The Precipitous World of Dan Osman

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

Climbers speak often of elegance--elegance of climbing style, elegance of route. And it is undeniable that climbing without rope is more elegant than climbing roped, just as climbing roped but mechanically unaided is more elegant than gadgeting skyward with ascenders and rope ladders, called étriers. The catch of free-soloing, and its appeal, is the simplicity of its demand: one cannot fall. Like the kendo practitioner who lays aside his wooden sword to duel in earnest with live blades, the free-soloist--in freeing himself or herself from the rope on routes where falling is tantamount to death--becomes a kind of mystic.

In preparation for a particularly difficult solo Osman will climb the route several times on rope, repeating the crux, or most difficult move, until he is 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 to the martial artist as harmony is to the musician. The hara (literally, "belly"), a point in the abdomen below the navel, is held to be the center and source of physical energy--a reservoir of sorts in which ki, largely through breath control, may be pooled and from which it may be directed.

"I visualize a screen," Osman continues, "a steel filter that I lower with my breaths to keep the positive energy and let the negative energy escape. All the fear I allow to escape." When he is centered--a process that takes from five to twenty minutes--he is ready to climb. "I feel the air pressure," he says. "The ki is very concentrated, very strong. I feel the gravity more. When I step onto the rock, my senses immediately sharpen. The taste in my mouth becomes vivid."

Although Earn Your Wings is no challenge for a climber of his ability, Osman appears to spare nothing. His pace is unhurried. The expression on his face is a void. Even on large, secure holds, the placements of his hands and feet--the latter tightly shod in pale-blue red-laced black-soled rock shoes--are unerringly precise. Without interrupting the liquid flow of his movement he seems to consider each hold as if preparing to catch the raised head of an asp. When he makes his placement, it is final. There is no shuffle, no grope. For all his fluidity there is an awesome mechanical beat to his progress. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. He seems to climb within a field generated by the concentration of his will.

Climbs are rated according to a numeric class system devised by Sierra Club mountaineers in the 1930s. From Class 1, walking, and Class 2, scrambling, the rating mounts to difficult free climbing (mechanically protected--unless soloing--but unaided) at Class 5, and concludes with aid climbing (mechanically assisted in resting and ascent) at Class 6. Class 5 is subdivided with a second set of numbers, which is further nuanced by pluses or minuses (5.8+) or even more precisely, on climbs of 5.10 and above, with the letters a through d. The difference between a 5.12d and a 5.13a is often subtle and sometimes a matter of debate. The difference indicated by a full numerical subdivision, however, is substantial; dedicated climbers can spend months or even years advancing from 5.10 to 5.11, from 5.11 to 5.12. Earn Your Wings is a 5.9. Arguably the most difficult free climb in the world as of this writing--infamous for its dynamic one-finger moves--is Action Directe, 5.14d, in Germany, which was established, or "placed," by the late Wolfgang Güllich. Güllich, a legendary climber, died in an accident on the autobahn in 1992 at the age of thirty-one.

With the encouragement of his mother, Sharon Burks, a horse trainer and two-time world-champion barrel racer (the barrel race is a rodeo event involving agile horses, standing barrels, and figure eights), Osman began climbing at age twelve. Despite his evident talent, he describes himself as a slow developer, having taken eight years to break through to 5.12.

Osman completes Earn Your Wings and proceeds to solo a short piece of his own design: Funky Cold Medina, 5.10a, a corner overhanging 160 feet of air.

A difficult route can take months for a climber to place. The completed route is christened and rated by its author. Subsequent climbers will confirm or challenge the rating (climbs are often downgraded as climbers work out easier sequences over time), and soon the route will appear, immortalized, in local climbing guides.

Osman takes immense care in the creation of his routes, his greatest satisfaction being praise from other climbers for the spare beauty of his "lines." He regards each climb as a monument, not only to its creator but also to the climbers of generations past who attempted the route unsuccessfully--with equal boldness but inferior technology--and to those who follow and attempt the route.

From Funky Cold Medina, Osman continues to another of his creations, Buttons of Gold, 5.9+, named for the tawny nipples of rock that serve as holds. He then moves through the boulders that crown the broad-backed outcropping, executing short, powerful sequences on overhangs an arm's length from the ground. He leaps from stone to stone.

Carrying the coiled rope over his shoulder, Osman crosses to the eastern prow of the outcropping, stepping lightly in his rock shoes over beards of crusted snow. He drops down into a notch and emerges beneath and to the side of a swollen bulge of granite that droops over the vertical rock face like the cap of an enormous mushroom. A horizontal crack, centimeters to inches in width, runs laterally forty feet along the joint between the bulge and the face, and curves obliquely around the rock to disappear. From this crack a climber who fell unchecked would travel 280 feet to the ground, glancing once off a sloping ledge midway.

Osman anchors the rope, ties in, and whitens both sides of his hands with powdered gymnastic chalk from a pouch at his waist. The chalk marginally protects the hands and keeps them dry of sweat.

The climb is Blood in My Chalk Bag, 5.11c/d. Squatting on a ledge near the beginning of the route, Meeks will serve as Osman's belayer, feeding the rope through a device that will help him brace any fall that occurs.

Osman grimaces faintly, nagged by three recently broken ribs (snowboard, tree), and stretches his torso. He slowly releases a breath and begins his passage horizontally along the crack.

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Andrew Todhunter is a writer who lives in California.

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