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.

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.

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.

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.