by Gordon Fraser March 27, 2020 9 min read

Part of what made university so enjoyable for me was the multitude of ways to burn time. Whether that was procrastination, drinking or partying - unfortunately something I did quite a lot of. But I also managed to do other things, like meander down to the vast shopping complex to see what was on offer. Not that I could do anything about it, for money, as a student, was a novel concept.

I studied at the University of Dundee, making good use of the Duncan of Jordanstone building to learn about Innovative Product Design. It was a new course back then, with our class being the 2nd year to run through the programme. I struggled heavily with one aspect of the course, which was bogged down in hardcore physics. It made sense; how can you design and build a product if you don’t know how things interact with each other on a fundamental level. Coefficient of friction, shear modulus and other baffling, to me, concepts, each grounded in the understanding of material properties and ergonomics, of which I just couldn’t get a grasp on. It’s strange actually, for I didn’t have any problems with atomic structures or other physical principles, like work hardening, and the reasons why they are so important too. I guess it was a more visual concept for me to understand than formulaic.

Duncan of Jordanstone Building

Duncan of Jordanstone building

For 3 years I struggled, stressed and feared as each exam result returned with a resounding “F” stamped on it, and it wasn’t until crunch time arrived that I found myself properly questioning what I was doing. If I didn’t pass the next exam I would be rejected from the course and 3 years of work/play would have been for nothing. Why was this important to me? I just wanted to design interesting things. Why do I need this deep physics knowledge to do what I need to do? The answer was that I didn’t really, but the course was young and the directors perhaps didn’t know either and therefore this exam, which had the potential to ruin my trajectory, was unnecessary but required. They just wanted to make sure that they were offering every tool to their new students, but this part of the course has since been removed. If it wasn’t for a lecturer called Gareth, upon seeing me at the end of my rope, stepping in and directing me, a kind hand extended in a time of desperation, I would have been out on my heel. I passed, finally, and made it through to the final year, where I developed an automated and integrated system to deliver daily medication to those in isolation suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

It was a hard time for me, emotionally and mentally, but one thing that got me through was the regular trips to the local “FOPP” store. You may not have had these locally, but in Dundee there was one stationed inside the vast Overgate Centre, and it offered relatively inexpensive music, DVDs and books, often oblique and specialist. I would spend hours in there deliberating over which DVD to buy to take my mind off the physics drudge. One day in 2004, sifting methodically through the stacks of DVD boxes on the shelves, I found a red box. Back then most DVDs came in clear or black boxes, so this red box stood out a mile. I picked it up and studied the icy scene folded around the case. “Touching the Void” it was called. I read the synopsis and thought it sounded pretty exciting, headed to the till, paid my discounted price and walked the mile back to my digs on Blackness Road. Anecdotally the student flat, within which the most time was burned, is now in the process of being razed to make way for a new housing development. About time, I say.

Originally a book, Touching the Void was written by now ex-mountaineer turned successful writer Joe Simpson, about his experience in 1985 during a climb of Siula Grande, a remote and treacherously difficult mountain set deep in the Peruvian Andes. Joe was with his friend Simon Yates, another expert mountaineer, and their goal was to reach the summit via the previously unclimbed West Face; a viciously complex and ultra-expert level ascent through the most difficult type of climbing imaginable. Despite some of what Joe and Simon say are the most challenging conditions they’ve experienced, they ascended successfully to the North Ridge and made it to the summit. They had achieved what they had set out to do - challenge themselves to the very limits of their abilities. Joe mentions that 80% of all climbing accidents occur in the descents, and as they made their way down, the weather closed in, and the climbers faced an incredibly dangerous situation. Joe, working his way around an ice face with his axes, found himself suddenly falling through the air, landing heavily on his right leg, sending his shin bone through his knee, shattering and splintering the bone and cartilage, destroying his leg and with it his hopes of making it off Siula Grande.

Despite the acceptance that Joe was going to die, Simon didn’t leave him, as expected or silently agreed. He instead made a plan and worked with Joe to lower him down the remaining 3,000 feet, using two ropes tied together in the middle; a 300 foot descent with each double-length - something they'd have to repeat 10 times. It worked flawlessly and soon they found themselves almost at the bottom. Buoyed by their success through adversity, the two climbers dared to hope. They might just make it out of this alive.

Touching the Void

During what was likely the 10th and final lowering, Joe found himself inexplicably suspended in air, dangling upside down from his rope, 15 feet below an overhanging drop. Simon had unsuspectingly lowered him off a sheer drop and now, with the knot tying the two lengths of rope together being on the wrong side of the belay plate, Simon was unable to get the knot unhooked and past this device. Joe remained the dead-weight at the end of the rope and Simon couldn’t do anything at all. He was stranded himself, perched perilously in disintegrating powder snow above Joe, the full weight of Joe’s body hanging from Simon’s harness. As the weather closed in and frostbitten hands became inoperable, Simon made the difficult decision to cut the rope.

