Touching the Void: Freemasonry and the Responsibility of Protecting One’s Fellow Man

Touching the Void: Freemasonry and the Responsibility of Protecting One’s Fellow Man

What responsibility do we have towards our fellow man? Masonry teaches that each of us is “our brother’s keeper” and that mankind consists of a Universal Brotherhood. When safe and secure, we may be quick to argue that we would go out of our way to save our friend, brother, or neighbor. What would happen, however, if you were forced to choose between saving your own life versus protecting the life of another? Touching the Void, a book written by Mountaineer Joe Simpson, tells the harrowing true story of two men trapped on a mountain faced with such a life and death situation.

The Journey: Climbing The Siula Grande

In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates had a bold, yet dangerous dream: to be the first climbers to summit the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Touching the Void begins with the following quote by T.E. Lawrence from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Siula GrandeDespite perilous conditions, Yates and Simpson became such “dreamers of the day,” making their dream a reality by ascending the Siula Grande’s 4,500-foot west face in three days. Their celebration was short lived, however, as disaster struck during the treacherous descent of the peak. Whiteout conditions enveloped the climbers eventually leading to Simpson slipping down an ice cliff and breaking his leg, crushing his tibia into his knee joint. The team’s ambitious ascent had depleted their supplies, and they no longer had fuel for heating, cooking, or melting snow for drinking water. With daylight fading and Simpson in critical condition due to this injury, the pair had no option but to attempt a fast and tricky descent of 3,000 feet back to base camp.

With his right leg shattered, Simpson relied on his climbing partner to methodically lower him down the mountain 300 feet at a time via two knotted ropes. Simon Yates reflected on his burdensome new responsibility, “I knew I couldn’t leave him while he was still fighting for it.” Hour after hour, Simpson and Yates made painstakingly slow progress down the mountain. Eventually, a blizzard surrounded the climbers bringing chaos and destroying communicationThefall between the pair. In the confusion, Yates mistakenly lowered Simpson over the edge of a cliff. Dangling eighty feet above a crevasse, the injured and exhausted Simpson was unable to climb back to safety with his frost-bitten fingers.

Yates’ Ultimate Moral Dilemma

Swallowed by the blizzard, Yates was essentially blind to his partner’s situation. Because of the weight on rope, he knew Simpson was suspended over some kind of cliff, but he was unable to see or communicate with his partner. He also was unable to pull Simpson back up to safety. Through sheer willpower, Yates kept his footing on the icy slope for over an hour protecting both from plummeting into the void. His strength failing, Yates faced the moral dilemma of his life: should he save himself by cutting the rope and send Simpson to almost certain death?

As his snow anchor began to collapse,  Yates cut the rope and Simpson’s body plummeted down the cliff and into a crevasse: a deep fissure in a mountain glacier. When Simon Yates descended to the ice cavern,  he called out to Simpson but received no response. Assuming his partner was killed in the fall, Yates made his way back to base camp.

Simpson’s Survival

Miraculously, Simpson survived the 150 foot fall, landing on an ice shelf inside the crevasse. When Simpson regained consciousness, he discovered the cut rope end and realized what his partner had done. If he wanted to live, Simpson knew he had to save himself. Repelling further into the dark ice cave, Simpson discovered a small opening in the ice and climbed out of the glacier, emerging like Lazarus from his tomb.

Forced to crawl due to his injuries, Simpson tenaciously began a three day crawl back to base camp. Exhausted and fighting delirium, he reached base camp only a few hours before Yates was set to leave. Arriving at camp, Yates and another climber treated Simpson’s injuries, and the three men then traveled back to civilization.

Somewhat surprisingly, Simpson expressed understanding and sympathy for Yates in his fateful decision to sever the rope. He reflected, “ Simon (Yates) did more than anybody could possibly have been asked to do to save someone’s life. Everybody misses that crucial point. He took a very pragmatic decision. He wasn’t to know I went down a crevasse. He wasn’t cutting a rope to kill me; he was cutting a rope to save himself.”

