Today, we are typically so detached from the natural world that it’s a wonder any of us could fend for ourselves should we be faced with a survival situation (SG).
Every year, dozens of hikers and climbers have to be rescued because they are ill-equipped to handle the rough and tumble terrain of the outdoors.
In most cases, everyone survives and comes out just fine.
However, not everyone is so lucky.
While many modern tales of survival can be chalked up to people not preparing themselves properly before heading out into the wild, sometimes even the most hardened climbers and outdoorsmen can encounter a situation that results in life or death decisions.
As they say, even the best-laid plans can be sabotaged, so what happens when you’re faced with insurmountable odds?
Well, fortunately, the human spirit is nothing if not resilient, which is why we hear countless tales of people who should have been long dead coming back from the brink of disaster – and living to tell the tale.
This story recounts the events that happened to two such climbers; Joe Simpson and Simon Yates.
While their story has been told before, it’s such an incredible feat of perseverance and resolve that it’s captivating no matter how many times you hear it.
Climbing the Peruvian Andes is not an endeavor taken lightly.
In fact, some areas of the mountain range have been unclimbable for decades, meaning that it was only a matter of time before someone attempted the impossible.
While the Cordillera Huayhuash is the most popular climbing spot in this region, there is a face called the Siula Grande, which is where Joe and Simon made their fateful trip.
The reason Siula was thought to be impassable was because it pretty much was.
It is a sheer vertical drop covered in ice and snow for most of the year, making it even more dangerous and life threatening.
In fact, before Joe and Simon came along, no one had even attempted to clear Siula as it was thought to be a suicide mission.
The year was 1985, and Joe and Simon decided they would tackle Siula.
The idea was that because it was a challenge, they could be the first to successfully navigate the peak.
But they quickly found out why no one had tried to do it before.
Fortunately, both of them would make it out alive, but not before suffering some major setbacks.
Siula Grande is over twenty thousand feet high, making it an imposing force on its own.
No matter how well you climb, facing that kind of summit with almost zero flat surfaces requires a special type of courage to even think about taking it on.
Before Joe and Simon made their way there, the North Ridge of the mountain had been summited before, all the way back in 1936.
The real challenge was the West Face, which is the near vertical side of the peak offering virtually no space on which to climb – and is unrelentingly merciless.
At that height, winds howl, and your lungs feel like they are freezing from the inside out.
While Siula Grande is the highest point, it does have a sub-peak called Siula Chico.
This summit is about six thousand feet high and is located on the Northern side, which is why that section is much easier to climb.
Two Austrians made the trip successfully in 1936, and another group managed to make it in 1966 as well.
Each time, however, they all avoided the West Face knowing it would be almost impossible to descend.
To make things relatively easier on themselves, Joe and Simon decided that they would climb the West Face of Siula Grande and then descend on the North Ridge.
This way they could mitigate their problems and still successfully claim the honor of being the first to summit the West Face.
On the way up, things were looking pretty good.
A spot of bad weather set them back a bit, but they made it up without any significant problems.
That being said, had they been a bit better about planning ahead, things might not have gone sideways.
It wasn’t until they started to descend that things went downhill.
As any mountaineer will tell you, getting to the top of a mountain is easy, it’s getting down that’s the hard part.
In this case, Joe managed to slip on a patch of ice, causing him to land on his leg hard.
This resulted in his tibia crushing into his knee, more or less making walking impossible.
From that moment on, he would have to limp the rest of the way down.
This was bad enough on its own, but things were about to get so much worse.
One major problem the duo faced was the fact that they had run out of fuel to light fires.
Since the ascent took longer than expected, that meant they couldn’t melt snow or ice for water.
Dehydration would become just one of many issues they would have to deal with on the way back.
Since they didn’t want to risk getting stuck on the cold mountain without any source of warmth, the duo decided to try and speed things along.
However, since Joe was already in a mangled state, it only added to the amount of risk they were taking.
Still, they had to descend another three thousand feet by nightfall.
They decided they could accomplish this by lowering one other down using rope.
Since Simon had both good legs, he would be the anchor while Joe would be the first to descend.
To make it happen, they tied two ropes together.
However, the resulting knot meant that the line wouldn’t make it through the belay plate – a device that makes it easier to feed rope to help your climb or descent.
Since the knot was thick and wouldn’t fit through, it meant that Joe couldn’t descend the whole way.
