Fall of the Phantom Lord: Climbing and the Face of Fear

Fall of the Phantom Lord: Climbing and the Face of Fear

by Andrew Todhunter

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In 1989, while attempting a new route on a difficult overhanging rock face, climber Dan Osman fell. Again and again, protected by the rope, he fell. He decided then that it would not be in climbing but in falling that he would embrace his fear--bathe in it, as he says, and move beyond it.

A captivating exploration of the daredevil world of rock climbing, as


In 1989, while attempting a new route on a difficult overhanging rock face, climber Dan Osman fell. Again and again, protected by the rope, he fell. He decided then that it would not be in climbing but in falling that he would embrace his fear--bathe in it, as he says, and move beyond it.

A captivating exploration of the daredevil world of rock climbing, as well as a thoughtful meditation on the role of risk and fear in the author's own life.

In the tradition of the wildly popular man-versus-nature genre that has launched several bestsellers, Andrew Todhunter follows the lives of world-class climber Dan Osman and his coterie of friends as he explores the extremes of risk on the unyielding surface of the rock.

Climbing sheer rock faces of hundreds or thousands of feet is more a religion than a sport, demanding dedication, patience, mental and physical strength, grace, and a kind of obsession with detail that is crucial just to survive. Its artists are modern-day ascetics who often sacrifice nine-to-five jobs, material goods, and the safety of everyday life to pit themselves and their moral resoluteness against an utterly unforgiving opponent.

In the course of the two years chronicled in Fall of the Phantom Lord, the author also undertakes a journey of his own as he begins to weigh the relative value of extreme sports and the risk of sudden death. By the end of the book, as he ponders joining Osman on a dangerous fall from a high bridge to feel what Osman experiences, Todhunter comes to a new understanding of risk taking and the role it has in his life, and in the lives of these climbers.

Beautifully written, Fall of the Phantom Lord offers a fascinating look at a world few people know. It will surely take its place alongside Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm as a classic of adventure literature.

Editorial Reviews

Robert R. Harris
Todhunter...provides a useful primer not only on rock climbing but also on bouldering and alpine climbing...and he tries to come to terms with why people do such things.
NY Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A "fledgling alpinist" who writes on extreme sports for the Atlantic Monthly and other magazines, Todhunter set out in the mid 1990s to explore a tiny culture of rock climbers who choreograph free falls from dangerously high places. At its center was Dan Osman, a world-class climber who holds the record for free-falling and whose personality yields few handholds. Todhunter nevertheless manages to weave a complex story around this elusive subject, blending accounts of climbing with Osman in varied terrain with other travel and high-altitude memories while giving vent to his own conflicted feelings about the danger of such activities. When Todhunter undertakes a free fall from a 100-foot cliff supported only by climbing gear, he finds that "a part of me had not survived the jump, as if something small and shameful had remained behind... for a short while I had a glimpse of what it meant to be free." But as he and his wife contemplate having a child, he asks himself: "At what point... do statistically hazardous, entirely elective pastimes become unethical?" Although Todhunter's determination to get to the heart of his subjects' passion is well articulated, it is not contagious. At times, the book is redeemed by its crisp reportage and the author's empathetic self-questioning. But in too many moments--as when he explains the entire climbing rating system or aborts an attempt at the summit of California's Mount Shasta--Todhunter's narrative loses so much velocity that, ultimately, it may fail to hook even the armchair mountaineer. (Aug.)
Over three years (1995-97) the author spent a good deal of time with Dan Osman, a world-class rock climber and pioneer in the extreme sport of free-fall: leaping from tremendous heights with only a rope to break the fall. Risky business, to be sure. What would make a man put his life on the line over and over again in pursuit of a thrill, albeit a sublime one? The author, an avid climber himself, endeavored to answer this question by hanging with Osman, both literally and figuratively. The result of Todhunter's inquiry is an engrossing piece of journalism that illuminates the psychology of fear. In the process of discovering what makes Osman tick, Todhunter underwent his own personal inquisition regarding his willingness to jeopardize not only his own welfare, but that of his young family as well. The book is also a lucid primer on the nuts-and-bolts aspects of rock climbing, ice climbing, bouldering, and free-fall. Beautifully written, this will appeal to fans of The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, the X games, and Mountain Dew commercials. From the Afterword in this trade paperback edition: "In the early darkness of November 23, 1998, Dan Osman was killed in a 1,200-foot fall from Yosemite National Park's Leaning Tower. Following a jump from some 1,100 feet—a world record—the rope broke at a point nearly 200 feet above his harness. He must have understood, for an instant, that the system failed. He was almost certainly killed upon impact. Osman was thirty-five." KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Random House/Anchor, 213p, 21cm, 98-15000, $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer:Randy M. Brough; Lib. Dir., Franklin P.L., Franklin, NH, May 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 3)
From the Publisher
"Todhunter has the writing style of a good climber on steep rock—calm, precise, and apparently effortless. By the end of this extraordinary book, I had a much greater appreciation of a fundamental truth, that people risk their life not because they want to die, but because they want to live."
—Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm

