Arts & Culture
INTERVIEW: The man who cut the rope

‘Touching the Void’s Simon Yates speaks to Ben Fitzgerald about the split decision that  both saved his life and propelled him into the spotlight…

It must be a difficult thing to be defined by a single moment. In a split second, Simon Yates, a passionate and talented young climber, was hurled into the spotlight - when he cut the rope on which fellow climber Joe Simpson was dangling high above a gaping crevice. And he has been living in the shadow of that momentous decision for 32 years. But meeting up with him for a pint and a pie at the Fox and Hounds in Newbury before his My Mountain Life lecture at the Arlington Arts Centre, it’s clear that his life has moved on. “People ask me all the time about that time - they wonder if it took me long to make that decision and whether I’m still affected by it. I can say that at the time, as soon as I remembered that I had a knife with me it took me about two seconds to decide what I was going to do.” Simon and his climbing companion Joe were both part of Sheffield’s thriving community of mountaineers - many of whom had chosen to live in that part of the world because of its proximity to the peak district and the many climbing opportunities that it offers. “We were both living in Sheffield at the time, I was studying biochemistry at the time, but the real reason was that I had moved there for the climbing opportunities. A lot of us would spend our summers out in the Alps and that is where we both became climbing companions.” The ‘cock-up’ as Simon now refers to his disastrous expedition in Peru happened early on in his climbing career. He explained: “It’s true to say that we might have bitten off more than we could chew, but we were young and fit and were eager to achieve what we could.” Simon and Joe had reached the summit of the previously unclimbed West Face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. They were climbing Alpine style, in other words taking all their kit up with them on the ascent as opposed to leaving a trail of fixed lines. This meant that that they were able to climb quickly but meant that they were vulnerable if they needed to retreat in a hurry. The climbing pair were on their descent when disaster struck, Simpson slipped down an ice cliff and landed badly, breaking his right leg. With bad weather closing in Simon was forced to attempt save the life of his friend by lowering him 3,000 feet to the valley floor below. “This is something that the film ‘Touching the Void’ seems to skirt over.” Joe said. “It paints me as the guy who cut the rope, but they don’t really talk a great deal about how I attempted to save Joe.” Simon attempted to lower Joe off the North Ridge by tying two 150-foot rope lengths together to make a single 300-foot length - a highly risky feat that has earned him the respect of many in the climbing community. After a series of successful abseils, Simon inadvertently lowered Joe over the edge of a precipice that was longer than the rope, meaning that Joe could not get his weight off the rope - leaving him dangling helplessly in midair and Simon unable to unclip from his end of the rope. They both faced a slow and agonising death until Simon remembered that he had a knife with him. “It took me about five seconds to make the decision to cut the rope. People always assume that I spend the hour or so that I was holding Joe wondering whether to cut him free. “The fact is that as soon as I remembered the knife I knew that I had no choice.” Joe’s survival story - crawling back to Simon’s camp over the course of three days has become the stuff of legend and propelled both climbers into the public eye. However, Simon regards this incident, early in his climbing career as a sideshow - quickly covering the events of the Siula Grande drama in the first ten minutes of his ‘My Mountain Life’ lecture during which he charted his various climbing exploits around the world. After the Siula Grande climb, Yates went on to carry out expeditions to Laila Peak and Nemeka in Pakistan and several expeditions to the Cordillera Darwin in Chile. He has since gone on to find his own successful outward bound company Mountain Dream which takes clients on mountaineering trips to the Andes, Nepal and the South Pole. “I suppose I’ve been lucky - I’ve found a job I love, and even though I have a family now, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s been a life-long love affair with the mountains.”