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Touching The Void writer Joe Simpson looks back as play comes to Eden Court

By Margaret Chrystall

MOUNTAINEER and writer Joe Simpson is still partly baffled by the success of his 1988 bestseller Touching The Void which is now a play coming to Eden Court this week.

“I never meant for any of this to happen, I just wrote a book about an accident,” he said, looking back to the 1985 climbing accident in Peru and his book that that went on to capture the world’s imagination.

Joe was left in a deep crevasse with horrific injuries and crawled back to base camp, after an ascent of the previously-unclimbed West Face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes went wrong.

Joe’s friend and climbing partner Simon Yates had earlier had to make the terrible decision to cut the rope Joe had been left dangling on.

Joe said: “I didn’t realise that 35 years later, or whatever it is, the book would have sold well over a million copies, been translated into 27 languages, a film has been made of it which won a BAFTA and now it’s a play. I just look at it and go ‘What the hell is going on!’.”

Josh Williams as Joe Simpson who crawled back to safety after the accident in Peru. Pictures: Geraint Lewis
Josh Williams as Joe Simpson who crawled back to safety after the accident in Peru. Pictures: Geraint Lewis

These days Joe reveals that the punishment his body has taken in his mountaineering years means he gave it up in 2009.

“My injuries have caught up with me, I’m afraid,” he laughed. “Basically I’m now paying off all the cheques my body wrote at 20!”

He fly fishes and does some tropical salt-water fishing. And bass fishing.

“I just do all sorts – I fish the Derwent down here. I did it when I was climbing, I always took a rod with me when I was climbing, I’ve fished everywhere – on Lake Titikaka. Some of the greatest mountains come with the greatest rivers.”

Joe has also given up para-gliding – which took him to Brazil and Australia.

“A bunch of my friends got spinal injuries and broken legs and I thought I just don’t need any more injuries so I gave up a few years ago,” he comments, a man who has learned to value life.

After the accident in Peru, Joe had six operations and because if his leg injuries, doctors told him he would never climb again and that he would have trouble walking for the rest of his life. But after two years of rehabilitation, he returned to climbing, finally giving up in 2009.

“I don’t do that many exciting ‘out there’ things now,” Joe revealed.

“I can manage about a five-mile walk and that is about it.

“The problem is my right knee which I broke in Peru, after about five miles – I am basically walking on my bone ends – you get pains going right down your shin bone.

The cast of Touching The Void in a scene set in Glencoe’s Clachaig Inn. Picture: Geraint Lewis
The cast of Touching The Void in a scene set in Glencoe’s Clachaig Inn. Picture: Geraint Lewis

“You are going on a walk to enjoy yourself.

“It’s why I stopped climbing in 2009, I could go up hill no problem but coming down was murderous.”

But writing – which began with his book Touching The Void about the Peru accident – has become Joe’s main occupation alongside motivational speaking.

Seven more books about climbing and most recently, fiction, have followed. His latest book, Walking The Wrong Side Of The Grass is set in a Derbyshire cotton mill town before heading off to the First World War trenches, as a young lad embarks on a journey of revenge.

Joe explains why he wrote Touching The Void in the first place.

“It wasn’t planned. Actually the writing of it was not something I enjoyed, it wasn’t cathartic in any way. I wrote it in seven weeks. It all just came out and then I discovered that I rather liked writing – and that I found it more challenging than climbing!”

Joe felt he had to write it, at the time.

'The story had gone round the climbing world and, just like Chinese whispers, it had been all mangled and was completely untrue and everyone was blaming Simon.
“So I wrote it to tell the real story'

Joe recalls being a bit dismissive when his publisher rang to say someone was interested in the rights to stage the story as a play.

“I thought ‘Bloody hell, that’s never going to happen’. Six months later the rights manager said director Tom Morris – who had done War Horse – was involved and I had seen War Horse down in London. Then Tom and the writer David Greig came down to see me with the script.

