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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 teamfellow climbers Geoff Maliska, twenty-three, Osman's unspoken disciple, and Anthony Meeks, twenty. Maliska is gregarious and irreverent. Meekswhom the other climbers have known for less than a weekis 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 anchora nest of nylon loops, or runners, climbing rope, and aluminum hardwarenear 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 entanglement within 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 forcesa striking whip when the rope runs out of slackwithin 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 signalall 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 unwrapcalmly, methodically, he will not thrash, he will not thrashand 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 gazehe later claims that he has never seen Osman more visibly afraidbut 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 Sinclairwho paddled his specialized craft along the California coast in winter galesOsman 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 Lordnot 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 climbingOsman's specialtyis 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 shoplong since vanishedfrequented 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 eleganceelegance 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 climberin abandoning the rope on routes where falling is synonymous with extinctionbecomes 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