"Todhunter has produced a work of clear beauty and a true adventure of the soul."
—Roger Rosenblatt

"Andrew Todhunter...eloquently charts his own journey from rebellious recklessness to the far more awesome challenges of real-life responsibility."
—Richard Meryman, author of Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life

"Some of the freshest and most original writing about climbing in recent memory."
—David Roberts, author of The Mountain of My Fear and Moments of Doubt

"Andrew Todhunter writes like an angel..."
—Kenneth S. Lynn, author of Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin and His Times

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At dawn on his thirty-second birthday, rock climber Dan Osman is poised to break the world record, his own, for a free fall from a standing structure. Using nothing more than the modified equipment of his trade, including single climbing ropes, a full body harness, and a reinforced anchor, he will jump an estimated 660 feet from a bridge in Northern California. The bridge soars some 700 feet above a wild river valley.

Osman's dark hair, long enough to cover his shoulder blades, is bound in a ponytail. Of mixed Japanese and European heritage, he is commonly mistaken as Native American. Weighing 155 pounds at five feet ten and a half, Osman is built like a gymnast.

During a safety meeting in the hours before departure for the bridge, Osman relegates tasks to the members of his support team—fellow climbers Geoff Maliska, twenty-three, Osman's unspoken disciple, and Anthony Meeks, twenty. Maliska is gregarious and irreverent. Meeks—whom the other climbers have known for less than a week—is reticent and self-conscious. Together, they review the details of rigging and safety protocol. Upon arrival at the site they move out across the girders of the bridge, beneath the traffic, far above the valley floor. The sky is clear. A light wind moves through the girders. Osman rigs the elaborate anchor—a nest of nylon loops, or runners, climbing rope, and aluminum hardware—near the middle of the bridge. Leaving Meeks to tend the anchor in the capacity of downrigger, Osman continues with Maliska another 160 feet across the span.

The greatest danger in a fall of such a distance, Osman believes, is not the failure of the system, but entanglementwithin the rope. The force of impact achieved at terminal velocity, he suspects, could bisect or decapitate a bodywound in the 10.5-millimeter cord. On this jump, to practice extricating himself from entanglement should it ever accidentally occur, Osman will intentionally wrap himself in the rope as he falls. He will then uncoil himself and assume a safe position, all within the seven seconds before impact. The attempt is unprecedented.

When he nears the launching point, the rope hanging slack beneath the bridge in a huge arc, Osman ties in, securing the rope to his harness. Originating at this lateral distance from the anchor, much of the fall's inertia will be diverted upon impact into a rocketing swing five hundred feet across the valley floor. As opposed to falling directly from the anchor position, this decreases the chance of entanglement and keeps initial impact forces—a striking whip when the rope runs out of slack—within reasonable limits.

Osman thoroughly checks his harness and knots three times, then examines his clothing for anything that might affect his fall. He looks down the rope and signals Meeks. Meeks checks the anchor, returns the signal—all is clear.

Osman begins to scale a girder, gaining the height necessary to break the record of his previous fall. The beating of his heart becomes unmanageable and he stops. He clings, closes his eyes, and fights for air. He tries to breathe deeply, to slow his heart, to dilute the load of adrenaline. Electric shocks fire like needles in the muscles of his hands, arms, and legs. Breathing deeply, Osman beats back his fear and continues up the girder. He stops twice, each time climbing farther before the panic mounts again and overwhelms him.

At last he reaches his launching point and stops. He closes his eyes and breathes, emptying his mind.

Several minutes later he opens his eyes and looks out across the valley. Traffic drums intermittently overhead. There are fishermen in the river far below. He watches the movement of their rods. Their faint voices rise to the bridge.

Osman closes his eyes again and visualizes the entire sequence of his fall, dilating the seven seconds into eleven or twelve. He will execute three cartwheels; in the middle of the third cartwheel he will twist his body and wrap himself one full turn in the rope. He will then unwrap—calmly, methodically, he will not thrash, he will not thrash—and extend his limbs, relaxing as he enters the point of impact. It is only when he completes the visualization that the risk of what he is about to attempt becomes clear. In the wake of this realization his fear leaps to the next plateau. Sweat runs from his pores and freezes. Goose bumps rise across his skin.