He would have to climb up and give slack so that Simon could move the knot through and get him down.
Unfortunately, they discovered this only after Joe made it off the side of a cliff, which meant that Simon was stuck holding him up without any way to see or contact him.
Joe tried to climb back up to retry, but his hands were badly frostbitten.
To help mitigate his problems and make the climb back up easier, Joe attempted to use a Prusik Knot to get traction and help pull himself up.
However, frostbite had started to set in on his hands, making it all but impossible.
To make matters worse, he then lost his other rope, which left him stuck.
Both Simon and Joe were in dangerous positions.
Joe was dangling off the side of a cliff and Simon was dug in trying to hold him up.
However, because neither one could see or hear the other from the howling winds, they had no idea what to do.
The person in the worst position was Joe because he was at the mercy of both the elements and Simon. Unable to climb up or be lowered down, he was stuck between a rock and a hard fall.
After being stuck for several hours, Simon made a tough decision.
His placement wouldn’t hold out forever and eventually he would slip – causing both of them to fall to their deaths.
To save his life, Simon cut the rope and let Joe fall.
With darkness closing in, it was the best thing he could do for both of them.
In fact, cutting the rope might have also inadvertently saved Joe’s life, as longer exposure to the elements could have killed him anyway.
After the Separation
Once Simon cut the rope, the clock was ticking for both men to make it back to base camp alive.
Joe remarkably survived the 150-foot fall down the mountain as he landed in a snow crevasse.
Fortunately, he didn’t break his other leg or damage anything else in the fall, leaving him mostly intact.
Simon, on the other hand, decided to dig a snow cave to wait out the storm and spend the night.
The next day, he continued down the mountain himself.
Interestingly enough, he found the crevasse and the location where Joe had fallen, but Joe was already gone by the time Simon arrived.
Simon called out for him, but, after hearing no response, he assumed his climbing partner was dead.
So, he continued on with his own life still very much in danger.
Meanwhile, Joe couldn’t climb out of the crevasse, since he had fallen in too deep and his broken leg made it impossible.
He also knew that Simon was going to likely leave him for dead, so he didn’t want to wait around and see if he would get rescued.
Had Joe stayed to wait for Simon, things might have turned out differently for the pair as they would have wasted even more time trying to get Joe out of the crevasse.
This would have used up a lot of energy they didn’t have.
Instead, Joe decided to go further into the glacier, hoping for another way out.
While most people would be too scared to crawl deeper into such a hole, Joe was optimistic and knew it was his best chance for survival.
Fortunately, he was right.
Down below he found an entrance that led down the mountain to freedom.
Meanwhile, still thinking that Joe had perished the day before, Simon made his way down the rest of the mountain and back into base camp.
He relayed what had happened, with everyone presuming the worst.
Simon decided to stay at camp for a couple of days to rest and recuperate before heading back to civilization and to tell Joe’s family what had transpired.
For the next three days, Joe managed to make his way down the mountain, carefully avoiding other crevasses and hobbling on his broken leg.
He was unable to drink water, instead using snow to stay hydrated.
However, this also meant that he would lower his internal temperature, so he couldn’t rely on it for much.
Despite all odds, Joe hobbled his way back to base camp five miles away.
He was exhausted and practically delirious from his ordeal, but he safe.
Luckily, he arrived just hours before Simon was going to head back.
If he were just a few hours later, Simon would have spread the news of Joe’s death before finding out the truth.
In the end, Joe’s story is one of incredible luck and perseverance.
Whereas most people would have given up hope after a day or two, he managed to make it, despite the tremendous struggle.
In reflection, there were plenty of ways this could have happened differently resulting in his death.
Had he been left on the rope for longer he could have died of hypothermia.
If he had tried to crawl out of the crevasse, he could have exhausted himself to the point of giving up.
Had he fallen into another hole on his way down he might have died, then.
Overall, it seems like fate had a soft spot for Joe and allowing him to make it through.
To commemorate his achievement, Joe wrote a book about it called “Touching the Void” published in 1988.
Then, in 2003, a movie was made that chronicled his story and showed how amazing it was that he managed to not only survive, but make it through intact.
Stories of mountain survival often result in someone getting hurt permanently, especially when frigid temperatures are part of the equation.
For Joe, however, he managed to make it relatively unscathed, and for that reason, his story is the stuff of legends.