He was made famous by his book Touching the Void (winner of the 1988 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and subsequently made into a movie) in which he described a successful but disastrous and near-fatal attempt by himself and Simon Yates to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. The events of Touching the Void have now become a part of mountaineering folklore.
Joe, originally from Sheffield, and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, were undertaking the first ascent of the West Face of a peak in the South American Andes, Siula Grande. On the ridge down, they encountered difficult terrain, Joe fell and broke his leg, the calf bone splitting his knee.
Simon Yates took it upon himself to lower Joe down the vast majority of the mountain. However, despite Simon's single-handed rescue attempt, a turn of events left Joe hanging over a steep overhanging ice face in the middle of a building blizzard. Yates was trying to support him from a desperate bucket belay hollowed from the snow, uncertain what exactly had happened. After hanging on for over an hour, Yates reached a point where he had to make a choice: Be pulled from the mountain into the abyss and certain death, or cut the rope. Yates cut the rope holding his partner and Joe fell into a gaping crevasse below, landing unexpectedly on a snow bridge. After cutting the rope Simon proceeded down the mountain, passing the crevasse and assessing that Joe must have died from the fall.
Despite his significant injuries, Joe lowered himself further into the crevasse and managed to find a way out. Suffering from hypothermia and dehydration, he then still faced the enormous task of crossing a glacier unroped. He crawled down the glacier and the moraines over a period of 3 1/2 days, all the way back to base camp, finding Simon and their traveling friend Richard literally hours before they were due to leave base camp.
As a climber he offers insights into the often gnarly and intense world of mountaineering, and the price which many climbers pay for their pursuit. Yet in words he finds a clear articulation for why men tackle mountains, expounded below:
“It seemed, sometimes, fleetingly, you could come close to the ineffable edge of perfection when it all goes to glory for the briefest of moments, an inarticulate moment, that leaves you with a vulnerable shattered sense of wonderment. It was life enhancing: pure emotion.”
At the film premiere in his home town of Sheffied, Joe organised for a coach to pick up and drop the regulars from his local drinking hole, The Byron House in Nether Edge, S7.
Simpson has begun another career as a motivational speaker, addressing corporate events throughout the world.
His later non-fiction books describe other expeditions including a number of attempts on the North Face of the Eiger with his regular climbing partner Ray Delaney, and his changing feeling towards extreme mountaineering brought on by the many deaths that surround the pursuit. One of his books, The Beckoning Silence, was made into a documentary that was released on Channel 4 in October 2007.
Joe Simpson: High Flyer (n.a, 2007). The Independent. Retrieved 3 February 2008 from the World Wide Web: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/joe-simpson-high-flyer-395867.html