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

Fall of the Phantom Lord: Climbing and the Face of Fear. Andrew Todhunter. Anchor Books/Doubleday: New York, 1998. 272 pages. $23.95.

What is it about risk-taking behavior that endlessly fascinates the human mind? And why is it that so-called “extreme” sports and vertical adventure—and books about such endeavors—have become the popular lenses for this spectacle? These are questions that plagued me as I read the tale of the late Dan Osman by Atlantic Monthly writer Andrew Todhunter. In fact, reading Fall of the Phantom Lord gave weight to my belief that risk-taking activities like climbing have become overwhelmingly glamorized by our culture for their “death-defying” sexiness, while the more subtle, perhaps more meaningful qualities of the sport—like grace of movement, or camaraderie with one’s climbing partner—lay unexamined. For many climbers, the popular yet myopic view of climbing may miss the point of climbing altogether.

Published shortly before Osman’s death, even the title of the book eerily foretells the seemingly inevitable fate of this theatrical and daring climber. Disappointingly, however, Todhunter focuses less on Osman’s climbing accomplishments than he does on his more recent obsession with falling from great heights with the aid of climbing ropes. (It was during the pursuit of this activity that Osman lost his life in November.) On the heels of Osman’s death, the pressing question now in my mind is this: will such a book serve not only to glamorize the Russian Roulette approach to the vertical world but also deify those who die in the process?

This is not to say that an exploration of risk and fear and facing the prospect of death are not part of the climbing experience, and Todhunter must be given credit for deftly describing the vertical world’s seductive dance with risk, danger, and even death as an affirmation of life itself. The allure of this world is best captured in the chapter where he “meets the Phantom Lord” as he steps from a cliff for his first Osman-supervised “jump”:

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 that fall between the moment of commitment and the moment of execution, the pooling fear distills, climaxes, and transmutes. The resistance of the will cracks and dissolves. My body, suddenly unbound, becomes weightless, soars in its position on the rock. My back straightens, my head instinctually rises to the sky. A deep, luxurious passivity imbues my limbs. The oxygen is rich, heavy. I have gained no deeper 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.

What seems to weigh down the otherwise elegantly told stories of both Osman and Todhunter is the inordinate amount of attention given by the author to the mechanics of climbing, ice climbing, and jumping, as well as the almost sycophantic references to who’s who in the climbing world. Perhaps these details may be of interest to the general audience, or to a very enthusiastic beginner climber, but for most climbers, such excessive information seems wholly unnecessary. It also seems at odds with the Dan Osman minimalist philosophy the author wants to convey. For example, Todhunter recounts Osman’s idea of a good top rope— one sling and a carabiner:

For Osman, it appears, an anchor is either adequate or inadequate. This seems to be an issue of aesthetics rather than bravado…. In pursuit of mastery in any enterprise, one strives to attain or express a condition just so, and chasms of mediocrity—too much and not enough—yawn on either side. By this reasoning.… superfluous gear on a top-rope anchor is not a harmless, sensible backup, but as regrettable—to borrow from another trad—as an overwritten phrase.

Aside from overwriting background information that is, like Osman’s theory on anchor systems, superfluous to the story, Todhunter is an accomplished writer whose prose is lovely and compelling, if a bit self-conscious at times. But then, it is self-conscious terrain he has chosen to explore: throughout the strands of Osman’s life that he’s selected to showcase, the author has tied in the more compelling stories of his own evolving relationship with risk and danger. A climber and adventurer himself, Todhunter finds, in the two years that he is spectator to Osman’s life, that the addition to his own life of a wife and child, seriously alters both his ability and his desire to take such risks. Fall of the Phantom Lord, told through Todhunter’s keen and honest perceptions about his own experience, gives the book its soul—which is a far leap from anything popular culture has embraced about the vertical world.

Amy Irvine