Many climbing experts argue that, paradoxically, it was Simon Yates selfish decision to cut the rope and save his own life that also saved his climbing partner, Joe Simpson. Even if Yates could have held him aloft for many more hours, many argue that Simpson would have died from exposure to the elements. Simpson, while understanding his partner’s decision, writes in Touching the Void about his initial hope that he was still connect to Yates: “Did he fall with me? Find out… pull the rope! I tugged on the loose rope. It moved easily…. I pulled again and soft snow flurried on to me. I pulled steadily, and as I did so I became excited. This was a chance to escape.” Based on Simpson’s position after the fall, there was more than a chancsimpsone that Yates would have also lived, either landing on the ledge or being held aloft by the rope tethered to Simpson. Realizing that his partner had left him to perish, Simpson was filled with despair and faced with the improbable odds of returning to base camp alone.

Freemasonry and the Responsibility of Protecting Our Fellow Man

When an individual acts against their own self-interest,  should we let that person fall, metaphorically speaking, in order that they can develop the strength and wisdom to rescue themselves? The institution of Freemasonry exists as an exception to modern society’s tendency to severe ties and abdicate responsibility towards those who are struggling in a state of darkness. As a brotherhood comprised of men and women, senior Masons with experience and knowledge lend a helping hand to those who may lack the guidance and support necessary to change themselves.  As freemasons, we are obligated to help our fellows, regardless of their background or station in life. Interestingly, the word “obligation” is derived from the same Latin root as “ligament.” A cord by which one thing is tied to another, a ligament is not dissimilar to the very rope which held Simpson above the precipice. Bound by oath, Masons stand firm as protectors of humanity refusing to sever the tie that binds regardless of the consequence.


Answering the Call to Adventure

In today’s technology focused culture, we are often rendered deaf to the Nature’s grand call to adventure. Why endure discomfort and unknown risk when we can comfortably sit on our couches and watch someone else’s adventure on television? My response: Why not? We all deserve to be the hero in our own great adventure story. Down deep, each of us has a hidden explorer awaiting an opportunity to face the unknown and emerge victorious. When the call comes, how will you answer?

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration

unnamed (11)The early years of the twentieth century were known as the Heroic Age of  Antarctic Exploration, and the South Pole represented the planet’s final unknown frontier. In the published maps of the day, the Antarctic interior was a blank canvas upon which inspired nations and ambitious men alike sought to make their mark. In 1914, an explorer named Ernest Shackleton answered his greatest call to adventure. He ambitiously set out to lead the first expedition across Antarctica starting from the coast of the Weddell Sea, traversing the South Pole and ending up at the Ross Sea.

Having been a part of two previous expeditions to the continent, Shackleton possessed experience and knowledge of polar climes. He was the rare sort of man who learned from his past mistakes and systematically sought to apply those lessons to his future endeavors. Knowing the psychological strain that the men would be forced to endure in Arctic conditions, Shackleton required a crew that shared his idealistic vision and tenacious spirit – men like those in one of Shackleton’s favorite poems who longed to mark “the map’s void spaces.”unnamed (2)

Methodical in his planning, Shackleton created a list qualities he was searching for that included: optimism, patience, imagination (combined with idealism), and courage. Shackleton reportedly then placed an advertisement in the London Times which read:


How many of us would respond to such an advertisement? Who would volunteer to sail through frigid seas to walk across an uncharted frozen abyss? Reportedly, thousands of men sought a spot on Ernest Shackleton’s crew and 28 were chosen. The Endurance is legendary, in the records of polar exploration, despite the fact that the expedition’s initial objectives were never reached.  

The Expedition

In August 1914, the ship set sail unnamed (1)for Antarctica by way of South Georgia Island, a whaling settlement off the coast of South America. Heading south, the wooden ship immediately encountered problems navigating through unusually thick packs of ice that created an ever moving labyrinth of destruction. By January of 1915, the crew aboard the Endurance was able to see the Antarctic mainland, but fiercely cold temperatures and polar winds trapped the vessel in ice.

