Joe Simpson: No ordinary Joe

His dramatic rescue in the Andes still sends a shiver down every climber's spine. Now, with the release of a film based on his bestselling 'Touching the Void', the mountaineer looks set to become a household name

Joe Simpson is a man who came back from the dead. When Simpson crawled broken-legged from the ice of Siula Grande, a remote mountain in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, the only thought in his mind was survival. "Please help me, for God's sake, help me," he sobbed as he collapsed into the arms of stunned companions.

By all natural laws, Simpson should have remained entombed in the crevasse into which he plunged when his partner Simon Yates was forced in extremis to cut the rope that joined them. But in an extraordinary paradox, Yates's agonised act with a Swiss Army knife saved both their lives and, by extension, set Simpson on the road to wealth and fame.

This weekend saw the cash registers ringing anew for the Sheffield climber with five sell-out showings at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival of Touching the Void, a 106-minute drama-documentary of his best-selling book of the same name. Directed by Oscar-winner Kevin MacDonald for Film Four, the film will go on general release on 12 December.

Touching the Void, with its compelling, gut-gripping narrative, reached out beyond the normal readership of active and armchair mountaineers to capture the imagination of the wider public in a way matched only in recent decades by one other climbing book - Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Both have a masterly tightness and focus on risk and death. Krakauer's book, about the tragedy on Everest in 1996, is littered with bodies, whereas in Void it is the imminence of death; barely a zephyr away for most of the book. I have lost count of the number of people who have enthused about reading Touching the Void at a single riveted session.

Back then, in the late 1980s, Simpson was a man who could do no wrong in the eyes of many climbers. The two Young Turks' first ascent of the 4,500ft west face of Siula Grande, with 80 degree ice, loose rock, and the treacherous flutings of snow that cling to these freezing Peruvian peaks, was an impressive effort. And despite the unplanned nature of the descent the pair returned home alive, fulfilling the dictum of, among others, Sir Edmund Hillary, that an ascent only really counts if you make it down again. On top of that Simpson had turned the adventure into highly readable gold.

Celebrity status, however, has not sat easily. Though the rock and hill tribes packed each showing at Kendal and marvelled again at an incredible tale, brought to the screen with a chilling authenticity, it is hard to find much warm feeling towards Simpson or admiration for him as climber. In the small and often bitchy world of climbing "bolshie Joe" has put up more backs than most. As Simpson's stock has risen with the book trade - his sixth volume, The Beckoning Silence, was a bestseller last year - with the corporate lecture circuit and, it is now likely, general cinema-goers, so it has declined with the cognoscenti.

As Sir Chris Bonington found out after vigorously publicising his Himalayan expeditions of the 1970s, one's peers can be cynical about popular, commercial success. But Bonington silenced his critics by staying in the van of exploratory mountaineering for many more years and becoming an ambassador for the sport. Simpson may affect not to care, putting up a kind of two-fingered bravado in the address of his website, www.noordinaryjoe.co.uk, but his books betray a sense of angst about himself as both a writer and a climber.

Simpson was born in 1960 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where his father, a lieutenant-colonel, was based. He was the youngest of five children and had to fight his corner in an argumentative house-hold. At the age of eight he was sent as a boarder to Ampleforth, the Roman Catholic school in North Yorkshire, crediting it with giving him a sense of self-reliance and solitariness, and then gained an MA in English literature and philosophy at Edinburgh University. He discovered climbing after reading Heinrich Harrer's classic account of the first ascent of the Eiger North Face, The White Spider.

Siula Grande was not Simpson's first near-death experience. He had been avalanched 2,000ft down Les Courtes in the French Alps suffering bad concussion, which, he says, sent him "a bit off the rails" at the time, and escaped when a ledge fell away beneath him on the nearby Aiguille du Dru. After Touching the Void, he shattered his left ankle in a catapulting fall down Pachermo in Nepal. Simpson bridles at the suggestion he is accident-prone, despite the contrary evidence of repeated appearances on crutches in the climbers' pubs of Nether Edge, Sheffield.

Simpson did not write another book for four years, choosing instead "to drink the advance and most of the royalty proceeds" as sales soared. Then came a well received first novel, The Water People, and three more non-fiction books, This Game of Ghosts, Storms of Silence and Dark Shadows Falling, mixing climbing adventures with comment and criticism of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, pub louts in Sheffield and the commercialism and lack of comradely concern on Everest. (Simpson did not follow other rock jocks and alpinists into high altitude mountaineering.) Though Simpson is often a sharp observer, none of this trio sang like Touching the Void. As one old friend put it: "Little Eva had 'The Locomotion'. How do you follow that?"

In a sense he did not have to. Film rights were leap-frogging book royalties and he was in growing demand to fire up jaded executives on the lucrative corporate lecture circuit. Tom Cruise wanted to touch the void playing Simpson for Fogwood Films, and when the Hollywood project fell through the baton passed on to Film Four. Simpson has recently moved to a larger, Victorian house and drives a silver Mercedes sports coupé. Though he has had several long-term relationships, he has never married and has no children.

Where Simpson goes next is an open question. The Beckoning Silence, conveys the tension and exhilaration of the act of climbing, gripping the reader on 500ft of dodgy ice in the Hautes Alpes. "Go down before you're killed," screams an inner voice. Though he has a fixation with the Eiger and has attempted the infamous north face four times, he is afraid of another body-wrecking fall and haunted by the death of too many friends in the mountains and paragliding - Simpson's other risk addiction.

So, 18 years after the doctors told Simpson that his Siula Grande injuries meant he would never climb again, has the vituperative iconoclast really packed it in, no more to feel a sense of being that "fugitive from reality" that performing his craft at the limits was said to bring? The Sheffield brigade say he has not been seen on the gritstone edges that form their playground above the city and out into the Derbyshire peaks. Simpson talks of "impostor syndrome". After the success of Void he says he felt an impostor as a writer. Now, apparently, he feels an impostor as a climber. It is a peculiarly tortured piece of self-analysis. But as audiences for the celluloid Void will discover, Simpson has a finely honed capacity for suffering.

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