Fall of the Phantom Lord: Climbing and the Face of Fear

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9780385486422: Fall of the Phantom Lord: Climbing and the Face of Fear

In 1989, while attempting a new route on a difficult overhanging rock face, climber Dan Osman fell. Again and again, protected by the rope, he fell. He decided then that it would not be in climbing but in falling that he would embrace his fear--bathe in it, as he says, and move beyond it.

A captivating exploration of the daredevil world of rock climbing, as well as a thoughtful meditation on the role of risk and fear in the author's own life.

In the tradition of the wildly popular man-versus-nature genre that has launched several bestsellers, Andrew Todhunter follows the lives of world-class climber Dan Osman and his coterie of friends as he explores the extremes of risk on the unyielding surface of the rock.

Climbing sheer rock faces of hundreds or thousands of feet is more a religion than a sport, demanding dedication, patience, mental and physical strength, grace, and a kind of obsession with detail that is crucial just to survive. Its artists are modern-day ascetics who often sacrifice nine-to-five jobs, material goods, and the safety of everyday life to pit themselves and their moral resoluteness against an utterly unforgiving opponent.

In the course of the two years chronicled in Fall of the Phantom Lord, the author also undertakes a journey of his own as he begins to weigh the relative value of extreme sports and the risk of sudden death. By the end of the book, as he ponders joining Osman on a dangerous fall from a high bridge to feel what Osman experiences, Todhunter comes to a new understanding of risk taking and the role it has in his life, and in the lives of these climbers.

Beautifully written, Fall of the Phantom Lord offers a fascinating look at a world few people know. It will surely take its place alongside Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm as a classic of adventure literature.

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Dan Osman risks his life as a matter of course. While on the ground he shuffles simply enough from ad hoc carpentry gigs to loosely defined relationships, dodging cops along the way in a crummy, unregistered pickup. But get him on some obscenely vertical rock, and he becomes a high priest of climbing aesthetes. For two years, Atlantic Monthly columnist Andrew Todhunter followed the Tahoe-area climber and his band of devotees, limning the sublime riches enjoyed by some of the sport's most earnest practitioners. Such riches come at a cost, and a lesser writer could hardly ask us to understand the rationale behind "putting up" challenging new routes that sometimes require months of painstaking work, scaling frozen ice floes in the dark of night, and leaping hundreds of feet from windy bridge buttresses with merely a rope and harness to arrest the fall.

But Todhunter pulls it off. In prose that is as exacting as the rock and as graceful as a fine-tuned route, he miraculously transforms Osman's avocation into a reasonable and even artistic profession. The detailed climbing sequences make for compulsive reading, and the author's evocations of Osman's craft will convince even the most ardent flatlander of the endeavor's inherent sanity. What's more, once off the steep pitches, we glimpse a young man strangely vulnerable: trying to win extra cash from sponsors, cobbling together a nontraditional family life, and struggling to maintain his eminence in a sport in which the envelope is pushed further every day.

More than a profile of a climber and his métier, though, Fall of the Phantom Lord is also a personal meditation on fear and its management. Each move in a serious climber's shoes represents the possibility of sudden harm, and for the free climber--the true ascetic in the bunch--a bad mistake up high is almost certainly fatal. Reflecting on his own daredevil past, Todhunter measures the moral obligations of adulthood--and in his case, approaching fatherhood--against the satisfaction of outmaneuvering fate. Into the narrative he seamlessly interweaves tales of his extreme pursuits and near-death experiences (motorcycle wrecks, scuba diving miscues, and abandoned mountaineering expeditions). Pondering a rope jump with Osman, the author discovers he cannot shrug off his responsibilities: "Part of me wants to shake [Osman], to shout, 'You've got a daughter, man! Wake up!' ... I try to remember why I jumped from the cliff at Cave Rock, and the emotion--the extraordinary clarity--that it left me with, but I cannot. And part of me wonders, 'What happened? How did I become afraid?'" While he cannot fully resolve this conflict, Todhunter goes a long way toward delineating the lure of danger for those who chase it. --Langdon Cook

From the Publisher:

"Todhunter has the writing style of a good climber on steep rock--calm, precise, and apparently effortless. By the end of this extraordinary book, I had a much greater appreciation of a fundamental truth, that people risk their life not because they want to die, but because they want to live."
--Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm

"Todhunter has produced a work of clear beauty and a true adventure of the soul."
--Roger Rosenblatt

"Andrew Todhunter...eloquently charts his own journey from rebellious recklessness to the far more awesome challenges of real-life responsibility."
--Richard Meryman, author of Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life

"Some of the freshest and most original writing about climbing in recent memory."
--David Roberts, author of The Mountain of My Fear and Moments of Doubt

"Andrew Todhunter writes like an angel..."
--Kenneth S. Lynn, author of Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin and His Times

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