Touching the Void (film)

Touching the Void is a 2003 docudrama survival film directed by Kevin MacDonald and starring Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron, and Ollie Ryall. The plot concerns Joe Simpson and Simon Yates's disastrous and near-fatal climb of Siula Grande in the Cordillera Huayhuash in the Peruvian Andes, in 1985. It is based on Simpson's 1988 book of the same name.

Touching the Void
Region 2 DVD cover
Directed byKevin MacDonald
Produced byJohn Smithson
StarringBrendan Mackey
Nicholas Aaron
Ollie Ryall
Distributed byPathé Distribution
Release date
  • 5 September 2003 (2003-09-05) (TIFF)
  • 12 December 2003 (2003-12-12)
Running time
106 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$13,885,802

Critically acclaimed, Touching the Void was listed in PBS's "100 Greatest Documentaries of All Time". The Guardian described it as "the most successful documentary in British cinema history".[1]


In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, both experienced mountaineers, set out to ascend the previously unclimbed West Face of Siula Grande in Peru. Though they reach the summit, a powerful storm develops and Simpson suffers a badly broken leg in a fall during the descent. The pair attempt a self-rescue, deciding to lower Simpson with ropes down the steep and snowy slope while an enormous storm rages on. Yates cannot see where he is lowering Simpson, and inadvertently lowers him over the edge of a large cliff, leaving him suspended by the rope in mid-air. Yates arrests his fall, but cannot see the predicament his partner is in, nor hear him over the howling wind.

Unable to pull Simpson back over the cliff and gradually losing traction in the loose snow, Yates realizes after about an hour that there is little chance of recovery from this situation for either of them and he decides to cut the rope connecting him with Simpson. Yates descends after surviving a subzero and stormy night on the mountain but cannot find his partner. He assumes Simpson is dead and returns to the base camp alone, where he stays to recover.

Simpson, however, has actually survived the fall and is now trapped in a large crevasse. He manages to lower himself further into the dark abyss and finds an exit leading to the base of the mountain. He then spends days crawling back to base camp across glaciers and rocks, despite his broken leg, frostbite, and severe dehydration. Exhausted and near delirium, Simpson reaches camp only a few hours before Yates intends to leave and return to civilization.


The film stars Brendan Mackey as Joe Simpson, Nicholas Aaron as Simon Yates, and Ollie Ryall as Richard Hawking, and combines dramatizations with interviews with Simpson, Yates, and Hawking. Simpson and Yates doubled as their younger selves for long-distance shots of the snow-fluted couloirs of Siula Grande.[2] The film was directed by Kevin MacDonald.

When they collaborated on the film in 2003, Simpson and Yates had not seen one another for 10 years.[3]


During the making of the film, the director and producers invited Yates and Simpson to return to Siula Grande in 2002 for the first time since the events of 1985. Simpson, despite finding the return emotionally difficult and experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome on his return, eventually said that he was happy with the film and its portrayal of the events. Yates, on the other hand, reported having no emotional response to returning to Siula Grande, and decided to have nothing to do with the film once he had returned from the mountain.[4]

According to the film's end notes, Yates received a great deal of criticism from the mountaineering community for cutting the rope on his partner during the descent after the climbers returned to Britain and the story of what happened emerged. In reality, Simpson fully accepted that Yates did the right thing by cutting the rope, and risked his own life to help save Simpson's life, and has always defended him on that matter.[5]

The film received largely positive reviews, with 93% of critics' reviews being positive on Rotten Tomatoes.


Touching the Void won Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the 57th British Academy Film Awards.[6]

Peter Knegt at Indiewire called it one of the "10 incredible documentaries that weren't nominated for an Oscar".[7]

The BBC1's Film 2011 included Brendan Mackey's performance as Joe Simpson in their 'Top Five Actors' who "Should Have Won An Oscar", along with Ingrid Bergman (for Casablanca), Anthony Perkins (for Psycho), Ralph Fiennes (for Schindler's List) and Jeff Bridges (for The Big Lebowski).[8]

Box office

The film was released in theaters on 23 January 2004 and grossed $96,973 in the opening weekend. It went on to gross $4,593,598 in America and $9,292,204 from foreign markets for a worldwide total of $13,885,802 after 20 weeks.[9]


Original music for the film was scored by Alex Heffes. The climbers reach the summit to the climax of Thomas Tallis's Spem in alium. During one of Simpson's many deliriums, he experiences a very strong reminiscence of a Boney M song he hated thoroughly, "Brown Girl in the Ring"; at one point thinking "Bloody hell, I'm going to die to Boney M".


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