The Precipitous World of Dan Osman

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

AT the time of my visit Osman lived alone in a warm, sepulchral studio 200 yards from the shore of Lake Tahoe. The bed, couch, chair, and table in the main room abutted like puzzle pieces. Along one wall stood a workbench layered with climbing hardware: camming devices, chocks, carabiners, ice axes, snowshoes, crampons, a red helmet. A rope lay coiled over a vise. Propped against an electric-guitar amplifier was a red-and-yellow backpack, a prototype of Osman's design for The North Face, a prominent outdoor-equipment manufacturer. Two snowboards leaned in the corner by the door. There was a small television and an ample collection of rock-climbing videos. Seven or eight books stood on a bedside table, all of them concerned with Japanese history and the samurai, including an epic novel about the life of Musashi, James Clavell's Shogun, and The Samurai Sword--A Handbook. Photographs of Osman's daughter, Emma, age eight (now living with her mother), were visible from every angle in the apartment. On the walls were posters, a balance of heavy-metal bands--notably Metallica--and climbers on varying terrain. Twice appearing was Lynn Hill, a groundbreaking climber now working at the top of her form. Osman cited Hill, along with the prominent alpinist and photographer Jay Smith, Wolfgang Güllich, and the legendary soloist John Bachar (pronounced Backer), as exemplars.

From beneath his bed Osman reverently withdrew a Japanese long sword, or katana, its curved scabbard covered in blackened sharkskin. The sword's hilt was veneered with the dimpled ivory hide of a stingray and bound in a lattice of burnt-orange silk. Four centuries old, the blade was nicked and smudged in places by corrosion. The sword had certainly seen use.

Returning from the Pacific with a U.S. serviceman, the weapon came into the hands of Osman's father in exchange for a shotgun. Les Osman presented the katana to his son in an informal ceremony on Thanksgiving Day, 1994. Considering himself undeserving, the younger Osman attempted to decline it.

"He had earned the right to have possession of the sword," Les Osman, once skeptical of his son's vocation, now recalls. "Doing the work that I do, I have faced death many, many, many times. When it's over, you celebrate the fact that you're alive, you celebrate the fact that you have a family, you celebrate the fact that you can breathe. Everything, for a few instants, seems sweeter, brighter, louder. And I think this young man has reached a point where his awareness of life and living are far beyond what I could ever achieve."

ON the day of my scheduled fall I wake at four in the morning in the excessive heat of a motel room in Stateline, California, and see Tarver hanging from a rope in the middle of the Utah canyon.

Hours later I remain uncommitted as I stand at the edge of the overhanging cliff across the road from Cave Rock, far above the boulders on the shore of Lake Tahoe. At a lateral distance from the anchor, I am attached to the cliff by a slender hanging arc of nylon.

Earlier, in the car, I suggested the possibility of a second rope, a backup, should one fail. "You could do that," Osman answered. He reflected, weighing his words. "But . . . that's not really what it's about." He seemed to object to my suggestion not in judgment of my cowardice, which his expression seemed to say was my affair, but in defense of ritual. As if, because he knows a second rope to be superfluous, the aesthetic, and thus the spirit, of my jump would be defiled.

A thin layer of mist hangs like a belt above the western shore, bisecting the snow-covered peaks that rise beyond. The lake is vast, an inland sea.

Osman points. "Do you see the rock that looks like a skull?" The large stone is pale, ninety-five feet directly below, the sockets and mouth implied by dark patches of lichen. "That is your landing zone," he says. "Step off and aim for that rock."

"Whatever you do," he continues, "don't jump out. Don't jump out. Don't jump out. If you do, you may swing into the cliff."

I ask Osman to check the anchor. I doubt the wisdom of this. I question my motives. I question the technology involved. For some reason I do not question Osman. He climbs up, checks the anchor, returns. I feel impelled to thank him, to shake his hand. I continue to breathe. I stand facing the anchor, the outside of my right foot flush with the edge of the precipice.

In a mutation so swift as to be imperceptible, as if externally compelled, I pass irreversibly through Osman's moment of choice. In the attenuated heartbeats between the moment of commitment and the moment of execution, the pooling fear distills, climaxes, and transmutes. The body, suddenly unbound, becomes weightless, soaring in its position on the rock. The back straightens; the head instinctively rises to the sky. A deep, luxurious passivity suffuses the limbs. I have gained no stronger confidence in the equipment. I have in no way lost the visceral suspicion that I may soon lie mangled on the rocks below. I have simply been relieved of my command.

I count to three and step off the cliff. The sensation of the fall begins at once, without the anticipated poise in space. The shoreline within range of my peripheral vision vaults skyward. The cliffside smears into a blur. The acceleration exceeds all expectation. No dream fall, no gently arcing adolescent cannonball from a high board, has prepared me for the rate of my descent. I am not falling; I have been hurled--spiked, perhaps--with celestial gusto from the sky. I lock my eyes on the skull between my feet. There is a last spasm of panic, a final lashing of the dormant will.

The free fall lasts little longer than two seconds, a mere thirty-five to forty feet before the slack is out. The tension on the harness pulls me gently from my course, directs me south into a long swing of 200 feet, parallel to the overhanging cliff. I shout obscenely. The sky is full of angels.

From across my shoulder I uncoil the remainder of the rope and let it fall. My hands tremble as Idescend the rope, still swinging, to the shore. I finally alight and stand upon the stones, freeing the anchor of my weight. Dan Osman calls triumphantly from high upon the cliff. I accepted his temptation. I leaped from the precipice and was upheld.

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Andrew Todhunter is a writer who lives in California.

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