Mountaineer Joe Simpson
We've all heard the story of Aron Ralston, the young man climbing a mountain who got pinned under a boulder, had to cut his own arm off with a penknife to survive. Difficult to imagine a story of survival to match that. But this one probably could. It happened in 1985 to our next guest, a professional mountaineer by trade who's probably seen more of life and death than you and I could ever imagine. Please welcome, from Manchester, Joe Simpson.
Andrew Denton: (Speaks to Joe via satellite) Joe, thanks for coming on Enough Rope. Let's set the scene you'd just completed the ascent of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with your friend Simon Yates. You were making the descent and what happened?
Joe Simpson: Yeah, we'd just climbed the west face by a very hard new route and, um, on the descent of the north ridge I was trying to downclimb a short, vertical ice cliff and, uh, the ice basically shattered and I fell about 15ft. But the impact drove my lower leg my tibia straight up through my knee joint, um, split straight through the tibia and it also broke my ankle, but I didn't notice that. And this was at about 20,000ft plus, and there's no rescue there, there's no helicopters, we didn't have any radios, and we were just in seriously deep trouble.
Andrew Denton: When you first broke your leg, what was the look that you saw on Simon's face?
Joe Simpson: My first thought was, "Well, I'm dead." I thought, "Maybe I've just torn a ligament and I'm being a bit wet." I remember trying to stand and feeling the bones shift again. And then when Simon appeared at the top of the cliff, um, I was very, very close to hysteria 'cause I just knew I was stuffed. He said, "Are you OK?" and I said, "No, I've broken my leg." He just looked at me longer than he should have done. He didn't say anything, um, and that scared me more than anything. I mean, basically, you don't have a protocol that you you follow when telling a friend you're leaving them to die, which is what he was going to do, or I assumed he was. So it was a very it was a pretty terrible time for both of us. It really, uh it was very hard.
Andrew Denton: What was the danger, for Simon, in your condition?
Joe Simpson: If there's a man with a very badly broken leg in the mountains, a mountain rescue team would normally consist of 8-10 guys. We were on a highly technical mountain at 20,000ft plus, there was just the two of us, and, um, there were very bad snow conditions and the ob the chances of him lowering me down the mountain without killing himself were not good, you know? I mean, we hadn't even thought of the idea of tying both our ropes together and lowering each other down, at that point. We were just thinking, "Well, how do we get off here?" Simon had a fighting chance of being able to solo climb climb down alone and survive. But to have a badly injured partner was going to put the chance of him being killed, you know, pretty high.
Andrew Denton: It was a big decision. And this is what you did? You tied off to each other and lowered each other down?
Joe Simpson: We were on an open face covered in powder snow. We had no solid anchors ice screws or rock pitons or anything. So we'd dig a big bucket-seat hole, Simon would sit in it. We'd use our two climbing ropes knotted together 300ft long with a knot in the middle. Simon would use his belaying device it's like a braking device and start lowering me down. And after about 150ft the knot would come up. I'd move my weight off the rope. He'd move the knot on the other side of the device off we go again. Extremely painful for me, very dangerous for him. What he was sitting in was collapsing while he lowered me. That's why, when he lowered me off the cliff, the knot came up, jammed in his lowering device, and that's it we were locked into the system.
Andrew Denton: When you were hanging there, over the edge of this cliff, you were staring down, effectively, into a crevasse. You were there for some time, weren't you? What were you thinking?
Joe Simpson: I was just really angry, initially, 'cause I was helpless. I couldn't get up the rope, my hands were totally frostbitten, and I was going to kill Simon. I knew that he would just get pulled off. Initially I was angry. I was hanging there for about an hour and a half. It was about minus 20. With a 40-, 50-mile-an-hour wind, that puts the wind chill down in minus 70. Wow! Snowing. Continual powder avalanches. I was dying of I was starting to become hypothermic, so I was going downhill anyway. I wouldn't have lasted much longer.
Andrew Denton: Did you expect Simon to cut the rope?
Joe Simpson: No, I was a bit surprised by that one, actually. It doesn't And, um, it was my knife as well, so, you know But, um, I really, actually When I fell, I mean, I free-fell backwards and I just assumed that Simon had shot off the mountain. Now, what I thought would happen was he would have fallen off and gone out into space and died and I would have gone down into this crevasse. I assumed that his body was hanging down the side. When I was in the crevasse, I thought, "If I pull on the rope, it'll come tight on his body, and then I can use that counterweight to climb up the rope." It came as a bit of a surprise when I pulled the rope and this frayed end appeared. But it meant two things. It meant Simon was alive and, uh, he had my knife.
Andrew Denton: That bastard! You were gonna get it, no matter what. So, you're lying in a crevasse with a broken leg. Did you want to die at that time?
