Review of ‘Fall of the Phantom Lord’

Fall of the Phantom Lord
Andrew Todhunter
Anchor Books

"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." So begins Fall of the Phantom Lord, and we are warned: this book is about craziness — a craziness that ultimately would consume Osman. This is a chronicle of rock climbers for whom mere cliffs prove to be insufficiently frightening.

We meet Osman standing on the girders of a Northern California bridge. He wears a mountain climber's body harness, attached to 660 feet of climbing rope, tied to an anchor. Osman is 700 feet up, skyscraper height. He is about to jump. "The beating of his heart becomes unmanageable and he stops," writes Andrew Todhunter. "He clings, closes his eyes, and fights for air." Osman is scared. That is one of the book's saner moments. He ought to be scared. Not only does he mean to jump off this bridge, explains Todhunter, but on the way down "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."

Why do this to yourself?

True, many of us, as kids, sampled nuttiness. Perhaps we clambered up a factory's brick side to its roof, or jumped ice cakes in a river, or drag raced. But we matured into timidity. Just living, we learned, is chancy. Crossing a street, inattentive driver — whomp! Routine physical, surprise telephone call — cancer! Is that egg fully cooked? Is this airliner banking too steeply? Who comes toward me on this dark street? We do not seek fear. Low-grade fear is our background music. But Dan Osman craves intense fear, high doses. He is in fact a fear addict.

This book mulls the impulse to wrestle with the fear of death — its titular "Phantom Lord" — and to exorcise it. The means is secondary. When he is not plummeting from trestles, Osman jumps from treetops. And he is a top rock climber. "When I step onto the rock, my senses immediately sharpen," Osman reports. "The taste in my mouth becomes vivid."

Mostly he "free climbs." He ascends cliffs, using nothing but natural cracks and knobs. On perfectly smooth rock, even Osman must resort to "aid climbing," drilling in bolts as he goes. But he frequently scales routes unaided that others have done only with aids, so that the route, as he puts it, "goes free." On the book's cover we see Osman, high above a blue lake, wiry as a spider monkey, clinging to an overhang by his toes and the fingers of one hand.

A "static move," we learn, is a gradual shift of the climber's weight to the next position. A "dynamic move," or "dyno," is a lunge, when the next handhold is beyond reach. One legendary climber — ironically, he died in a car accident — trained himself to lunge to holds with room for just one finger. High up on a cliff, he timed his lunge so perfectly that his finger slid into the hold at his leap's apex, when he was momentarily weightless, neither rising nor falling.

There is "bouldering," low-to-the-ground climbs of substantial difficulty and minimal danger. We learn that "mixed climbing" — traversing ice together with rocks — is in vogue. "Mountaineering" is the ascent of entire peaks, often over many days. We learn about German techniques, and French, about roping methods, "crack climbs" and "slab climbs." By the book's end we know something about "lie-backs" and "underclings," "pinches" and "side-pulls," "crimpers" and "jugs."

We also learn that, at age 9 or 10, on a hunting trip with his policeman father, after dark, little Dan Osman became lost. He screamed for his father. From behind a tree, his father suddenly appeared, and struck him. "The only thing you need to fear out here," he told his son, "is me." By age 12, Dan began the climbing that would take over his life. In 1989 he began falling on purpose, to embrace his fear. Bathe in it, he says. Embrace it, Osman did. This past November, soon after the publication of this book, the climber fell to his death.

Andrew Todhunter begins this book as a single young man, mesmerized by risk and by Dan Osman. By the end, Todhunter is married, with a newborn daughter. He reaches a decision: he will not emulate Osman and jump off a bridge. It is tempting. "But the jump, in the end — and what it has to offer — isn't worth it," Todhunter decides. Watching his daughter born, a difficult birth, has proved more terrifying than bridges or cliffs. If he ever again wrestles with intense fear, he believes, it will be at sea level, "in one of the many quiet rooms and corridors of ordinary life."

Richard Wolkomir writes often for Smithsonian. He is based in Vermont.

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