He glances down at Maliska and signs thumbs-up. Maliska is chilled by the horror in Osman's locked, Medusan gaze—he later claims that he has never seen Osman more visibly afraid—but he grins and returns the affirmative gesture. "Happy sailing," he calls.

Osman looks out across the valley. He steps through what he calls the moment of choice. He shifts his weight slightly over his feet. From fifteen, Osman counts down silently, breathing, saying only the ten and the five aloud. As he counts, Osman draws a breath. Four, three, two, one. As he exhales, he springs from the girder, into the open air. And then he falls.

As a boy, I spent many unwise hours climbing with friends on Hook Mountain, in Rockland County, New York. The Hook is a geological appendage of the Palisades, which rise like a curtain along the western bank of the Hudson River north of the George Washington Bridge. We climbed unroped, with little more in the way of equipment than canvas basketball shoes, cutoff shorts, and Yankee caps, and the degenerate rock came out in fistfuls like rotten teeth as we ascended.

We continued north on bikes along the river, past Haverstraw to the Bear Mountain Bridge. One afternoon we skidded down the steep embankment from the road to walk across the girders underneath the bridge. We trotted, then jogged back and forth across the grey-green rivet-studded beams, each one a foot, perhaps fifteen inches wide, leaning into gusts of wind to keep our balance, a hundred feet above the rocks along the river's eastern shore.

In the fifteen years that intervene I have dabbled broadly in outdoor sports. I have surfed Mundaka, caved on Crete, and scuba dived beneath the frozen surface of high Sierran lakes, and on charitable days I bless this breadth of training and experience. More commonly, I berate myself as a dilettante. Nowhere is this pattern more visible than in my relationship to climbing. I have traversed glaciers in the North Cascades, rock climbed in the Rockies and Shawangunks, bouldered in areas from Fontainebleau to Joshua Tree, but technically I remain of middling skill. Beside the likes of Osman I am not even a climber. In the cheerfully unminced words of Geoff Maliska, I am a flatlander.

Like legendary sea-kayaker Steve Sinclair—who paddled his specialized craft along the California coast in winter gales—Osman labors in my consciousness like a Titan, a figure of myth. Osman's myth is an old one: a man wrestles eternally upon a span, above a chasm. Locked in his arms is a dark angel, the Phantom Lord—not death itself, but fear of death. The man falls, finally, but the Phantom Lord falls with him. In the man's surrender lies the Phantom Lord's defeat.

I share Osman's fascination with fear and its management. As an adolescent, I courted danger with a near compulsion. Combined with an intractable resentment of authority, this often landed me in trouble. I was all but forced from one high school, expelled from another, and narrowly graduated from a third. I drove cars and later motorcycles at great speeds and with extraordinary disregard, resulting in countless tickets, several accidents, and an arrest. At the time, I had little sense that my behavior was unreasonable, that my troubles with authority had more to do with me than with external forces. It took me a long time to understand this, still longer to accept it.

On a shelf at the Crater Lake visitor center in Oregon, I once discovered a book entitled Bear Attacks. The text recounted in detail, with analysis, numerous attacks on humans by bears of all kinds. I bought the book and read it in two sittings, intrigued most of all by the victims' varying responses to these attacks. Some played dead, as commonly directed, and were left alone. Others did so and were killed before the eyes of treed companions. Still others fought back, with similarly mixed results. Not long ago, a Californian surfer was attacked by a Great White and dragged several hundred yards across the surface. The surfer fought the shark, clawing at its eyes and beating with his fists, until it let him go. Blood clouding the water behind him, the man swam back to shore. Surprised, probably, by the surfer's spirited defense, the shark did not double back to finish him off. The surfer required hundreds of stitches and a transfusion; given the extent of his injuries, his survival was miraculous. Later, from his hospital bed, he said without irony that the attack had been the single best experience of his life. A surprising comment, on the face of it, but I believe I know what he meant.

My earliest memories of fear were of my father's temper. It would let loose beneath us like a sun-warmed cornice, and there was nothing we could do but ride it out. He didn't drink, but in the midst of his rages it was as if he had been struck by lightning. His anger was terrifying, but in its pure, elemental power it was awesome. It threatened to destroy, and yet, in some primitive way, it made me feel more alive. I hated him, for a while, when he quieted, and had no room for his apologies. But on some level, my father's anger bound us together. I think I suspected that his rages simply came in measure with his devotion. My father's moods were mixed terrain, but they were better, I believed, than indifference.

