The Precipitous World of Dan Osman

On rock with a climber who deliberately plunges from greater and greater heights

AT dawn on his thirty-second birthday the 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 approximately 660 feet from a bridge in northern California.

During a safety meeting in the hours before departure for the bridge, tasks are assigned to the members of Osman's support team--in this case fellow climbers Geoff Maliska, twenty-three, and Anthony Meeks, twenty. Precise details of the protocol and rigging are reviewed. Upon arrival at the site the three move out across the girders of the bridge, beneath the traffic, 700 feet above the valley floor. Osman rigs the elaborate anchor--a nest of nylon loops, or runners, climbing rope, and aluminum hardware--to a girder near the middle of the bridge. Leaving Meeks to watch the anchor, Osman continues with Maliska another 160 feet across the span.

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. Because the fall will originate at a great lateral distance from the anchor, when Osman reaches rope's end much of the inertia will be diverted into a rocketing swing 500 feet across the valley floor. As opposed to falling directly from the anchor position, this approach keeps the initial impact--a striking whip when the rope runs out of slack--within reasonable limits.

The greatest danger in a fall of such a distance, Osman believes, is not a failure of the system, which is sound, but entanglement. The force of impact achieved at terminal velocity, he suspects, could bisect or decapitate a body wound in the 10.5-millimeter rope. To practice extricating himself from such an entanglement should it ever accidentally occur, Osman will intentionally wrap himself in the rope during his fall. Then he will uncoil and assume the correct position before impact. He will have seven seconds to do both.

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

Osman looks out across the valley. It is dawn. Passing cars drum intermittently overhead. There are fishermen in the river far below. He watches the movement of their rods. Their faint voices rise.

He closes his eyes 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 he will twist his body one full turn in the rope. He will then disentangle himself--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 he fully comprehends the risk in what he is about to attempt. Goose bumps swarm across his skin.

Osman steps through what he calls the moment of choice. From fifteen he counts down silently, saying only the ten and the five aloud. Four, three, two, one. And then he falls.

TO climb at the edge of your ability is to fall, and climbing equipment is designed to keep those falls from causing injury or death. But on occasion the equipment fails, and the climber fails more often than that. On rope or off, it is the fear of an unchecked fall--a bone-snapping, skull-crushing fall--that nags most climbers, holds them back, thwarts their inspiration.

In 1989, while attempting a new route on a difficult overhanging face, Osman fell. Again and again, protected by the rope, he fell. He decided then that it would be not in climbing but in falling that he would embrace his fear--bathe in it, as he says, and move beyond it. He began to fall on purpose, from greater and greater heights. Osman's comfort and performance on the rock have improved accordingly.

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 run like a curtain along the western bank of the Hudson River north of the George Washington Bridge. We climbed with little more in the way of equipment than canvas basketball shoes, cutoffs, and Yankees caps, and the degenerate rock came out in fistfuls as we ascended.

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

In the dozen or so years that intervene I have dabbled in the media of ice and rock. I have crossed glaciers in the North Cascades, climbed in the Rockies and Shawangunks, bouldered in Fontainebleau and Joshua Tree. But by Osman's standards I know the vertical world only vaguely. Beside the likes of him I am not even a climber. In the cheerfully unminced words of Geoff Maliska, I am a flatlander. I came to Lake Tahoe to meet Dan Osman, to watch him climb and fall, and finally, with his guidance, to take an introductory plunge.

A ROPE lies loosely gathered at the base of a decomposing granite outcropping south of Lake Tahoe known as The Pie Shop. Unwinding from its center, the rope follows the ravine between two stones, rises through the shivering branches of a manzanita bush, and moves up the granite face. The rope, 8.8 millimeters in diameter, is diamondbacked in fluorescent orange, yellow, and green. In the windless silence the friction of its passage across the stone produces an amplified hiss that ebbs and swells in rhythm with the progress of the climber above.

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 carrying the rope to the top of the outcropping for a later, more difficult climb. The route he follows is called Earn Your Wings.

Osman is lithe and under six feet tall. His dark hair, long enough to cover his shoulder blades, is bound in a ponytail. In the 1890s Osman's paternal great-grandfather, a descendant of samurai families in the Takeuchi clan, emigrated to Hawaii from the mountainous Iwakuni region of Japan. Takeuchi was shot and killed in 1919 on a sugar plantation while attempting to disarm a fellow laborer who was preparing to assassinate their foreman. As a boy, Osman was trained in the samurai ethic of bushido by his father, Les Osman, a veteran police officer. The young Osman studied aikido and, later, kung fu.

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Andrew Todhunter is a writer who lives in California.

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