The Precipitous World of Dan Osman

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

The footholds on the face below the crack are meager. Most of Osman's weight, in a technique known as smearing, is supported by the friction of his sticky rubber soles against the texture of the vertical granite. He carefully jams his left hand deep into the crack. With his right he unclips a Friend--a spring-loaded camming device--from a loop on his harness. Holding the device like a depressed syringe, he inserts the head into the section of the crack best suited to its width. When he releases the trigger, the opposing cams, or curved wedges, expand and seize the rock with metal teeth. He tests the piece with a tug, clips his rope into the carabiner that dangles from the Friend by a nylon loop, and continues. The carabiner is an oblong ring of aluminum alloy about the length of an avocado and equipped with a spring-loaded gate. A semantic cousin of Italy's enduring carabiniere, the carabiner, ubiquitous in climbing, was originally invented to clip carbine rifles to bandoliers. A climbing carabiner's minimum breaking strength in the direction of its long axis is about 4,400 pounds.

While still well below the limit of Osman's ability, Blood in My Chalk Bag is rigorous. In contrast to his style on Earn Your Wings, Osman's execution here is simian, dynamic, a display of tenacity and brute strength. Some of his positions appear awkward, out of balance, but he is climbing as the route demands. With his right hand and right foot jammed in the crack, Osman pauses briefly, hangs to rest, slackens his opposing limbs. Soon he vanishes around the bulge and finishes the climb.

Meeks, whom Osman has known for less than a week, decides to follow, cleaning the route of its protection as he goes. Osman will belay from the same ledge. Meeks is soon in trouble. Although he is skilled on faces, his crack technique is no match for the route. His progress is painstaking. Osman coaches, move by move. The light fails in the snow-dusted valley below. The temperature drops. A Friend resists extraction. Meeks wrestles with the recalcitrant piece, swears at it, and finally falls. Osman braces and holds Meeks in place. Meeks hangs on the protection and rests. The darkness deepens. Placing another device beside it to relieve his weight, Meeks finally gets the Friend out and continues. He finishes the climb and appears on the crest of the bulge, silhouetted against the dying sky.

Osman is not his teacher, but the role is unavoidable given the discrepancy in age and skill. Coiling the rope, he praises Meeks's effort but gently reprimands him for not being entirely honest with himself or with Osman about his skill in relation to the route, the time, and the conditions. Meeks nods, visibly abashed. In the silence that follows, he holds out his hands as if examining a manicure. He looks thoughtfully at the blood-spotted chalk on his knuckles and smiles with pride.

THE following morning Osman and company appear out of the mist at Cave Rock. The Cave, as it is known, is an ominous and nobly situated vault--like half of a cathedral's dome--hewn by erosion from the andesite cliff far above the fog-swept eastern shoreline of Lake Tahoe. It is the kind of cave, were it found in the Aegean, in which Olympian divinities might have been born.

Osman ties in to the rope and steps from the gravel floor onto the wall of the cave. With the delicacy of a watchmaker and the strength of a longshoreman he climbs up and out across the arching roof, his back to the ground. Maliska belays from the ground. The route Osman follows is his own: Phantom Lord, 5.13c. He has crafted more technically demanding climbs, like the adjacent Slayer, 5.13d/14a (a route praised by Wolfgang Güllich as the most elegant he'd ever seen), but none rivals Phantom Lord for boldness.

Arriving at the end of the underside of the seventy-foot overhang, Osman rounds the lip of the cave's roof and continues up the cliffside's natural contour. In ten moves he is at the anchor: a steel ring, or "hanger," bolted to the rock. He has finished the route and for a moment rests. Then he prepares to fall.

Balanced on the cliff, he calls for slack. Maliska feeds the rope while Osman lowers it in a long loop between his harness and the last piece of protection near the lip. The length of slack will be the distance of Osman's free fall: sixty-five feet. Maliska secures the rope in the belaying device on his own harness. Thus attached, he will serve as Osman's counterweight through the fulcrum of the anchor overhead. Upon Osman's impact on the rope, Maliska will spring in the direction of the pull. The force of the fall will pluck him a short distance into the air. An inflexible, or "static," belay would rob Osman of the necessary give and catapult him in and up against the cavern's jagged roof at a speed approaching sixty miles an hour. The error of a static belay has already been made: another belayer of Osman's leaned back instinctively to brace a similar but accidental fall. The resulting impact broke both of Osman's ankles.

Osman careens out away from the cliff and plummets earthward, limbs flung wide. He completes two cartwheels, swings gracefully into the lower recesses of the cave, and swoops back out into space. Maliska hangs in his harness, legs braced against the wall, twelve feet above the gravel floor.

In the process of perfecting such a fall Osman has done more than simply grapple with his fears. By greatly exaggerating the conditions of normal climbing falls, he has in five years gathered enough data potentially to revolutionize the technology and application of climbing protection. He is currently designing or modifying equipment, including protection and belaying devices, and developing techniques--including body positioning before and during impact on the rope--to improve the safety of long climbing falls. His work will certainly prevent injuries, and may save lives on the rock.

But there are costs. In May of 1994 Bobby Tarver, a twenty-five-year-old bungee jumper in Osman's circle of close friends, was killed replicating one of Osman's falls. Unable to accompany Tarver to the site, Osman first attempted to forestall him and then precisely diagrammed the fall. Tarver was impatient. "You could see it in his eyes," Osman says. "He was looking at the paper but he wasn't listening." Tarver proceeded to a bridge that spans a Utah canyon, failed to execute a simple preliminary step, and fell 250 feet to strike the canyon wall. Dangling from the bridge, he was recovered by his companions. He regained consciousness briefly and died three hours later.

Osman has returned to that bridge on several occasions since the accident, three times to jump. Twice he retreated. He finally descended into the canyon and spoke with Tarver, as he put it. He then remounted the bridge, ignored technical refinements made since the tragedy, and jumped according to the plan he diagrammed that morning in May.

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Andrew Todhunter is a writer who lives in California.

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