Joe Simpson: High flyer

Joe Simpson escaped death and lived to tell the tale in Touching the Void. Now he's coming out of retirement to recreate a historic attempt on the Eiger's North Face. He tells Rob Sharp about a life on the edge
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The Independent Online

Imagine the relief with which the celebrated mountaineer Joe Simpson greeted his retirement in 2000. His infamous scrapes had furnished him with an impressive array of ailments over the years: a shattered knee, a broken ankle, another broken ankle, arthritis, neck damage and several broken vertebrae. At least 10 of his friends had died in climbing accidents, he had been there when people had fallen off cliffs, and narrowly escaped the reaper himself. It was, even he had to admit, time to hang up his boots. "I was 40 and I hurt," he says now. "You write cheques when you're 21 that you can't pay when you're my age."

Thankfully for his fans, if not for him, Simpson's retirement didn't last. He received a call in 2003 asking if he had any ideas for new TV projects, and by April of this year was being filmed hanging from a rope beneath a helicopter next to the awe-inspiring 13,000ft Alpine crag that is the Eiger. Presumably he wondered where it had all gone wrong – again. "It scared the living shit out of me," he concurs.

Simpson is still best known as the climber-turned-author whose remarkable book Touching the Void knocked readers off their feet in 1988 and repeated the favour for cinema audiences 15 years later. The story describes a botched attempt in 1985 to climb Siula Grande, the 20,814ft peak in the Peruvian Andes, by Simpson and his 21-year-old climbing partner Simon Yates. The trip famously ended with Simpson having to crawl alone for three agonising days with a shattered leg before reaching safety – and the incident was to define his subsequent life. Indeed, he built a writing career off the back of it, and a slough of corporate-speaking engagements followed. But the adrenaline in his bloodstream was soon metabolised. When the possibility arose of adapting another of his books, The Beckoning Silence, a tale of another failed ascent with personal resonance to Simpson's own career – it details how he gradually began to realise that the risks involved in climbing were not worth it – he clung firmly to the offer, despite claiming that filming is "mostly boring".

The documentary, to be broadcast this month, is the true story of four twenty-something climbers – Toni Kurz, Andreas Hinterstoisser, Edi Ranier and Willy Angerer – who attempted to climb the notorious North Face of the Eiger in 1936. They began their ascent via an access shaft from a railway tunnel that ran halfway up the mountain, but before long, tragedy struck. Angerer received a head injury from a rock fall, and after bravely attempting to continue their journey, the team were forced to abort as their colleague's condition worsened. Then an avalanche left them stranded on the side of the mountain. But unlike Touching the Void, this distinctly chilling story does not have a happy ending. All eventually perished. Kurz was the last to die, spending a frostbitten night within feet of rescuers before signing off with the line: "Ich kann nicht mehr" (I cannot go on).

The harrowing story first struck the young Simpson when he was 14 years old. He read about it in Heinrich Herrer's 1959 book, The White Spider, a legendary volume among climbers, named after a distinctive ice field near the Eiger's summit. Paradoxically, given the book's disastrous subject matter, Simpson says it was this that first got him interested in climbing; and in turn began his unrealised obsession with conquering the Eiger. When he was "in his early twenties" he moved to Sheffield to capitalise on the city's diverse climbing scene. There, he met Yates, and soon stared travelling the world.

The pair racked up a great deal of winter and summer Alpine climbs at the highest level – "almost like an apprenticeship". But Simpson was soon experiencing close scrapes.

He was caught in a bad avalanche in 1981 at Les Courtes in the French Alps, and hung off a ledge for 12 hours at Les Drus in 1983 before being rescued. In 1991, during the first ascent on Pachermo in Nepal, his colleague's crampons broke and, as a result, Simpson fell 800 feet; he was unconscious for 45 minutes, losing most of his nose in the process (you can still see the reconstruction work). Nine years later, when climbing on the Eiger in 2000, he was caught in a storm and heard two climbers plummet to their deaths close by. This would be enough to put many off for life, but Simpson had made six attempts to climb the mountain by the end of the following year.

"We took shelter on a ledge and they were swept off in front of us," he says of the 2000 incident. "The accident was caught on film by a documentary team but it won't ever be shown. It should never be shown. That was deeply disturbing ... though you do know they chose to be there. It unnerves you. It makes your sense of security disappear out the window."

Accidents such as these, as well as his injuries, caused the climber to begin to question the risks involved in what he was doing. "It is a young man's sport," he adds. "You have old climbers and bold climbers but you don't have many old bold climbers." Especially distressing, he found, were the increasing numbers of people he knew who had lost their lives, even if they were doing what they loved. "I probably know 20 people who have died. Ten of them were friends and five I never stop thinking about," he continues. "You shouldn't start losing your friends until you're in your 40s and 50s, when natural selection kicks in," he laughs, disconcertingly knocking several decades off the average life-expectancy.

