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Fear of Falling
Andrew Todhunter examines the lure of putting one's life on the line

September 3, 1998

todhbk picture "At dawn on his thirty-second birthday, 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 ... he will jump an estimated 660 feet from a bridge in Northern California." So begins Andrew Todhunter's Fall of the Phantom Lord, a profile of the rock climber Dan Osman, who confronts his fear of falling by deliberately jumping from greater and greater heights. For two years, off and on, Todhunter spent time with Osman and his coterie, climbing with them on both rock and ice, and his book presents a detailed look at their world and at the psychology of those who risk their lives for the sake of adventure.

Todhunter's book also tells the story of his own transformation from someone who would heedlessly seek out thrills -- riding his motorcyle at more than 120 miles an hour through the streets of San Francisco, for example -- into a father and husband who must find a way to balance his passion for risk with his responsibility to his family.
Previously in Books & Authors:

Eve's Bible (August 1998)
An interview with Cullen Murphy, whose new book, The Word According to Eve, explores the revolutionary implications of feminism's encounter with religion.

Bittersweet (July 1998)
Roy Blount Jr. looks back at the complicated source of his career as a humorist -- his mother.

Sky Writing (June 1998)
All writers have a point of view. For William Langewiesche -- pilot, Atlantic correspondent, and author of Inside the Sky -- it happens to be an aerial one.

The "What If?" Business (June 1998)
For the novelist John Irving, storytelling has been a "necessity" since youth -- and the mother of three decades' worth of unrelenting literary invention.

The Adventures of Jane Smiley (May 1998)
In her latest novel, Jane Smiley lights out for the territories in search of slavery and the American anti-romance.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Articles by Andrew Todhunter from The Atlantic archives:

  • "The Precipitous World of Dan Osman," (February, 1996)
    In which a noted climber displays his technique for falling from high places.

  • "Dark Passage," (July, 1998)
    Descending into the depths of California's largest known cave.

  • "Gale Force Kayaking," (August, 1995)
    Into the "vast acreage" with a storm-sea skier

  • "Beneath the Ice," (January, 1994)
    Ice-diving opens up an eerie, beautiful world of unexpected possibilities

  • Fall of the Phantom Lord grew out of a 1996 article for The Atlantic, and is one of a series of pieces Todhunter has written for the magazine on extreme sports such as scuba diving beneath ice, sea kayaking in storms, and searching for virgin territory in underground caves.

    Todhunter recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.

    todhpic picture
    Andrew Todhunter
    Your book started as a profile of Dan Osman for The Atlantic Monthly. What first drew you to Osman, and when did you decide he would be a good subject for a book?

    The Atlantic's managing editor, Cullen Murphy, heard word of Osman and suggested I do a story on him. After spending a few days with him and his immediate circle in South Lake Tahoe, California, I realized the subject deserved a far more thorough treatment than there was room for in the magazine. For a number of reasons, including aggressive marketing, the number of people climbing in this country has soared during the past five or ten years. And the level of interest in risk sports -- and risk in general -- has become epidemic. I've heard it said that if you want to understand America in the nineties you have to understand extreme sports. At the very least, you have to take a stab at understanding what makes extreme sports so attractive.

    Your Atlantic article was almost all about Osman, whereas your book is in large part a memoir. What made you decide to focus the book on both yourself and Osman?

    In the article I limited my presence a great deal. In researching the book, I found that my perspective as an intermediate climber, and my shifting attitudes toward climbing and risk as an expectant father, added another dimension to the story, and created a bridge between Osman and the nonclimbing reader. At least that was my intention.

    Your book is essentially an exploration of fear. Why are people like Dan Osman -- and, to a lesser extent, yourself -- drawn to risk their lives over and over?

    I have always been fascinated by fear, and by our means of coping with it. There are rewards, psychologically speaking, for anyone who becomes accustomed to acting rationally while being afraid. As Osman describes, this kind of experience is very addictive. The term adrenaline junky, while overused, is really very apt. I can say from my own experience that the physiological side effects of adrenaline -- the faint light-headedness, the sensation of heightened strength, the increased pulmonary and respiratory rates, the enhanced senses and concentration -- are very habit forming.

    When you describe Osman as he pauses on a bridge -- fighting his fear of falling 660 feet anchored by a single rope -- you seem to have succeeded in expressing his inner emotions. How difficult was the process of getting inside his head?

    It just took time. I asked him to describe, moment by moment, everything he could remember feeling and thinking in the minutes before that jump. Sometimes I would stop him and ask him to elaborate. We would dilate a certain experience and try to extract more detail. That's the essence of reporting: starting with the most basic questions, pressing for more, sometimes returning to the same question several times over the course of an interview, until you get a clear-enough answer. With their permission you impose upon your subject until you have enough, until you can recreate the experience. You ultimately fail, of course. The actual experience is always irreducible. But if you're lucky, and work at it, you get fairly close.

    When you first describe Osman, you seem to have unchecked admiration for his deliberate falls from great heights, but later your opinion changes, as you question the "immeasurable gratuity of the risk." Why this change?
    From the archives:

  • Flashback: "Weird Sports," (May, 1997)
    A collection of recent Atlantic sports writing that should give you a few ideas about how -- or how not -- to spend your leisure time.