Locked in place, the crew had no choice but to wait until the warmer temperature of spring could free the vessel. Shackleton demonstrated great leadership skills in keeping all crew members occupied in strict routines to mitigate the collective fears and anxiety of the men on board. Months passed and morale continued to sink as the ship remained cinched despite the warmer temperatures of summer. The sheer pressure of the ice was weakening the boat causing the emission of auditory signals that the boat’s collapse was imminent. Creaks and groans were interspersed with sharp explosions, reported by the crew to sound like gunshots and heavy fireworks. Tom McLeod responded in fear, “Do you hear that? We’ll none of us get back to our homes again.”

Yet, as the wood was violently twisted and pinched, Ernest Shackleton remained astonishingly calm, displaying remarkable self-control, optimism, and almost casual indifference to the impending doom.

Facing the failure of his mission, he rejected defeat by adapting his mission and setting his sights on a new objective. He wrote, “If the one goal had disappeared, we’ll have another one. And so if I can’t cross the continent, I am going to bring all my men back alive.”

After ordering the men off the sinking ship, Shackleton marched his crew out onto the ice with the barest of supplies to make camp. By April 1916, the ice began to break up and the men navigated in three row boats to the rocky, deserted refuge of Elephant Island. Knowing that inaction meant that all would perish there, Shackleton decided to attempt one of the most daring open-boat voyages in recorded history.

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In a small row boat, Shackleton and five of his crew managed somehow to navigate 800 miles to South Georgia through hurricane force winds and raging seas utilizing only a sextant, a handheld tool that provides direction via celestial positioning. Imprecise readings would have meant the waves, winds, and current would have led the small craft into the open ocean and certain death.  Due to the unparalleled navigating skills of Frank Worsley, the crew made it South Georgia, but they landed on the uninhabited side of the island. With almost no equipment, Shackleton and the men cross 30 miles of uncharted mountains in 36 hours. Reaching whaling station,  Shackleton enlisted the help of the crew of the Yelco, a Chilean Steamer. Traveling back to Elephant island, he rescues the remaining men on August 30, 1916. “I have done it,” he wrote to his wife, Emily. “Not a life lost, and we have been through Hell.”  Displaying the utmost devotion and responsibility for his team, his men returned his commitment with fierce loyalty and uncompromising faith in his ability to bring them home safely.

The Call of Freemasonry

In our modeunnamed (4)rn day, we may never face a life and death survival gauntlet like the men of the Endurance. We face more subtle foes of moral relativism, obsessive consumerism, and weak social networks created by distance and reliance on technology. Yet, we still must endeavor to create meaning and find purpose in our chaotic world.  Through self-improvement and service to humanity, we can chart our own course to happiness and fulfillment.

Freemasonry calls us to embark on a profound adventure in a realm unexplored and uncharted by most modern individuals: to know oneself. Through hard work and perseverance, Masonry provides us with the tools for the highest degree of moral, intellectual, and spiritual development for all Mankind.  Moreover, it teaches us the skills of leadership and reminds us the importance of caring for our fellow man. Supported by the bonds of Brotherhood, we can accomplish great feats of daring in our own inner quest. An admirer of the poetry of Robert Service, Ernest Shackleton included the poem, “Call of the Wild” in his journal writings during the Endurance Expedition. We are all called to such an adventure: a challenge to explore and conquer the deep recesses of the unknown.

Call of the Wild (Excerpt)

Have you gazed on naked grandeur

where there’s nothing else to gaze on,

Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,

Big mountains heaved to heaven,

which the blinding sunsets blazon,

Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?

Have you swept the visioned valley

with the green stream streaking through it,

Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?

Have you strung your soul to silence?

Then for God’s sake go and do it;

Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.

Let us probe the silent places,

let us seek what luck betide us;

Let us journey to a lonely land I know.

There’s a whisper on the night-wind,

there’s a star agleam to guide us,

And the Wild is calling, calling. . . let us go.

-Robert Service


Sir Ernest Shackleton [February 15, 1874 – January 5, 1922] was initiated into Navy Lodge No. 2612 of the United Grand Lodge of England on 9 July 1901. Shackleton attended the first regular meeting of Guild of Freemen Lodge No. 3525  in 1911 and was passed to the second degree by that lodge on 2 November 1911. He was raised to the degree of Master Mason at Guild of Freemen Lodge on 30 May 1913.