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FALL OF THE PHANTOM LORD [Dan Osman] Andrew Todhunter Hardcover DJ Fine
By Todhunter, Andrew
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New York, 1998. 213 pp. Hardcover with dust jacket. Fine.

The author spent two years with Dan Osman and other top rock climbers, chronicling the risks, adventures and adrenaline rush of modern high level rock climbers.  Hardcover, 

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.


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