an interview with andrew todhunter   interview  
photo of andrew todhunter

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What is it about high risk activities that attracts you and people like Dan Osman?

Most people stumble on environments that are physically threatening as children, and some find the experience electrifying; they like the feeling of being under threat. When I was around nine or ten a hurricane came through my home town. Docks were swept away, forty-foot boats were torn from their moorings and tossed onto the beach. There were telephone poles and live wires down on our street. The air was full of debris: falling branches, lawn chairs, garbage cans. I was ecstatic; I walked around in a kind of trance. I guess I knew it was dangerous, but I didn't care. It was as if the world finally became real to me, as if my senses were inadequate, as if I needed everything to go crazy for me to feel alive.

Often, kids develop a thematic relationship with a particular form of risk taking: a chronic tree-climber, for example, who becomes an alpinist, or an adolescent pyromaniac who becomes a firefighter. Others generalize. There is a great range, of course. Some people, like Osman, structure their entire adult lives around placing themselves at risk. Other people, of course, don't care for it.

To what do you attribute the incredible growth of extreme sports in the last decade?

There are many factors, I imagine, including the invention of technologies (like artificial climbing walls) that opened up sports like climbing to urban markets. Most of the frenzy is marketing and media driven. The great majority of those who read Outside or Men's Journal are educated urban professionals with no shortage of disposable income. Philosophically, extreme sports go hand in hand with the sport-ute. Forty thousand dollars for an enclosed jeep, and they can't sell them fast enough. These sports have been marketed very aggressively and with great success. Look at The North Face; they've gone so far they're hiphop. The outdoors, really, is the product. And being outdoors, in the mountains, out on the water, is one of the few experiences that actually delivers more than you can sell.

How did you become involved with Dan Osman and his cadre of climbers?

I wrote a piece about him for The Atlantic Monthly; much of that piece was included in the first part of the book.

Who, or what, is the "Phantom Lord" of your book?

One of Osman's most difficult routes is called Phantom Lord. For me, somehow, the Phantom Lord became a kind of mythological figure, a representation of the fear that Osman grapples with as a free-soloist (or unroped climber) and bridge-jumper. Essentially, the Phantom Lord became for me the fear of death. On another level, Osman himself is the Phantom Lord, a kind of necromancer or magician. When I imagine Osman, wrestling with his fear on the bridge, and finally falling, the one is indistinguishable from the other. He accepts it, and so defeats it. All this imagery is fairly muddy and melodramatic; I'm not saying it makes any sense. But this is how it developed, more or less unconsciously, in my attempt to understand who Osman is and what he does.

You involved yourself completely in this book, going as far as jumping off a cliff to feel the rush that your subject feels. Can you describe this experience?

I have never been drawn to bungee-jumping--it always struck me as ludicrous and contrived--but Osman's system, using climbing gear, derived from climbing applications, had a certain logic, a certain purity. I was terrified, of course, right up until the moment I stepped off. If I hadn't been, the exercise would have been pointless.

Fall of the Phantom Lord is an adventure narrative, yet it is also a meditation on risk and responsibility. You are married, and have a child, how do you reconcile your love of the challenge with your responsibility to your family?

I try to find a balance. My daughter was born in the course of my research, and my attitudes toward climbing and toward Osman shifted. I would not have taken that jump, for example, after my daughter's birth. But I continue to climb.

I went ice climbing this winter with John Bouchard, up in New Hampshire, and he took me up some beautiful, committed routes. Before I left for the trip I discovered that my daughter (then around fifteen months) had put a large teething ring, like an Aztec bracelet, into one of my ice climbing boots. I took this as a kind of unconscious blessing from her, a talisman. I kept the ring in my chest pocket while I climbed. I thought of her a fair amount, in moments of rest, at belays. The climbing was fantastic. But I was a lot more careful than I might have been ten years ago. It's amazing how superstitious--or how religious, or both--we become when we know we're at risk. Bouchard prays before serious climbs. But on our first day, when I asked if he had a first aid kit, he said no--bad luck.

You obviously have a tremendous amount of respect for Dan Osman, yet many people would be unable to understand the risks he takes. How would you explain his way of life to them?

On the one hand, I think his life is indefensible--I'm sure he would agree. He's a father, for one thing, and I think he owes it to his daughter to stick around. And what he does decidedly endangers that responsibility. He's pushing the edge about as hard as you can push it. On the other hand, I know that I've been very inspired by his example. Just watching him climb is extraordinary. I've learned a lot from him, about being true to yourself, about refusing to live by fear. We need individuals like Osman; we always have.

Writing seems almost antithetical to the adrenaline-inducing activities which you describe. How do you marry the two in your life?

I often write standing up. It keeps the blood moving, keeps me from going to sleep; it's easier on the legs. I think it helps the writing; when I write sitting down the language is more passive. Either way, the actual experience of writing is often like hitting a punching bag underwater for five hours, or walking up a down escalator, just fast enough to keep pace, in an expedition backpack full of phone books. It's exhausting, and often tedious, and you think, How did I get into this business? I want to be out doing things. And so I try to write about things that are active; to compensate through the research. To be fair, the writing itself can sometimes be very satisfying. The personal material in this book--particularly the material surrounding my daughter's birth--was very difficult to work with, very frightening. But it was a great gift to have had the time--to be forced, really, through the work--to reflect on that period so intensely, to try to make some sense of that experience.

What have you learned about yourself during the experience of writing this book?

I've acquired a certain amount of patience. Before the book, I wrote everything in a rush, on momentum. On a magazine piece you can do that. But on a long project you run out of gas, sooner or later, and more than once. Your moods change: you get sick, tired, bored. And still the book is there, impassive and unfinished. You have no choice but to keep working, day after day. Writing is a job, after all, like any other. And by doing that, by sanding away at the floorboards of a subject, you soon find a cellar beneath it, and a cellar under that, like the cellars of the Domus Augustus in Rome.

What challenges and writing subjects lie ahead for you?

I have a short list of routes I'd like to climb, here in the US and in Europe, and a few wrecks I'd like to dive. And I expect I'll write about them, in some form or another. But I'm also looking into other, non-sporting subjects. One of the things I admire so in John McPhee is his ability to write so well on so many different subjects: Scotland, tennis, geology, oranges. I'm very drawn to that kind of breadth. I'm particularly interested in matters of faith; all the more so since my daughter's birth. I've always loved ancient history. I like to cook. And I'll try to incorporate those interests into my work.

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    Photo of Andrew Todhunter copyright © Erin Todhunter