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‘Touching the Void’: Would you cut the rope to survive?

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No piece of fiction can compete with the real-life drama of the mountain adventure shared by Joe Simpson in his book Touching the Void. This is not a book review. With or without spoilers (there are some), the reason why his story deserves to be read is that, by the end of it, the reader will inexorably be faced with many questions – the answers to which they will not be able to hide from.

In 1985, two young British climbers who knew each other by sight decided to climb the Peruvian Andes. Joe Simpson, the elder climber, was 25 years old, and his partner Simon Yates was just 22. With more courage than hands-on experience, the two made a first ascent of the West Face of Siula Grande mountain (6,334 meters) via an extremely technical route. When they reached the summit, the bad weather that had held them so much during the ascent, closed in on them severely, turning their descent down the northernmost arête into more of a high-stakes getaway than a simple return to civilization.

In their rush, Simpson slipped, fell and broke a tibia: staying alive no longer depended on him, but rather the empathy of Yates. They were not friends, just climbing partners by chance; the relationship was only made to quench their thirst for adventure. Yates could have left Simpson up there; he could have promised to return with help and flee to save his life. But he didn’t do that. Simpson would have died and Yates would have survived. At that moment, they were condemned to perish together or wait for a miracle to be saved. Pragmatic and a touch phlegmatic, Yates offered to help. This moment would lead to a series of events that would change his life. Simpson would never forget looking at Yates and seeing in his eyes his resolve to help him.

In the world of mountaineering, the relationship between climbing partners is sacred. Its value is a recurring theme in classic literature that extols the magic of solidarity, teamwork, camaraderie and commitment that is formed naturally when two people are connected by a rope. How can one not admire the partnerships formed by climbing legends Lionel Terray and Louis Lachenal, Chris Bonington and Doug Scott, and Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler? The partnership is a defense of ethical values, of a certain courage in the face of possible success and the shadow of disgrace. If Yates did not abandon Simpson it was because he could not have lived with himself, being so young and with all of his future ahead of him.

With zero visibility and Simpson unable to walk, Yates decided to ease his partner down with the support of two 50-meter ropes they were carrying. He tied them to one another to have 100 meters in length, and then tied one end of the rope to himself and the other to Simpson’s harness. Standing firm in the snow, Yates lowered Simpson down over the frozen edge, using a braking system that allowed him to control the speed of his descent.

There was only one problem: once Simpson had been lowered 50 meters, he had to stand up on his good leg so that the rope. This gave Yates enough slack so that he could move the knot between the two ropes to the other side of the brake system and lower him another 50 meters. This had to be done every 100 meters. Simpson stood firm in the snow and waited for Yates to descend before repeating the process. The system was as slow as it was effective. It worked and they were close to salvation. They were completely dependent on their tenacity: there was no way to get outside help.

Towards the abyss

But everything became terribly complicated. The snow stopped Simpson from seeing a cornice in the mountainside, a hidden crevasse: he plummeted 30 meters. Yates stopped his fall but Simpson was hanging in the air, and the weight of his partner was pulling on him. How long would he be able to hold on? The snow prevented Simpson from seeing the magnitude of the abyss below his feet. How many meters would he fall before dying on impact? How long would it take to die? Unable to climb up the rope, Simpson thought of saving Yates by cutting the rope that tied them together in such an awful way. But the only knife they had was in Yates’s backpack.

The weight of Simpson became unbearable: Yates was fighting with everything he had to dig his crampons in the snow and stop himself flying off into the abyss. He did everything he knew and was able to do to save both lives but after an hour of suffering, he understood that his life depended on a simple but terrible action: cutting the rope. It was getting dark when the blade of the knife cut through the rope and Simpson fell directly on a bridge of snow until nearly the bottom of the crevasse. Miraculously he survived and was unhurt except for a broken leg. The next morning, with visibility, Yates found the crevasse and assumed that Simpson had fallen to the bottom and was dead.

But three days later, when Yates was about to leave base camp, a ghost appeared, hauling himself over the rocks: it was Simpson. He had been able to crawl out of the crevasse, orientate himself and survive without food and by drinking melted ice.

Both continued to climb mountains, but they never climbed together again. What had brought them so close also repelled them. Yates was the target of severe criticism, he suffered a tremendous popular trial. Even though Simpson defended him, he was forever seen as the man who cut the rope. It didn’t matter that Simpson said he would have done the same. Almost everyone forgets that in order to play the role of the villain, Yates first had to be a hero. And in this way, the book presents the reader with two questions: would they have risked their life and stayed with Simpson? And would they have cut the rope to survive?