Joe Simpson: No, it's, um
No, I seriously didn't. Uh, it was just
I spent a very long night in the crevasse. It gradually dawned on me as I looked, in the sort of crevasse I was in, that I was in real
a real bad place. I mean, I don't know if you've been into or seen crevasses, but they're pretty scary things. They're not for human habitation. I think that that night in the crevasse was one of the most frightening nights. I wasn't accepting I was gonna die. I was just damn scared. And then, in the morning when I decided to abseil deeper, that was the hardest decision I've ever made in my life, because I was accepting that I was gonna die if I stayed where I was, and I couldn't climb up. I didn't knot the end of the rope, so there was nothing down there. With my frostbitten hands, I'd go off the end of the rope
But it proves something I've always believed, which is, you know, you've just got to keep making decisions. Even if you make a bad decision, at least you're moving forward. You can do somethi
ng about it.
Andrew Denton: So you went deeper and what did you find?
Joe Simpson: About 80ft lower down, my feet touched down I was now 160ft down in this crevasse and away off to the north Um, there was a flat bottom to the crevasse or what I thought was the crevasse bottom and on the other side there was a slope that rose steadily upwards and got up to about 60-plus degrees at the top. And it was where avalanches had poured into this crevasse further to the north and formed this big cone between the walls. I knew if I could crawl across that slope and climb it, there might be a way out. It was only when I was halfway across that I realised it wasn't a floor, it was just, like, a ceiling, 'cause there was things breaking and falling away beneath me. But when I got to the other side, I was on solid snow and I started to climb, and eventually, hours and hours later, got got out of the crevasse.
Andrew Denton: So you climbed out of this crevasse with your broken leg. Simon wasn't there to help you. No-one else was. What lay ahead for you to get to safety?
Joe Simpson: Well, to be honest, all I was thinking about was trying to get out of this nightmarish crevasse. I wasn't thinking about anything else. It was only when I got out of the crevasse and looked on the glacier 200ft below me, I saw these tracks. It was a sort of bittersweet moment, 'cause I sort of felt pleased, 'cause it meant that Simon was alive and it meant I had maybe some tracks to follow. But it I knew he wouldn't have left unless he thought I was dead, and that was an unnerving feeling. I remember, I could see in the distance away over to base camp which was down the glacier, then down about six miles of boulders and rocks and past two lakes. It was a long, long way. And I remember thinking, "It's just not physically possible to do that." It was now two days since I'd drunk water I'd eaten snow but that's not good enough. I hadn't eaten food for two days, I was badly injured and frostbitten. And when I started to crawl along the glacier, um I think that the idea that I could reach base camp was so impossible to deal with that, um, I just started looking at something like a crevasse or a cliff and I'd say, "I've got to get there in 20 minutes." If I got there in 18, I was happy. In 22, I was almost in tears. I think I did that 'cause I think, intuitively, I couldn't deal with the big picture. I broke it into small targets and did that for the next four days.
Andrew Denton: Were your mind and body, like, completely separate things? Was that the way you got through, to separate them?
Joe Simpson: I noticed, very early on, that it's like a form of sensory deprivation. You're not hearing anything, you don't see anything living, you're getting no data information coming in at all and so your memories your brain just releases all this stuff it knows. One part of you is being very cold and going, "I've got to do this to survive." The other part of your brain is going everywhere, remembering lyrics of songs you didn't even know you knew um, just doing amazing things. And towards the end, you know, by the very end, which was the fifth day since seeing Simon, um, I was so weak by then because I'd lost 40% of my body weight I'd lost something like 3.5 stone it's about 90lbs, I think um, and by then, I was fully delirious and, um and that division between, you know, the pragmatic surviving voice in my head and my brain had gone. I was completely out of my head.
Andrew Denton: Can you tell us about the moment you were found what that was like for you?
Joe Simpson: Well, that was very strange. I had an overwhelming sense of loneliness, of of abandonment. It was a very, very, uh, difficult feeling. Um, and I just didn't want to die alone. I wanted someone to hold me, which sounds a bit wet, but.. Although I didn't expect to get down, that's why I kept crawling. On the fifth it was the night of the fifth day, I found myself in the dark, snowing, crawling through these rocks, um, and I suddenly smelled my hands and it had human faeces all over my hands. And I was delirious at the time and it was this smell of human faeces that that really went through my delirium and woke me up and I realised that I'd crawled through the latrine area of our camp, so I wasn't far away. And I remember I just shouted Simon's name, not really expecting anything, um, and then this tent just lit up about 100 yards away. All these lights came on and I heard these voices. And I just collapsed at that point. I was just I was crying helplessly and I remember Simon came charging out and I was about 100 yards away from the tent, and, um, I remember the first thing He leant down and he was swearing obscenely all the time and he grabbed my shoulders and pulled me round 'cause I was lying face down. And I still can remember that feeling of being held. I also remember thinking, "Why is he swearing so much?" I thought he'd be pleased to see me. But, um, he was in a state of shock.
Andrew Denton: I'll bet. In time, did he reconcile himself to his own actions? Was that ever an issue for him?