Fiona Hampton as Sarah with Josh Williams as Joe Simpson. Picture: Geraint Lewis
Fiona Hampton as Sarah with Josh Williams as Joe Simpson. Picture: Geraint Lewis

“It was quite funny, we were walking down to the pub and David was explaining they wanted a different way to tell the story on stage and said ‘We thought of getting the character of your sister Sarah to tell the story’ and I smiled to myself. I said ‘That’s all very well, but Sarah died of lung cancer two years ago’ and I let them think about it for a minute and then said ‘But Sarah would have loved this!’.”

Joe confesses he had mixed feelings about going to see the play written by David Greig when it first opened.

“I was a bit nervous about the whole thing. It’s the same watching the film. I can’t watch it the way everyone else watches it. When it comes to watching a stylised version of my reality I am really the last person to ask an opinion of.

“I thought Josh who plays me in the play was remarkable and I am delighted it’s been so well received and has had great reviews. The staging of it is very clever.”

Over the years, Joe has had a chance to think about why his book should strike a chord with so many different kinds of people, many of whom write to him, most of whom are not climbers.

“Climbing has spawned some really good literature in a way that golf hasn’t and I think there are a number of reasons which I was trying to explore in my book The Game of Ghosts, the sequel to Touching The Void.

“Climbing is something you love doing and your friends love doing and it is life-enhancing, yet one friend of mine has been killed every year. I have lost a pile of friends. But I think death is very fundamental, it gives mountaineering a weight and gravity it wouldn’t otherwise have.

“And it introduces the philosophical and the metaphysical, the experience of what they were writing about.

“They weren’t writing about flag-waving on the top of mountains – or ‘willie-waving’, they were all writing about things that were fundamental to life.

With mountaineering you are quite often there on a very thin line between dying and living and that on its own, when it is shrunk down to that, is the essence of what life and philosophy and religion are about, what is actually important. The way the mind and the body are capable of enduring the experience says more about human beings than it does about mountaineering.

“Mountaineering is just the backdrop against which the story is told.

“But the actual stories themselves, the good ones, almost leave the climbing literature genre, they almost become something different.

“I was always staggered that a great philosopher like George Steiner should think that Touching The Void was such an amazing book.

“He was saying that it touches on some of the great questions and that is why 95 per cent of the people who read the book are not climbers and probably won’t go climbing after they have read it.”

Josh Williams as Joe with Fiona Hampton as Sarah. Picture: Geraint Lewis
Josh Williams as Joe with Fiona Hampton as Sarah. Picture: Geraint Lewis

The way the book has been greeted is something Joe has thought about a great deal.

“I have my own theory about it. People didn’t like it because they were just rubber-necking an accident. Someone once told me about an idea, particularly in the northern hemisphere, where there is a deep sustaining notion of the myth of the returning warrior.

“It is a deep part of our psyche and our literature and the sagas – Beowulf, Jesus Christ even – all these stories are about somebody going somewhere and being tested – particularly in a dark place, facing death and coming back.

“And it is the returning that is the hugely positive thing.

“That is what I thinkTouching The Void taps into.

“Everybody asks themselves ‘What would I do in that situation?. Would I be strong or brave?’

“One day you might have an accident or be facing death – we will all face death.

"That is why asimple mountaineering story has reached up to an enormous audience. It has escaped its genre and becomes something else.”

Looking back on his experience in Peru and the impact of the book, Joe said: “To me it is quite like a behemoth, I never quite understand this happening.

“The only two people who don’t get this are Simon and I.

“It was our reality and we knew what was going on – everyone else is reading this and they imagine how they would feel.

“But we know how we felt. We lived it.

“I have had so many fan letters from people who quite often have had some terrible experience, an accident or sickness and they write ‘I read Touching The Void and it was so inspiring and so helpful’.

“They all finish ‘But it was never as bad as what you experienced’.

“And I just think they got over that experience themselves, it was nothing to do with Touching The Void – they got over that because they are a human being and human beings are incredibly tough and resilient and they provide all those things they tap into, including the human ability to tap into the future and see when times could be better.

“I think it’s b***er all to do with Touching the Void to be honest!”

Touching The Void comes to Eden Court on Thursday, March 14 to Saturday, March 16. Joe’s latest novel Walking The Wrong Side Of The Grass is on e-book from DirectAuthors.com and Amazon. More: www.touchingthevoid.com

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