  • I continue to have enormous respect for Osman, as an individual and as a climber, but in moments I did find myself appalled by some of the risks he took. If he were not a parent, I might not have had these reactions.

    Supremely reckless adolescent males are found in many species, and as long as they survive, they tend to be well rewarded. (The reckless young female may have her place as well, but I can't speak for her.) The drive to take chances usually extends into the field of romance. Ironically, unless they take pains to avoid it, risk takers soon find themselves rewarded with mates, and often, in short order, with offspring. Their recklessness, in short, rewards them with things they can't keep if they don't start watching their backs and planning ahead -- all those things they never thought they'd ever do. It's the Kawasaki-to-Volvo progression. You go from flouting state motorcycle-helmet laws to comparing data on side-impact air bags. The motivation to take outlandish risks may be replaced or softened through a shift in body chemistry -- triggered by the knowledge that a child has entered the scene. Even the craziest adolescents, by and large, seem to get a dose of self-preservational instinct when they become parents. But in some cases, like Osman's, this may not happen. I suspect he may have the chemical makeup of a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old, with all the technical prowess of his thirty-four years. In other words, he may not be aware, on some fundamental level, that he's a parent. Maybe the fact that he doesn't live with his daughter has something to do with it. Maybe it's the sustained, repetitive exposure to the child, day after day, that triggers and maintains what we could call the parental impulse. In my case, what might have appeared to be purely exciting and rewarding a year before my daughter's birth started to seem unreasonable, foolhardy, selfish. I'm not entirely happy about this, but there it is.

    As you wrestle with whether to take Osman's challenge and jump 500 feet from a bridge, you describe yourself as "caught in the estuary between a younger, bolder self and the cautious, pondering persona that grows quietly beneath." Do you still wrestle with the desire for the thrill of risk?

    I continue to climb, and as a climber, unavoidably, I accept a degree of risk. I continue to enjoy the sensation, when it comes, of being afraid but composed, of finding myself completely committed to a route. Last winter, I started leading on ice (leading involves placing protection and climbing beyond it). Ice is much less forgiving, by and large, than decent rock, because ice protection is much less reliable. Largely for that reason, I find it more rewarding than leading on rock. I like being forced to think, "Okay, my last piece was worthless, because the ice was poor, and until I make the next three moves, and get to that rest, and get a good piece in, I simply cannot fall." Sometimes while climbing you say to yourself, "This is awful, I'm afraid, I can't do this, what the hell am I doing here?" -- but then realize you just have to climb through it. These moments -- where the commitment is total, where the threat of injury or death is palpable, where there is no thought or objective but the next move -- are the moments I value most in climbing.

    When you're climbing regularly this awareness carries over into the rest of your life. Last winter, as I prepared to turn out the bathroom light the night before a serious ice climb in New Hampshire, I was struck by the position of my effects on a small table. I stared at the razor, the toothbrush, the small cluster of pastes and creams, and thought, If I make a mistake tomorrow and get killed, someone will come through here, eventually, and find this stuff. It was less a sentimental than a practical realization. I understood that someone would collect it all and return it to my wife, along with my clothing, my papers, my books. I saw those meaningless, disposable objects as if for the first time. Of course we are all totally at risk, on every level, all the time. But we tend to lose sight of that. And when the axe falls -- illness, accidents, any of a number of losses -- we feel blindsided.

    To be fair, I am much, much more careful than I used to be. I try to maintain a perpetual awareness as I climb of my responsibility to my family. One might argue that by climbing at all I am neglecting that responsibility. But for the moment I am comfortable with -- "resolved" might be a better way to put it -- the balance I've struck. But it's a question I grapple with every time I climb.

    You ask, "At what point ... do statistically hazardous, entirely elective pastimes become unethical?" How would you apply this question to the Everest disaster described in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air?

    Clearly some serious mistakes were made, and a number of individuals had little or no business being there. But the question of risk and ethics, I believe, is personal. What is important is that climbers continue to ask themselves: Do I understand what I'm doing here? Do I understand the risks? Do I understand who will suffer, and in what ways, if I fail to return? If they answer these questions honestly, and continue with care, and are killed in spite of it, then they've done the best they can, short of quitting entirely.

    Every year, as long as people climb, a number of climbers will die. Gear will fail, weather will change, and most of all, people will make bad decisions. It doesn't mean it isn't worth it. Quite the reverse. It sounds outrageous, but I think most dedicated climbers would agree that climbing without deaths would not be climbing. It might continue to be satisfying in a gymnastic or aesthetic way. But it wouldn't be climbing as we know it. The risk of death is absolutely central to the game. And that means, unfortunately, that some climbers have to die. It's terrible, but that's the fact. It's numbers, odds. Without the numbers, there's no fear, and without fear there isn't the commitment, and without commitment, it becomes like everything else: we go to sleep.

    In an editors' column two years ago in The Atlantic you said that in the next decade you'd like to "climb Denali, dive the wreck of the Andrea Doria, and paddle a kayak from Lake Nasser to the Mediterranean." Have your dreams changed?

    The appearance of my daughter, as I discuss in the book, has dramatically changed my attitude toward acceptable risk. But I retain those goals, and others like them. Each of them can be attained within what I consider to be reasonable parameters of risk -- as long as I don't roll over in the Nile.

    More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.