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Book of the month: The Wild Within

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Filming Siula Grande's West Face that we had climbed seventeen years earlier. I did not share the same world view as the director Kevin Macdonald – sitting with the white cap. © Simon Yates

With our mountaineering epic The Bond capturing the attention of international awards, this month we thought we'd bring you to the film set of Touching the Void, the story to which The Bond has been favourably compared. Seventeen years after Simon Yates and Joe Simpson's perilous journey up the West Face of Siula Grande, Simon was asked to relive their near-fatal climb by returning to Peru's Cordillera Huayhaush range for the making of the film – but an altercation with the film's director made this all the more difficult ...

‘This is an iconic rock,’ Kevin said melodramatically, pointing at the site of our 1985 base camp.

‘No it’s not Kevin,’ Joe replied bluntly. ‘It’s just a boulder.’

Seventeen years after our misadventure on Siula Grande, Joe Simpson and I were back together in the same remote valley of Peru’s Cordillera Huayhaush range. Accompanied by director Kevin Macdonald, assorted production staff, mountain guides and porters we had returned to make a film based on Joe’s best-selling book Touching the Void. Our first testy interview at base camp rather set the tone for the two weeks of shooting on location.

Filmmaking had already been going on for some time before the trip to Peru. Early in the spring of 2002, as he was getting a feel for the project, Kevin had travelled up to Cumbria to talk to me, then towards the end of May I went down to London and told my story to camera over a long day of interviewing in a studio near London Bridge.

As we approached Lima there was a remarkable moment when the plane dropped below the cloud base and in full view was the entire Cordillera Huayhuash, the scene of our epic on Siula Grande’s West Face clearly visible in the centre of the compact group of peaks. Sadly there were to be few such moments during the rest of our time in Peru.

We followed our old trail into the Huayhuash, filming as we went, and set up a base camp a little further down the valley from our 1985 site. All went well to begin with, but over time the interviewing became increasingly aggressive and intrusive. Unpleasant patterns began to emerge. Joe was asked to reconstruct his life-saving crawl down the moraine for hours at a time, day after day. It soon became apparent that the director was after more than just ridiculous amounts of footage. It struck me as abusive.

Joe Simpson and I re-enacting our former selves for the cameras in Peru, 2002. © Simon Yates

Filming took place low on the mountain to begin with, then as people became acclimatised we moved to a high camp on moraine at the side of the glacier opposite the 1,300-metre West Face. Initially we had only planned to have three days at the top camp before splitting into smaller groups to film in different locations. However, filming at altitude proved more tiring and time consuming than had been envisaged.

It was also logistically difficult to move the heavy 35mm cine camera gear around and to charge the batteries from the generator back at base camp. On the second day it was agreed to spend an extra couple of days at the moraine camp and get all the mountain photography completed at the one spot.

On the penultimate day, at the high camp John Whittle, one of the guides responsible for safety while filming, and I climbed up and along a nearby ridge, arduously breaking trail to a point below a crest at 5,300 metres. We deliberately left the short rise to the top free of steps so as to have virgin snow for the ‘summit shoot’ the following day. Back at camp we slumped wearily into the tent and later other guides began drifting back from their day’s work on the glacier. They were complaining about the schedule suddenly being altered. Kevin had decreed that we would all return to the base camp the following day. Some of us, myself included, would have to come back up again to complete the summit shoot that John and I had just prepared.

One of the guides had told Kevin that it would be totally demoralising to have to go down and come back up. I was incensed. The guides had been doing physically demanding and dangerous work at altitude for four days, John Whittle and myself for five. The food had been inadequate, at times just stale cheese rolls making it up to the high camp. In my opinion Kevin didn’t appreciate how difficult it was working at that altitude. My hours of trail breaking would be for nothing; by the time we returned our steps would have blown over.

I intercepted Kevin on his way back from the glacier. ‘You’ve obviously not worked on a building site,’ I told him, … ‘because you’ve still got all your front teeth.’ I made as if to head-butt him, but stopped short. Then in slightly more measured terms I pointed out that he had struck a deal with the guides and that they were working on a promise. Kevin looked dumbfounded. The movie world is autocratic and I doubt that anyone had spoken to the great director in such terms before.

‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ one of the guides, Paul Moores, told me a little later. In view of what was to follow months later they were knowing words.

My intervention did have results though. At a hastily convened meeting with the guides Kevin reinstated the original schedule. We would complete the filming the following day and return to base camp. A little while later I went over and apologised to Kevin. ‘I should think so,’ he replied. I found his reply arrogant and our relationship never really recovered. Kevin took to openly calling me ‘mad’ while I silently thought he was just plain sad. This mutual antagonism worsened after a particularly nasty interview he conducted with me at base camp just before we left the mountains. Apparently, the reason for my ‘building site’ confrontation was due to repressed emotions from seventeen years earlier. It was rubbish of course and I told him as much in front of the camera.

For someone whose business was communication, I found Kevin strangely unable to deal with me in a simple and direct way. He later confided to one of the guides that I was worse to work with than Mick Jagger; I guess the old rocker must have mellowed in his old age, but I took it as a compliment anyway. It was a relief to finally get on the bus, return to Lima and fly home.

Click HERE to read more about Simon's book, The Wild Within.



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