Monday, July 23, 2007

A short but adventurous life

Sunday evening along the Hudson River Promenade. 6:30 PM.
It was another beautiful summer weekend in New York. I think this is one of the greatest summers weather-wise in a long long time.

Saturday night I went to dinner at Giorgione on Spring Street to celebrate, along with William Ivey Long, the birthday of our friend Chris Clarens. I left the house about quarter to eight and, in a cab, took the FDR Drive south. The light was crystal clear and the City was awesomely beautiful everywhere you looked – southeast across the river to Brooklyn and beyond; or to the immediate west – the jeweled towers of Gotham. It was so glorious I found myself laughing with the pleasure of seeing it all before my eyes. The City was relatively quiet and although the FDR was busy, it was far less so than on a week night and so I was on Spring and Greenwich in 15 minutes (cab fare $21.50 plus tip). Very nice driver (from the Ivory Coast) who was thrilling to the early New York evening as much as I.

Dedicated to Tempting Fate. When I was pledged to a fraternity in college (Colby), as was the custom, I was assigned a “fraternity father.” Mine was a senior named Warren Bleser (blesser). While many of the pledges seemed to have “big buddy” relationships with their fraternity fathers, Warren and I barely spoke or saw each other. One reason was because we were both naturally unenthusiastic about a lot of the rah-rah. And in a fraternity with the captains of the football, basketball, baseball and soccer teams, neither he nor I were much in the jock department. 

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary
As a result I knew very little about Warren except that he was a very nice, somewhat diffident guy from Connecticut. Lanky, studious looking with glasses, in memory’s eye he was always in a flannel shirt and jeans and Frye boots, Warren was a member of the Alpine Club, a  rock climber. He was introduced as such.

The idea of “being” a rock climber made no sense to this small town boy. I thought rock climbers were men like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first men to scale Everest. But a college student?  I did not know that it was a way of life.

Warren Bleser graduated that year and went out West where he became a prominent member of the Alpine Club, instructor, lecturer and rock climber. What I had thought of as strictly an avocation was a way of life. A few years ago I read in the college Alumni magazine that Warren died in a climbing accident in Washington State. Last night when I Googled him I found this happened more than thirty years ago, in 1973. Warren was in his mid-30s. 

In the 1980s when I lived in Los Angeles, I met George Willig who had a brief foray with celebrity in 1977 when he made an “unauthorized” climb to the top of the World Trade Center. George, another climber, lived in Queens and worked in Manhattan. Every day crossing the Queensboro Bridge, he’d see the twin towers in the distance looking, from that perspective, very short. He began to develop the notion of climbing one of them. He developed the right equipment for the ascent. He tested it, I think, at night when no one was around, and found it to be efficient. He started his ascent early enough in the morning so that by the time people started showing up at their offices, he’d be beyond the reach of the police or the fire department. When he reached the top of what was then the world’s talent building, he was greeted by the NYPD who promptly arrested him. Nevertheless, our intrepid climber quickly became the toast of New York and self-styled (George always had a sense of humor about his interest) “The Human Fly.” These men came into my thoughts yesterday when I stumbled upon this fascinating obituary of Michael Reardon in the the London Independent. The life was suffused with joyous adventure, irreverent in its nobility and courage, intrepidly tempting fate right to the last breath. Fate, of course, always had the upper hand.                                              
Michael Reardon
Flamboyant solo rock climber
Published: 21 July 2007

Michael Reardon, rock climber: born Quonset Point, Rhode Island 1 May 1965; married (one daughter); died Valentia Island, Co Kerry 13 July 2007.

If pressed, most keen climbers will admit to having indulged in "soloing " at some point; that is, ascending steep and technical rock without use of ropes or protection inserted into the rock to safeguard a potentially fatal fall. Most fail to continue this risky pursuit simply because they find that the mental strength required to keep feelings of deep insecurity at bay is beyond them, while others come to consider it irresponsible.

Reardon with friend Chris during last year's HERA event in SLC (photo: Duvaki Murch)
A tiny élite, however, find that moving in a continuous flowing style with little equipment to come between the climber and the rock is akin to a powerful drug, the purest form of climbing there is. One of the most accomplished solo climbers in the world, the flamboyant American Michael Reardon, recognised this terrifying dichotomy. "Whether we've pushed beyond personal limits, settled into complacency, or suffered the fate of things beyond our control", he once mused, "we who practise this most challenging of sports know it as either a disaster waiting to happen or a spiritual journey with no compare."