While Touching the Void, which sold more than 1.5 million copies in 20 languages, charted his experiences in Peru, it was followed by two other books, part of a "trilogy" that Simpson believes charts the rise and fall of his love affair with climbing: 1993's This Game of Ghosts, which described his Pachermo fall, and 2002's The Beckoning Silence, which summarised his various ordeals on the Eiger.

The Channel 4 film version of this takes the form of reconstructed footage of Kurz et al taking their fateful path up the mountainside, interspersed with commentary from Simpson, who dons his crampons to scale parts of the mountain's North Face. The cinematography is breath-taking – gob-smacking Alpine scenes taken from several thousand feet up – courtesy of Keith Partridge, the cameraman who so skillfully filmed Touching the Void. "This story was very important to me," Simpson continues. "I did not want this to be cheesy, or to do disservice to the memory of Kurz. To me what's extraordinary is not that they took the risk. As a climber I can understand that. But what is interesting is that they were being good guides until right at the end. They were confident, loyal and steadfast."

Simpson seems to feel he has much in common with Kurz. Indeed, both have been stranded for significant periods on their own, after accidents, and both have shown amazing levels of endurance. That Kurz went on such a trip, knowing full well the risks involved, is all part of the climbing experience, says Simpson. But one still wonders why you would take any of these risks given the stakes. "That's not something you can explain," he says. "The great answer given by [the Edwardian mountaineer] George Mallory to the question 'why do you climb?' was 'because it's there'. That's one of the great soundbites because it means absolutely nothing. The 17th-century theologian Jeremy Bentham talked about 'deep play' in gambling, where what you stand to lose far exceeds anything you stand to win. That's like climbing. You could lose your life. What do you win? A transient moment on a summit."

Climbing is now much easier to take up than ever before. The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) has its highest ever membership, currently standing at 60,000 climbers, a number that has doubled in the past 10 years. Legally anyone can climb a mountain; pursuits vary from "scrambling" (using your hands and feet to clamber over rocks) to full-scale mountaineering involving harnesses, hard hats and specialised climbing shoes. Courses are commonplace, especially in the UK. Upon mention of this, Simpson becomes slightly fogeyish about the stultifying effects of modern accessibility. "When I started climbing you didn't choose your route knowing you could get rescued," he says. "Now I suspect people are going on routes they shouldn't be climbing because they can get half-way up and will say 'I can't do this', and will call the rescuers on their mobile phones." He discusses a guide friend of his who was once called by somebody stranded on the north side of Ben Nevis because the climber had "found his number" in a guide book. He flaunts a broader view regarding what he perceives as a "nanny state" in present-day Britain. "I was staggered to hear on the radio advice on the fact that it was going to be cold tomorrow and what to wear. What the fuck? I don't need to be told to put a warm hat on and a coat. Nowadays kids can't even play hopscotch or conkers in case they get something in their eye."

When you have seen the things that Simpson has, you grow up fast. When he and Yates got into trouble on Siula Grande and Simpson was injured, during a botched attempt to try to lower Simpson to safety, Yates famously had to cut the rope supporting his partner. Simpson claims never to have blamed Yates for the incident, and when recounting it, has the air of a man who really wants to believe that Yates had no choice – it was a dilemma over whose life to save: Simpson's or his own. In the end there was "no real decision to make". This is just as well; if it hadn't happened, Simpson's life would have taken a radically different path. But it is not only his career that takes impetus from this moment. In many ways it seems like his moral compass has been retrospectively defined by it.

"They ask me whether I would have cut the rope and I reply, 'do you know how big death is?' This wasn't some kind of time for ethical discussion with yourself; one of us was going to die," he says, wide-eyed and slightly maddened. "It is like standing on top of a skyscraper with a stranger and saying: 'Would you jump off to save this person?' I bet you wouldn't. Because I know I wouldn't."

Wouldn't this be different if it was one of your friends? "No it wouldn't. It's death. This is bollocks. The only thing you've got is your life. I've got some really good mates, but I'm sorry they're not as good as the rest of my life." He is keen to emphasise that in the kind of life-threatening situations that (thankfully) most people do not encounter, you're more likely to witness endurance, or the staving off of death for another couple of hours, than more overt acts of bravery. Like his, like Kurz's. "I can only have mates if I'm alive. I would be very sad if one of my friends was going to get killed. But tough. It's not me," he concludes.

' The Beckoning Silence' is to be broadcast on Channel 4 on Monday 22 October and will be released on DVD through 4DVD on 5 November