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Intimate tales from the closet of Gabriel García Marquez

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“Looking through someone’s closet is such an intimate thing,” says the actress Emilia García Elizondo, granddaughter of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez and his wife, Mercedes Barcha. Speaking from the inner courtyard of the house where Los Gabos, as the couple were known, lived for decades in the residential area of Jardines del Pedregal in Mexico City, García Elizondo explains that she has just spent two and a half months dusting, exploring and itemizing her grandparents’ clothing.

On display are over 400 items that she has put up for sale: coats, dresses, bags, shoes, ties and handkerchiefs belonging to her grandparents. “Los Gabos left a lot of clothes, and we didn’t know what to do with it all,” she admits.

The house was left without both its long-term residents last year, following the death of Mercedes Bacha in August – García Márquez passed away in 2014 – and since then the family has been working to turn it into a cultural space. It will not be a museum, but a place dedicated to art which they have called the Gabriel García Márquez House of Literature.

The first public event to let people see the famous home of García Márquez and Bacha is this clothing sale. In order to attend, it is necessary to make a prior appointment through the space’s Instagram account. But on the morning of October 20, close friends of the couple were invited to a preview to sift through the contents of Los Gabos’ closet.

García Elizondo explains that she selected items that were in good condition for the sale, or those that could be considered iconic. “What I most remember about Gabo [García Márquez] are his tweed jackets,” she says. There are around 20 of these emblematic coats that the Colombian author would wear on cold Bogotá mornings or rainy Mexico City afternoons. One of the most valuable items, a black-and-white striped jacket, still carries a stain on an interior pocket from the time when one of his pens leaked. “We also found a pen he used to sign his books in another jacket,” says García Elizondo, holding up a Sharpie that once belonged to the writer.

There are Calvin Klein, Armani and Hugo Boss items among García Márquez’s clothes, but what he always preferred were tailored clothes. “A lot of what was in his closet were things he had had made specifically for him. He ordered shirts with big pockets for his glasses and his pens,” García Elizondo says. In his vast library there is a table where some of these shirts are laid out with the names of his favorite tailors. “Raúl González: shirt-maker,” features on many.

“He also had a tailor called José Mejía, who we think is Colombian. He had shirts made in France, Colombia and Italy.” García Elizondo decided not to add a tailored coat made for her grandfather by Emilio Velarde Rodríguez in which the Nobel laureate signed his name in blue ink on a woven patch with the date of its acquisition, March 30, 1983. “I couldn’t part with that,” she says.

Gonzalo García, the writer’s grandson, inside the family library in Mexico City.
Gonzalo García, the writer’s grandson, inside the family library in Mexico City.Gladys Serrano

García Márquez wasn’t a fashion icon, but neither did he underappreciate it. When it was announced in 1982 that he had won the Nobel Prize, one of the first things he said was that he hoped to attend the ceremony in emblematic Colombian attire. “I want to wear a guayabera,” he said at the time. “A tuxedo is the obligatory suit, but they allow Hindus to wear their national dress. I am willing to show that the guayabera is the national dress of the Caribbean and that I have the right to attend wearing one. As long as I don’t have to wear tails I can cope with the cold.” In the end he wore a Liqui liqui, the traditional suit of Los Llanos, the grassland plains that unite Colombia and Venezuela, in homage to his grandfather, a colonel who raised the young García Márquez and was closer to the writer than his own father. “His wartime Liqui liquis and his civilian colonel’s whites looked as though he was still living inside them,” García Márquez wrote of his grandfather’s clothes in his memoir Living to Tell the Tale.

The famous white linen suit he wore in 1982 is not on sale in Mexico City: it is a well-guarded jewel in the National Museum of Colombia. Neither are his famous ruanas – a poncho-style garment – which remain at his home there. But the display in Mexico City does include what his wife wore to the Nobel ceremony, a floor-length emerald green dress with black leaves of thick fabric. It is not for sale though: it forms part of an exhibition alongside dozens more dresses that Barcha kept for decades.

“It’s possible to trace all of the eras that Mercedes lived through,” says her granddaughter about the dresses and the tonal changes she saw in them. “They run from her most colorful dresses to her most sober jackets toward the end [of her life].” On display are dozens of long indigenous dresses Barcha collected in various parts of Mexico, as well as several traditional bags made by the Wayuu people of Colombia. By contrast, there are Louis Vuitton bags and dresses made by Italian fashion house Marina Rinaldi. “I think Mercedes was completely obsessed with Marina Rinaldi,” says García Elizondo.

