tougher in such a situation. Instead, he wailed like a baby. An atheist, he also acknowledges that he had always wondered whether, in a life-or-death situation, he would pray. He didn't. It's this candor that puts a human face on an epic real-life story. Starring Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Produced by John Smithson. An IFC release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 106 min