What happens next has gone down in legend as one of the most unlikely and impossible survivals ever to have been achieved in mountaineering before or since. Joe plummeted into a deep, vast crevasse, and with Simon now heading back to basecamp, found himself alone, unable to escape and unable to walk or climb. That he subsequently made it back to basecamp and then survived to not only tell the tale, but climb mountains again, write a book about his and Simon’s experience, have it made into an award winning and superbly documented film, and travel the world and enjoy his life, is one of the most incredible parts of the whole story. Despite Joe and Simon succeeding in climbing an unclimbable face, and somehow making it back to basecamp alive, the journey for Joe was only just beginning.

It was the film version of Joe’s book that introduced me to this tale of indescribable triumph in the very depths of adversity. Of course it must be noted that this was self-inflicted human struggle - no-one asked Joe and Simon to climb that mountain, but the fact remains; through a process of setting small incremental goals, timing himself and celebrating his successes at each point, Joe was able to work his way out of that crevasse, down through a vast and perilous glacier filled with more hidden crevasses and deep fissures, through the grinding, abrasive moraines at the base of Siula Grande and back to basecamp. Despite all that and it now being four days since Simon had made it back; with a leg shattered to bits, brutally painful and immovable, with nothing to eat or drink, Joe arrived at basecamp to find Simon and Richard Hawking, the basecamp one-man support crew, still camped. A miracle. After a few days of eating, drinking and resting, he was then transported via donkey to the nearest hospital and, after many operations and rehabilitation, survived to tell the tale.

Since first watching Touching the Void in 2004, I have since read the original book, as well as Joe’s other literary work. There’s something about the “Void” story and the way the film version was made, that keeps me coming back to it every now and then. It might seem daft but I've probably watched Touching the Void 30 or so times; I’m not obsessed or a hardcore Joe Simpson fan, but his story and the way it has been presented is such a strong source, for me, of positivity and mindfulness, of human spirit and endeavour, against unlikely odds. Joe made it out of what was, at almost every point, a fatal position, by setting himself small targets to hit and going full-force at each one. He could have easily let the improbability of his survival get the better of him, and no-one would have blamed him for succumbing. Instead he compartmentalised his objectives. He set himself reduced, achievable goals, and using his “cheap watch” to time his efforts he would either celebrate them, or chastise himself for not hitting his target. By doing this, by not letting the scale of his challenge overwhelm him, and instead breaking it down into small manageable chunks, he was able to methodically work his way out of trouble. That, in essence, is what draws me to this story, especially in times of personal uncertainty, or even now, when we are facing a global crisis, to remember that if we set ourselves smaller, achievable goals, and put our whole effort behind them, that we can do it; we can make it out of this.

Touching the Void
I watched Touching the Void again last night. It reminded me once more why I love the film, the story and the message so much. It reminded me of my struggles and how, if I had adopted the same mindset as Joe did when I was facing certain doom in my exams, that I might have made it through with more success or even with more understanding. I guess the time I first watched the film the message and undertone was lost on me, probably due to my immaturity at that point. It’s not lost now though, and I gain a lot of strength from Joe's approach, setting myself smaller, more achievable goals, and giving everything to achieve them.

One thing that still surprises and delights me even now, which wasn’t possible back then, is the ability to communicate directly to the people themselves; with Joe Simpson. I tweeted to Joe last night having just watched the film and said that watching Touching the Void was a life affirming experience. That if Joe could make it through that and out the other side intact, then almost anything is possible.

What I really meant is that it makes you feel lucky to be alive, to not be fighting for your life, like Joe had done, and happy that you don’t enjoy tackling the Siula Grande’s or Everest’s of this world as a hobby. I didn’t expect Joe to reply but maybe if he saw it, he might get a sense that this means something to me and, maybe, he might just get a little kick out of knowing his story still affects people. To my utter surprise, Joe tweeted me back!

“Not sure I'd like to try that again to be honest or feel confident about the outcome! Funnily enough one of the things that saved my life was a very cheap crappy watch. It gave me time and therefore structure and therefore discipline. It stopped working 3 weeks later...”

He followed with:

“It is also only life affirming because I made it. I'm sure many friends we lost over the years tried just as hard and didn't. I know it's not just luck. I also know life deals very unexpected cards sometimes and you just have to play what you've been dealt and make luck happen”.

Joe is a source of inspiration, for me. I really wanted to tell him as much but didn’t want to come across as stupid or wanting anything from him. I just wanted to tell him that his story has affected me and continues to affect me still. Not just Joe’s story but the film itself. Some who have seen Touching the Void, directed by Kevin Macdonald, will note that the talking-heads interview sections are shot with Joe, Simon and Richard looking directly at the camera. It gives an incredible sense of the person talking directly to you, looking at you and offering their words to you specifically. I feel like I know Joe, even though I haven’t the first inclination of what he’s like as a person, outside of the Touching the Void bubble or through his other books. I have a sense of the man, but not who he really is. I guess in a way Joe is my hero, and you know what they say about meeting your heroes. Anyway, I shoot all our interviews for MWC with the subject looking directly at the camera. This is the reason why.

Joe replied to one more of my comments:

“Reducing things to manageable increments. Sounds like business speak. It's not. Have a plan and do what you think you can do to make it happen. If it works make another plan... ad infinitum... not pretty but it works... bottom line... don't get in that sh*t in the first place”.

Gordon Fraser
Gordon Fraser


Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.