By Joe Simpson.
Touching the Void on Amazon. Joe Simpson's web site.
The voice kept urging me on, ‘Place-lift-brace-hop ... keep going. Look how far you’ve gone. Just do it, don’t think about it ...’
I did as I was told. Stumbling past and sometimes over boulders, falling, crying, swearing in a litany that matched the pattern of my hopping. I forgot why I was doing it; forgot even the idea that I probably wouldn’t make it. Running on instincts that I had never suspected were in me, and drifting down the sea of moraines in a blurred delirium of thirst, and pain and hopping, I timed myself religiously. I looked ahead to a landmark and gave myself half an hour to reach it. As I neared the mark, a furious bout of watch-glancing would ensue, until it became part of the pattern ... place-lift-brace-hop-time. If I realised I was behind time I tried to rush the last ten minutes of hopping. I fell so much more when I rushed but it had become so damned important to beat the watch. Only once did I fail to beat it, and I sobbed with annoyance. The watch became as crucial as my good leg. I had no sense of time passing, and with each fall I lay in a semi-stupor, accepting the pain and quite unaware of how long I had been there. A look at the watch would galvanise me into action, especially when I saw it had been five minutes and not the thirty seconds it had felt like.
As I gazed at the distant moraines I knew that I must at least try. I would probably die out there amid those boulders. The thought didn’t alarm me. It seemed reasonable, matter-of-fact. That was how it was. I could aim for something. If I died, well, that wasn’t so surprising, but I wouldn’t have just waited for it to happen. The horror of dying no longer affected me as it had in the crevasse. I now had the chance to confront it and struggle against it. It wasn’t a bleak dark terror any more, just fact, like my broken leg and frostbitten fingers, and I couldn’t be afraid of things like that. My leg would hurt when I fell, and when I couldn’t get up I would die. In a peculiar way it was refreshing
to be faced with simple choices. It made me feel sharp and alert, and I looked ahead at the land stretching into distant haze and saw my part in it with a greater clarity and honesty than I had ever experienced before.
I had never been so entirely alone, and although this alarmed me it also gave me strength. An excited tingle ran down my spine. I was committed. The game had taken over, and I could no longer choose to walk away from it. It was ironic to have come here searching out adventure and then find myself involuntarily trapped in a challenge harder than any I had sought. For a while I felt thrilled as adrenalin boosted through me, but it couldn’t drive away the loneliness or shorten the miles of moraines tumbling towards the lakes. The sight of what lay ahead soon killed the excitement. I was abandoned to this awesome and lonely place. It sharpened my perception to see clearly and sharply the facts behind the mass of useless thoughts in my head, and to realise how vital it was just to be there, alive and conscious, and able to change things. There was silence, and snow, and a clear sky empty of life, and me, sitting there, taking it all in, accepting what I must try to achieve. There were no dark forces acting against me. A voice in my head told me that this was true, cutting through the jumble in my mind with its coldly rational sound.
It was as if there were two minds within me arguing the toss. The voice was clean and sharp and commanding. It was always right, and I listened to it when it spoke and acted on its decisions. The other mind rambled out a disconnected series of images, and memories and hopes, which I attended to in a daydream state as I set about obeying the orders of the voice. I had to get to the glacier. I would crawl on the glacier, but I didn’t think that far ahead. If my perspectives had sharpened, so too had they narrowed, until I thought only in terms of achieving predetermined aims and no further. Reaching the glacier was my aim. The voice told me exactly how to go about it, and I obeyed while my other mind jumped abstractedly from one idea to another.
A couple of times I looked back at the ice cliffs as I hobbled away down the rocks. Each time they grew smaller and I felt that I was shutting the door on something intangible but menacing that had been with me for so long. Those cliffs were the doors to the mountains. I grinned when I glanced at them. I had won a battle of some sort. I could feel it deep inside. Now it was just the patterns, and the pain, and water. Could I reach Bomb Alley tonight? Now that would be something to grin about! It wasn’t so far from here, twenty minutes’ walk, and that couldn’t be so hard! And that was my mistake. I stopped timing landmarks and set my sights on Bomb Alley and the silver floods of icy melt-water pouring down its flanks. When it became dark I had no idea how far Bomb Alley was, nor did I know how far I had crawled. Without checking my watch I had lain in stupefied exhaustion after every fall. Lain there and listened to endless stories running through the pain, watched short dreams of life in the real world, played songs to my heartbeat, licked the mud for water, and wasted countless hours in an empty dream. Now I staggered blind in the dark, obsessed with Bomb Alley, ignoring the voice which told me to sleep, and rest, and forget the alley. I got my head-torch from my sack and blundered on until the light died.
Turning towards the lakes I saw that I was a long way above the site of Bomb Alley. All that staggering in the dark had been for nothing. How stupid it had been to forget the watch-keeping yesterday, and how quickly I had lost any idea of time. Bomb Alley had then become a vague aim instead of a carefully planned objective. Without timing each stage I had drifted aimlessly with no sense of urgency. Today it had to be different. I decided that four hours would be enough to reach Bomb Alley. Twelve noon was the deadline, and I intended to break those hours into short stages, each one carefully timed. I searched ahead for the first landmark -- a tall pillar of red rock that stood out clearly above the sea of boulders. Half an hour to reach it, and then I would look for another.
I lay on my side watching them until I couldn’t fight off the appalling drowsy weakness any longer. The deterioration scared me deeply and made me wonder anxiously whether I had burnt myself out completely. It occurred to me that I was nearer to death than when I had been alone. The minute I knew help was at hand something had collapsed inside me. Whatever had been holding me together had gone. Now I could not think for myself, let alone crawl! There was nothing to fight for, no patterns to follow, no voice, and it frightened me to think that, without these, I might run out of life.