The proceeds from the sale of Barcha’s dresses and García Márquez’s tweed jackets are not destined for the Gabriel García Márquez House of Literature but for the FISANIM Foundation, run by Mexican actress Ofelia Medina to tackle malnutrition among indigenous children in states such as Chiapas and Guerrero. “I was 17 when I first met Gabo,” Medina tells EL PAÍS at the private viewing. “He wrote the first draft plot of my first film, Patsy, Mi amor, sometime around 1967. At about the same time he finished One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was one of the first people who read that novel.” Medina remains close to the family and recalls when García Elizondo told her earlier this year about the donation that would be coming for her charity. “For me it was as if yellow butterflies were fluttering all around me,” she says.

There are not many yellow butterflies in the García Márquez closet, but those stains in the Nobel winner’s pockets remain, from the pens which he used half a century ago to draw them.

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Life at the US naval base in Rota: A union of two worlds

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Felipe Benítez Reyes, a 61-year-old native of Rota, in Spain’s southern Andalusia region, was not even born when this rural outcrop on the Atlantic coast of Cádiz became a joint military base designed for Americans. Now, it is difficult to think of Rota without the naval base.

This area of the base is used to house military personnel evacuated from Afghanistan.
This area of the base is used to house military personnel evacuated from Afghanistan.James Rajotte

Spanish dictator Francisco Franco certified this strange union by simply pointing his finger at the territory where the base was to be installed, or so the story goes, and lo the place was born. Writer Benítez Reyes says the base became “an industry” for the town that hosts it. “That was the case in the early 1950s and I think the perception is still the same today,” he explains.

Soldiers from two countries live side-by-side there, which might seem to present identity issues but doesn’t faze the commanders of either nation. The local residents sleep through the constant airplane noise, and speak English or Spanish just as readily, the latter with a heavy Andalusian accent.

Pedro Sánchez (left) and Juan Montesinos are two retirees who live in Rota. Montesinos used to work at the base.
Pedro Sánchez (left) and Juan Montesinos are two retirees who live in Rota. Montesinos used to work at the base.James Rajotte

Antonio Maña Zafra, 97, is perhaps Rota’s oldest resident, and was an astonished local doctor when Franco arrived alone, at 4:30pm on October 14, 1953, at Rota’s Luna castle. The dictator asked some nuns to show him the way to the stairs of the tower. From there, he pointed an index finger at where he wanted “the Base” to be built. Maña Zafra was with a colleague, Dr Rodríguez Rubio, and they both listened to Franco’s high-pitched voice (“unbecoming of a general”) which ordered vast swathes of countryside and sea looking out to infinity to be transformed. Land was appropriated, farmers paid off and builders and personnel began to arrive from all over. Rota “was on the up,” says Maña Zafra.

Until then there had only been “a few countryside inns,” he recalls, and farmers were offered the chance to move to a town created to accommodate them: Nueva Jarilla. “They, in turn, rented out the houses to the Americans, and then our social life kicked off, with the newcomers dancing with women from Rota,” says Maña Zafra. Integration was quick, with some stark differences. “The Americans had those big cars, when we did not even have a Fiat 600,” he says. It was like the 1953 Spanish film ¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall! (or, Welcome, Mister Marshall!) about US diplomats coming to a small rural town. But there was a key difference: “In that film the Americans left, but here they stayed, and mixed in with the people from Rota and with those who came from [the rest of Spain], because here there were no specialists in heavy machinery,” says the 97-year-old.

Avery Knighten-Jewel, a member of the Maritime Strike 79 Griffins helicopter squadron. A native of Chicago, he works as an aviation technician.
Avery Knighten-Jewel, a member of the Maritime Strike 79 Griffins helicopter squadron. A native of Chicago, he works as an aviation technician.James Rajotte

Initially, according to Maña Zafra, “the customs clashed; the Americans came with the fame that the movies gave them, and here the people were very peaceful. But we adapted, and they adapted to us. They liked our beer, which they ordered by the case, and bars, cabarets, dance halls and billiard rooms, all filled up, and all done up in the American style.” The soldiers “left monstrous tips,” and word got out of their generosity. “[There were] 11,000 boys in their twenties, so imagine how many women came from all over.”

A small variety store in the town of Rota.
A small variety store in the town of Rota.James Rajotte

One day, Franco’s governor asked Maña Zafra, who would end up becoming mayor of Rota between 1963 and 1970, to tell him why the town was full of prostitutes, adding that Franco’s wife was “obsessed” with the issue. He does not remember any big fights, but he does remember the day of Franco’s death, when the Americans were urgently summoned to take cover at the base. “Then nothing happened, [but] they thought there was going to be a revolution.” Demonstrations against NATO would follow, and many more. By then, Maña Zafra “had already seen it all.”

