Joe Simpson in Touching the Void (1988) tells of an amazing mountaineering experience. With Simon Yates, his climbing partner, Simpson ascended the west face of 21,000 foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Weather was horrible; ice and snow were unstable; food and water ran out. During the descent Simpson fell and broke his right leg. By herculean efforts Yates was able to lower him many thousands of feet toward safety. But during the last stage Simpson slipped over another cliff and dangled in free space. Yates had to cut the rope between them to keep them both from dying. He was sure that Simpson was dead.

But Simpson miraculously survived. He fell into a crevasse, a huge crack in the glacier on the mountainside. Alone, he managed to escape from it. Over the next three days he crawled the miles back to base camp. In Chapter 9 ("In the Far Distance") Simpson describes the most critical moment, early in his painful journey, as he begins lowering himself on a rope from the ice bridge where he first landed inside the crevasse:

When I recovered my wits I looked more carefully at the carpet of snow above which I was dangling. My jubilation was quickly tempered when I spotted dark menacing holes in the surface. It wasn't a floor after all. The crevasse opened up into a pear-shaped dome, its sides curving away from me to a width of fifty feet before narrowing again. The snow floor cut through the flat end of this cavern, while the walls above me tapered in to form the thin end of the pear barely ten feet across and nearly 100 feet high. Small fragments of crusty snow pattered down from the roof.

I looked round the enclosed vault of snow and ice, familiarising myself with its shape and size. The walls opposite closed in but didn't meet. A narrow gap had been filled with snow from above to form a cone which rose all the way to the roof. It was about fifteen feet wide at the base and as little as four or five feet across at the top.

A pillar of gold light beamed diagonally from a small hole in the roof, spraying bright reflections off the far wall of the crevasse. I was mesmerised by this beam of sunlight burning through the vaulted ceiling from the real world outside. It had me so fixated that I forgot about the uncertain floor below and let myself slide down the rest of the rope. I was going to reach that sunbeam. I knew it then with absolute certainty. How I would do it, and when I would reach it were not considered. I just knew.

In seconds my whole outlook had changed. The weary frightened hours of night were forgotten, and the abseil which had filled me with such claustrophobic dread had been swept away. The twelve despairing hours I had spent in the unnatural hush of this awesome place seemed suddenly to have been nothing like the nightmare I had imagined. I could do something positive. I could crawl and climb, and keep on doing so until I had escaped from this grave. Before, there had been nothing for me to do except lie on the bridge trying not to feel scared and lonely, and that helplessness had been my worst enemy. Now I had a plan.

The change in me was astonishing. I felt invigorated, full of energy and optimism. I could see possible dangers, very real risks that could destroy my hopes, but somehow I knew I could overcome them. It was as if I had been given this one blessed chance to get out and I was grasping it with every ounce of strength left in me. A powerful feeling of confidence and pride swept over me as I realised how right I had been to leave the bridge. I had made the right decision against the worst of my fears. I had done it, and I was sure that nothing now could be worse than those hours of torture on the bridge.

The power of the plan ...

(see also PlansAndSituations (13 Aug 1999), TooSlowAndTooFast (25 Sep 1999), CaliforniaSherpa (27 May 2000), TheBelay (10 Apr 2004), ... )

TopicLiterature - TopicLife - 2004-06-02

(correlates: PlanWorkLearn, NanoRadians, SituationalStrategy, ...)