Free solo rock climbing (climbing without a rope) is probably the most dangerous sport in the word. If you make a mistake, you die. And even if you don’t make a mistake, rockfall or something else out of your control can make any climb your last. Despite the risk, lots of climbers solo, citing it as the purest form of climbing. I’ve only free-soloed once and it was by accident (I was trying to scramble to the top of Wintergarden wall in the Wichitas and inadvertently climbed a 5.7 route).
Recently, Michael Reardon, the most prolific free soloist of all time, died during a visit to Ireland. Ironically, he didn’t die climbing. He was standing at the base of a sea cliff when a rogue wave washed him out to sea. His body was never found.
I find myself surprisingly bummed about this.
Reardon was an interesting character both on and off the rock. He accomplished some mind-blowing feats, including soloing 280 routes in one day at Joshua Tree (for me, a hard day would be 10 routes) and on-sight soloing Romantic Warrior, a 9 pitch 5.12b in The Needles in California. On-sight climbing is when you have no prior knowledge of a route — in other words, you don’t know what lies ahead. To solo on-sight at this elite grade is just unthinkable.
Before becoming a sponsored climber, Reardon was in a glam rock band, got a law degree from Pepperdine, and was a movie producer (Casper, Cabin Fever, etc.).
He was a loud-mouthed, annoying guy, but his climbing skill matched his bravado. I’ve always been fascinated by people that pursue their passions to the extreme. Reardon’s exploits were fun to read about, but in a sport like free soloing you can only out-do yourself so many times. I had recently mentioned to a couple of people that the word “inevitable” came to mind — as in, it was inevitable that he’d die while soloing.
Well, he proved me and lots of others wrong — Michael Reardon didn’t die while climbing at all. He’d probably find that pretty amusing.