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Joe Simpson

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Mountain climber

"I was brought up as a devout Catholic. I had long since stopped believing in God. I always wondered if things really hit the fan, whether I would under pressure turn around and say a few Hail Marys and say get me out of here. It never once occurred to me. It meant that I really don't believe, you know, I really do think that when you die, you die, that's it. There's no afterlife. There's nothing." -- from the documentary, "Touching the Void"

"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." --from transcript of Enough Rope with Andrew Denton,

Joe Simpson and Simon Yates were the first people to climb the west face of the Siula Grande in Peru. After successfully reaching the summit, Simpson fell and broke his leg on the descent. Yates tied their two 150-foot ropes together and began lowering Simpson 300 feet at a time. The knot between the ropes was too large to fit through the belay plates, so after each 150 feet, Yates would stop, Simpson would give him some slack, and Yates would unclip the rope, thread it back through the lowering device, then reclip and lower Simpson for another 150 feet. Yates ended up lowering Simpson over a dropoff so that he was dangling above a crevasse, so he could not give any slack. After holding Simpson for about an hour, Yates' seating began to give way, and he cut the rope. Simpson fell 150 feet into the crevasse. The next morning Yates descended and saw what had happened, and assumed Simpson was dead, so he continued down the mountain. Simpson, trapped in the crevasse, abseiled to the bottom of the crevasse, managed to find a way out, and crawled and hopped his way back to the base camp over three days, without food or water, arriving hours before Yates was about to leave.

Yates and Simpson tell their story in the documentary film "Touching the Void," from which the first quotation above is taken. Wikipedia has a good summary:

Joe Simpson has a blog at, where he writes: "One unwelcome side effect of the success of the film has been a greatly increased mail bag from people convinced it is their right to convert me to Christianity. I used to receive a fair few letters in the early days but thankfully they tailed off years ago. Once again I receive scores of letters, largely from America I might add, ranging from polite to offensive. There are usually a few words about how enjoyable the film was followed by pages and pages quoting the scriptures and insisting that the only way I could have survived was by God's hand. Although the vast majority are well intentioned there have been one or two quite disturbing, even scary ones. I do find it intriguing that Christianity sometimes appears less tolerant and more fundamentalist in nature than some other religions. I thought the point of living in a democracy was that we had the right to hold whatever religious or political beliefs that we choose so long as they in no way harmed anyone else within that nation. I would say that I am a well educated, widely read, extensively travelled, reasonably articulate and philosophically and emotionally sensitive individual. That I am an Atheist was a difficult and long pondered decision. That my lack of belief was tested in a crucible far more testing than most other people have experienced should at very least give me the right to quietly state my beliefs when asked and not be plagued by people who think I am wrong and they are right. The Desert Island Discs recording was especially irritating because Sue Lawley's insistence on returning again and again to the subject of Atheism was not a reflection on the hour of recorded interview I gave for the programme. I became increasingly annoyed that she simply would not accept my stated answer. I then received a whole batch of letters from British Christians lecturing me on their beliefs. For every ten received (and immediately binned) I would receive a welcome letter from other infuriated Atheists and Agnostics. Oddly enough I have never received letters from Muslims, Buddhists and Hindu's trying to show me the error of my ways. It has made the apparent rise of the religious right, particularly following the American election, seem all the more ominous to me."

-- submitted by Jim Lippard on 5-Oct-2007