Later, I did not consciously take risks to reexperience my father's anger, or in obeisance of genetic imperatives, although these and other forces may well have been at work. I took risks, and to a lesser degree continue to do so, because it feels good to take risks. We may eat chocolate, scientists claim, in part because chocolate replicates the human chemical response to feeling loved. But we don't think about it that way; we eat chocolate because we like the way it tastes. Not everyone, even in the same family, likes adrenaline. My older brother, a hiker and onetime land surveyor with a shared appreciation of the outdoors, intensely dislikes the sensations that accompany physical fear. He takes great care, he says, to avoid them, and there are serious climbers who feel the same way.

Despite its attendant dangers, rock climbing—Osman's specialty—is poorly designed for the adrenaline addict. It is hard work, for one thing, and often meditative. Excess adrenaline undermines any climber's necessary focus. But underneath it all, the undeniable factor of risk elevates the sport into a discipline of deadly seriousness. You can be killed climbing, by a single misstep, a single mistied knot.

While rock climbing at reasonable altitudes, protected by the rope, the risks are not outlandish. At this writing, the number of regular climbers in the United States (those who own their own equipment and climb at least ten weekends a year) has been estimated in excess of 250,000 souls, a number that has doubled four times since 1980. Several hundred thousand more Americans have tried some kind of climbing at least once. Some thirty, on average, die every year. Of these, less than half involve rock climbers on protected routes. But the penalties for inattention are merciless.

All of these factors are on some level at play when I arrive in South Lake Tahoe in the late winter of 1995. I am eager to meet Osman, to climb with him, to watch him climb and fall. I hope to achieve some understanding of what drives him to the extremes he occupies. To that end, I plan to take an introductory fall on his rope.

And yet my life is changing. I am recently married, with a family, we hope, on the horizon. My notions of what I owe, and to whom, are shifting, and my relationship to climbing and to risk is changing with it. In Osman's company, I may come to find the line I will not cross.

Shortly before three in the afternoon on the third of February 1995, a rope lies loosely gathered at the base of a decomposing granite outcropping known as the Pie Shop. Osman, Meeks, and I have come to spend a half day climbing at the site. Two hundred feet high, girdled with a sloping, snow-clad boulder field, the outcropping rises from the relative flats southwest of Lake Tahoe. From its peak, a small airport is visible to the south. The site was named for a popular coffeehouse and pie shop—long since vanished—frequented by climbers at the nearest intersection of Route 50 and Sawmill Road.

Unwinding from its center, its end affixed to Osman's harness, the rope follows the ravine between two stones, rises through the shivering branches of a manzanita bush, and moves vertically across the granite face. Diamondbacked in fluorescent orange, yellow, and green, the rope is slightly less than nine millimeters in diameter. The accumulated friction of its passage produces an amplified hiss in the windless silence which ebbs and swells in rhythm with the climber above. Here on the exposed southern flank of the outcropping, in direct sun, the late winter air is warm.

Despite the rope attached to his harness, Osman is free-soloing the 165-foot climb. That is to say, he is climbing unprotected by the rope, and any fall will send him to the earth. He is merely "tailing" the rope to the top of the outcropping for use as protection in a later, more difficult climb. The route he follows is called Earn Your Wings.

Osman began climbing at age twelve, with the encouragement of his mother, Sharon Louise Burks, a horse trainer and two-time world champion barrel racer (a rodeo event involving agile horses, standing barrels, and figure eights). Despite his evident talent, he describes himself as a slow developer; it took him eight years to climb 5.12, a technical rating in rock climbing still generally considered to represent the start of expert difficulty. He now ranks among the country's finest rock climbers.

Climbers speak of elegance—elegance of climbing style, of route. It is undeniable that climbing without rope is more elegant than climbing roped, as climbing roped but mechanically unaided is more elegant than gadgeting skyward with ascenders and short nylon rope ladders, called etriers. The catch of free-soloing, and its appeal, is the simplicity of the equation it demands: one cannot fall. Like kendo practitioners who lay aside their wooden swords to duel with live blades, the climber—in abandoning the rope on routes where falling is synonymous with extinction—becomes a kind of mystic.

In preparation for a difficult solo Osman will climb the route several times on rope, repeating the crux, or most difficult move of the route, until certain he can execute the climb without error. "Then I start breathing," he explains, "to get the ki down into my hara."

Loosely translated from the Japanese as "vital energy," ki is not a cultural abstraction, but a tangible phenomenon, as significant

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Andrew Todhunter writes about extreme sports in an ongoing series of articles for The Atlantic Monthly. An amateur climber and adventurer of all trades, Todhunter is usually a participant in the sports that he writes about, and he has climbed extensively with soloist Dan Osman. He lives in the New York area with his wife and young daughter.

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