Reardon had soloed thousands of rock climbs up to the US grade of 5.13b, a rarefied and serious level of difficulty even for very talented, roped climbers. He was particularly celebrated in the United States as a result of his lone ascent of a 1,000ft route called "Romantic Warrior" in the Needles of California - one of the most challenging yet to be climbed ropeless - in just two hours. (As a result National Geographic magazine awarded him the accolade "Adventurer of the Year" in 2005.) Another important achievement was a solo of the formidable alpine " Palisade Traverse" in California's Sierra Nevada in less than 24 hours.

Reardon was also renowned for the sheer number of difficult routes he could solo in a day, once undertaking 280 routes at the Californian cliffs and boulders of Joshua Tree - the equivalent of two miles of climbing up to the high grade of 5.13a. Even more impressively, to the cognoscenti, was the fact that many of these climbs were undertaken "on-sight": that is, without any pre-inspection or foreknowledge of the ground ahead, a much more mentally taxing approach than if moves are practised on a rope beforehand.
Reardon was the latest in a long tradition of solo rock climbers who made their name in the US, heir to a legacy that included such famous practitioners as Henry Barber, Peter Croft, John Bachar and the Mancunian émigré Derek Hersey. But what set him apart from many of his daring predecessors (such as Hersey, who was content to lead a semi-hedonistic life devoted to climbing without actively pursuing fame), was his keenness to capitalise on his eye-catching activities. He combined his talent to solo climb at very high levels of difficulty with an ability to market his ability and lifestyle.

With his striking blond locks and humorously outspoken opinions, Reardon was part-showman, part-climber, actively promoting his talents by uploading videos of his latest exploits on YouTube and undertaking lecture tours and motivational speaking events (he also drew attention to his climbing prowess by occasionally solo climbing hard routes completely naked). He also featured prominently in the adventure film-maker Peter Mortimer's multi-award winning climbing documentary Return2Sender (2005) and wrote a gonzo-style blog for the leading US publication Climbing Magazine.

Reardon's promotional success was helped by experience in the entertainment business. A former child actor and member of the 1980s glam band Rocks Milan, he qualified as a lawyer before running business affairs for Harvey Entertainment (the New York company most famous for its children's character Casper the Friendly Ghost), as well as production work for Universal, Paramount Classics and Disney. Reardon left to co-found his own business, Black Sky Entertainment, which produced the 2002 horror film Cabin Fever. The profits from this enabled him a degree of financial independence with which to pursue his love of solo climbing and develop it as an alternative career.
But despite the razzmatazz Reardon was certainly a serious player; he knew only too well the consequences of even a slight mistake and had known plenty of pain. He once vividly described the experience of a near-fatal fall: " My right foot hits first, between the cobbles, and I know I will live. I wish I could freeze that moment forever. It has that most incredible rush of all emotions; the joy of hearing your child's heartbeat for the first time, the hypersensitivity of losing one's virginity, and the sadness of burying your loved ones. Everything.

"As I hobble out of there, helped the two miles to the car by a splintery walking stick, I reflect on the accident. The fall resonates louder than just a fall. It was a series of moments, each with its own terrible effect. There was the pre-fall build-up, when I floated the climb. Then, the slip, a moment of panic and regret and disbelief when the hold snapped. The fall itself. Next, the impact, that damnable impact. And, finally, the aftermath: five trips to the doctor, four shots of cortisone, 10 months of physical therapy, and several thousand dollars in medical bills."
Although Reardon pursued much of his climbing in his native United States he also climbed internationally, visiting Britain recently where he promptly soloed 214 routes in the Peak District, despite poor weather. But it was Ireland, the home of his paternal great-grandfather, that roused his passion and where he would make 250 onsight solos including more than 40 first ascents up to 5.12a standard. Reardon fell in love with the rugged coastline of the west coast and Kerry in particular and it was on a visit to the Fogher sea cliffs of Valentia Island where he met his end, not as a result of a slip, but after being swept out to sea after posing for the photographer Damon Corso at the cliff base following a solo climb.

Colin Wells
London Independent

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