Joe Simpson: Well, it was never an issue for me. I mean, he dragged me into the tent, and, um, you know, he was scared for me because my breath smelt of acetone, which is like nail varnish remover, and he knew that that meant that I was suffering from ketoacidosis, which is the sort of coma a diabetic goes into. I was very ill, and he was trying to fuss over me. I remember the first thing I properly said to him in the tent was I thanked him for doing what he did. And it was his turn to get weepy. But he saved my life. He did the most incredibly brave thing to risk his life to try and lower me down the mountain. The fact that he lowered me off the cliff was neither his nor my fault. In a paradoxical way, in cutting the rope, which nearly killed me and to his mind, he had killed me he put me in a position to save my own life, and I owe him the world for getting me into that position. I don't think
I'd like to say I could have done the same thing. I'm not sure, though. So it was never an issue with Simon a
nd I, and we've been close friends for the last 20 uh, 18 years. There's always other people who always say, "Are you still friends?" as if, somehow, we'd hate each other for what happened. That was never true.
Andrew Denton: What did the experience teach you about human nature and the will to live?
Joe Simpson: That human beings don't die easily, and, um, you can go into any terminal ward or hospice in the country and find, you know, your average, ordinary Joe fighting like no-one else can believe you can fight to stay alive. Fighting against odds that he's not even going to win, but he'll still fight. And we all do. We all do that. And so I don't think I was particularly special in what I did. I just realised that, as a species, we can we can use our intellect and our bodies in a way that can make us do some quite extraordinary things sometimes.
Andrew Denton: You said you didn't want to die alone. Did you have any sense of God?
Joe Simpson: My mother was Southern Irish, and I was brought up as a devout Catholic. In fact, at one point I thought I'd become a priest, but I'd have made an appalling priest anyway At 16, I asked all these monks some serious questions and they didn't come up with the answers, and I just decided I didn't believe in God. And I always thought, you know, if everything hit the fan, then I might turn around and say, you know, a couple of Hail Marys, "Can you get me out of here?" And in all those days, I never did once, not even in the crevasse. I never thought of some God or some omniscient being that'd lean down and give me help, and I feel, actually, if I had believed that, I just would've stopped and waited for it, and I would've died. And so in a way, that's why that loneliness, I think, came in. I was 25, I was fit, strong, ambitious. I wanted to climb the world and I was dying. There was no afterlife, there's no paradise, there's no heaven. It's just dead. And I really didn't want to lose that. I've got immense respect for other people's religions, be it Christian or Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim. I just I don't happen to have a belief, and I've tested that atheism, so, um, I respect my own lack of belief now. Before, I was never quite sure.
Andrew Denton: You still climb, Joe. Are you able to put the fear that you must have experienced away? Or do you carry it with you?
Joe Simpson: Well, I'm There's a number of things. I still I mean, I do high-end ice-climbing and mountaineering. I've climbed higher grades than I did before. That was after years of operations and being told I'd never walk properly again. But if you have a bad experience like this, you really don't ever get it out of your mind. I have noticed as I've got older that you just get more scared, because when you're climbing in your 20s, you're young, you're full of testosterone, and you've got no imagination whatsoever. So you can go and do anything. Um, in your 40s, you're scared of your shadow. So I find it I think the other thing is, over the years, we were climbing at pretty high standard, and we've lost so many friends now, you know? It's almost one a year for 15, 20 years. That starts to do your head in and you start to think, "Maybe I don't want to just climb for the rest of my life." I've taken up paragliding now. I was flying in Australia and it was absolutely fantastic.
Andrew Denton: Well, that's something nice and safe.
Joe Simpson: Yeah, yeah. Well, it is, yeah. It i I mean, everything's safe until it goes wrong.
Andrew Denton: Yeah. You said you've lost friends. You, yourself, are very lucky to be alive. I is climbing something you continue to do or can you see an end to it?
Joe Simpson: I can see an end to it. In a way, I don't have anything to prove to myself anymore and I've had a fantastic time. I've climbed all over the world. You don't just climb to climb mountains. People have this idea that it's all just high-altitude willie waving and you climb the highest mountain to tell everybody what a hero you are. But we climb for the whole lifestyle to go to some of the most beautiful places in the world and to meet wonderful people of different creeds, cultures and religions, and I think I would miss that more than the actual climbing. But I can see myself, you know, paragliding around the world, travelling. Um, I my right knee is very badly arthritic now, and I smashed my left ankle my good leg five years later in 1990, so my injuries are catching up with me, so I can see myself just becoming a happy gardener.
Andrew Denton: Mmm.
Joe Simpson: I'm quite into gardening, actually.
Andrew Denton: It'll be high-altitude, high-danger gardening, I'm sure. Joe, it seems you have both feet firmly on the ground. Thanks very much for being with us tonight.
Joe Simpson: Thank you.
Andrew Denton: Joe Simpson.