Rota is a very peaceful place, sitting beside a complex shared by Americans and Spaniards by Franco’s design and, later, by agreement of the democracy that came after him. Maña Zafra says, and many agree, that this coexistence has protected Rota from the rampant tourist developments of nearby areas. “Here there hasn’t been that greed because people make good money,” he says. So the streets, which go right up to the shore, seem preserved to give the place the air of a village where Andalusian and American twangs mingle without bothering each other.

Zay Owens, 20, is from New Mexico. He works at the Rota base as a radar technician for the US Navy.
Zay Owens, 20, is from New Mexico. He works at the Rota base as a radar technician for the US Navy. James Rajotte

For Benítez Reyes, the relationship between Rota and the base is “the normalization of the anomaly.” In his novel, El azar y viceversa (or, Chance and vice versa), this universe is described as if it were a film by Spanish director Luis García Berlanga. Now there is no longer the invasion of bars and other distractions, but Rota is marked by the novelties that made children (and adults) feel like they were living in another world of pure Americana. There were chewing gum and records, the hairstyles and the music of the era, and even Cadillacs. Now that time has passed, there are still symbols that make Rota identical to what it was like when Franco issued his decree.

An eating facility for US armed forces personnel.
An eating facility for US armed forces personnel.James Rajotte

“Rota was divided by then by two parallel arteries, Calvario street and San Fernando Avenue,” explains Benítez Reyes. The Rota natives from the countryside lived on Calvario street, while San Fernando Avenue was “the alternative American universe, with the American bars, the pizza and hamburger joints, the laundromats, and even patrols that the townspeople called the chopatró, which was their [phonetic] translation of Shore Patrol. The military authorities used these patrols to control the rampage of soldiers on leave.” Those patrols ended when Franco died in 1975.

Crewmembers from the destroyer 'USS Roosevelt' having drinks at the  Sunset Beach bar at the beach in Rota.
Crewmembers from the destroyer ‘USS Roosevelt’ having drinks at the Sunset Beach bar at the beach in Rota.James Rajotte

When the US Sixth Fleet docked there, more than 1,000 people disembarked into the town, joining the 3,000 who already lived on the base and its surroundings, “receiving overseas salaries in a country well below the value of the dollar, so Rota was a big party,” Benítez Reyes notes. Now the soldiers on leave stroll up and down eating ice cream in the streets, and will no longer find the signs in English advertising bars and other attractions while little donkeys carry sand for concrete along the avenues.

The town center of Rota.
The town center of Rota. James Rajotte

“Leaving aside geopolitical issues, this town benefited from the military installation,” says Benítez Reyes. “Rota had few resources. Tourism was limited to a few families and in general, people lived off fishing, agriculture and small business. There was no powerful bourgeoisie. The agreement in 1953 to build the base set in motion very accelerated economic progress that gave way to a kind of spontaneous cosmopolitanism. People of all different races came here and new customs were established.”

Dr Leah Moss, who is from Washington DC, checks on the health of people who were evacuated from Afghanistan.
Dr Leah Moss, who is from Washington DC, checks on the health of people who were evacuated from Afghanistan.James Rajotte

People like Benítez Reyes heard new music in their adolescence, and for the Americans they could feel almost like at home, “not in a strange country, but one in which they could live as if they had never left Nebraska, for example,” he says. Before the facilities became used jointly by Spanish and US forces, “entering the base was like entering a North American town,” the writer recalls. Globalization changed everything and Rota is, like the rest of the world, somewhere you can pick up a hamburger easily.

The Spanish ship 'Juan Carlos I' at the Rota naval base.
The Spanish ship ‘Juan Carlos I’ at the Rota naval base. James Rajotte

The graffiti slogans of the eighties, like “NATO no, bases out,” persist in the surroundings of the base. “You may not agree with them [the military], but on the other hand you know that the closure would affect thousands of people for the worse,” says Benítez Reyes. “For many, it is almost a religion: they went from having no future to having a good one.” Those in the know say that the hypothetical closure of these facilities would also be “the end of an industry.” And what an industry.

Katie DeCarie, from San Francisco. is pictured with her daughter and a friend's child, having brunch at a cafeteria named Great Day Coffee.
Katie DeCarie, from San Francisco. is pictured with her daughter and a friend’s child, having brunch at a cafeteria named Great Day Coffee.James Rajotte

Susana Reiné, a first mate, has been serving on the Spanish section of the base for 16 years. She notes that there is “a very good relationship between the people of Rota and the American side, and there have always been Americans who stay on to live there.” Two years ago it was rumored that the Americans were going to Morocco “and people were pulling their hair out!”

Manuel Perez Garcia, a colonel from the Spanish region of Asturias, who is the head Navy press officer at Rota, has been in the town for 30 years. He stayed to live in an apartment that an American rented out to him and he observes that foreigners now go “unnoticed in the Rota of today.” He says he will stay in the town forever. “This isn’t like those tourist towns on the coast, with that air of artificiality, like an international village. There has been proper urban planning [in Rota].” At the base, there is a wood that appears to have been transplanted from England, but is in fact pure raw material from the woods of Rota.

Rota Mayor José Javier Ruiz Arana, of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE).
Rota Mayor José Javier Ruiz Arana, of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE). James Rajotte

If the base disappears, “the town would go down in the stock market, it would collapse!” says Javier Ruiz Arana, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), who is the mayor of Rota. Firefighters on the base, when there are fires, are from Rota. The direct and indirect jobs generated by the base, including rental income and service-related activities, mean that Rota would not be what it is today without it, says Arana. “It would be a different town,” he explains. “This place has changed with the world at the pace of global reality, and that has not happened at other bases, perhaps because of the proximity here, the character. In the 1950s, a small town in a Spain under a dictatorship, with many economic and social problems, rubbed shoulders with the culture of a first world power. That was a major shock and Rota has emerged unscathed.”

Lieutenant Grade Emily Oneschuk in the area for evacuees from Afghanistan.
Lieutenant Grade Emily Oneschuk in the area for evacuees from Afghanistan.James Rajotte

The Spanish admiral in charge of the base, Ricardo A. Hernández López, and the US commander Daniel Baird are still sharing this peaceful coexistence today. Even the protests are becoming rarer and rarer. These military men say they are there to preserve world peace, and it would seem that on a September day when the Afghans rescued by the United States are about to leave the base for the hopes of another future, Rota continues its role as “the normalization of an anomaly.”

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In La Palma, rain forecast triggers concerns of torrential waters forming over lava

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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is expected to fly to La Palma on Saturday to survey the latest damage from a volcano that has already destroyed 2,122 buildings and razed 886.6 hectares of land, according to the latest data from Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth observation program.

It will be Sánchez’s fifth visit to this area of the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa, since volcanic activity began on September 19 in Cumbre Vieja, a natural park in southern La Palma. A month later, the volcano shows no signs of letting up, fueling fears of further destruction.

A rain forecast for northern La Palma has triggered concerns about torrents of water that could form over the water-resistant lava, said the National Security Department (DNS). In Tazacorte, one of the hardest-hit municipalities, there is a 95% chance of rain on Saturday, according to the national weather service Aemet. Officials from the Canaries Volcano Risk Prevention Plan (Pevolca), which is overseeing the crisis, have advised residents to clean the ash off their rooftops to prevent it from mixing with the rain and creating a heavy buildup that could damage structures.

The DNS report also notes that lava streams in the northwest have now merged and appear to be heading in a southwest direction. Another tongue of lava that is near the sea was just 100 meters from the shoreline on Thursday morning, raising concerns about the toxic clouds that could form on contact.

A team from the Canaries Volcanology Institute (Involcan) has shared a video with close-up images of an eruptive vent in the volcano, noting that this is the first time that volcanologists have reached the site.

Por primera vez un equipo de vulcanólogos accede a la fisura eruptiva para comprobar sus características / for the very first time a team of volcanologists reaches the eruptive fissure to check its main features pic.twitter.com/7pPZ7srbcT

— INVOLCAN (@involcan) October 21, 2021

A total of 46 quakes were registered by the National Geographic Institute (IGN) between midnight and 7.30am on Thursday. The largest one took place at 6.09am at a depth of 14 kilometers in Fuencaliente, measuring 3.6 on the Richter scale. Most of the seismic activity of the last few weeks has been taking place in the area of Fuencaliente and Villa de Mazo, in southern La Palma.

María José Blanco, the scientific spokeswoman for Pevolca, said on Thursday that fewer tremors are taking place, but noted that their magnitude remains high, which could lead to “mildly harmful” events such as falling objects, the EFE news agency reported.

The Spanish Cabinet earlier this month approved a €214 million relief package to help rebuild homes and businesses. Although no fatalities have been reported – scientists had warned in advance about the upcoming eruption – the lava streaming down from the volcano has swallowed up entire neighborhoods and numerous banana plantations on an island where the economy is highly dependent on agriculture. Thousands of people have been evacuated, the latest on Wednesday in La Laguna. The most affected parts of the island include the municipalities of Tazacorte, El Paso, Fuencaliente, Mazo and Los Llanos de Aridane, which are home to 35,000 people.

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