In June, Michael Reardon knocked on my door at Mammoth Lakes for an easy day of free soloing at Clark Canyon on the East Side of the Sierra Nevada. I can only try to describe how much fun it was to go “soloing” with a good friend like Michael. We climbed about 20 feet apart, mixing inane conversations with the intense subliminal concentration that functions automatically when you get off the deck. That’s the beauty and power of free solo. Deep inside us, without conscious effort we have the innate ability to perform physically without any thought. The act reconnects us with our primal being. I guess that’s why Michael and I looked forward to days like that at Clark—comfortably cruising 5.9s and 5.10s while holding a bullshitting session in the sky. Michael kept us laughing the whole day! At one point we were debating whether down-climbing a pitch counts as doing a pitch. I said, “no;” he said, “yes,” and that I was just “too much of a pussy to realize it”—joking, of course. I said he didn’t have the balls to make it to the true summit and couldn’t handle the descent. And on and on, both of us laughing out of control.
My first contact with Michael Reardon was over the phone. He called and said he wanted to do a documentary about me and my climbing career. I was flattered that anyone was interested in some old dude who didn’t climb hard anymore. I was also skeptical because I had been approached by other filmmakers who wanted the same thing. Michael told me his credentials, Hollywood projects completed, etc., but I wasn’t that interested until he said he climbed. Not just climbed, but he said he free soloed!
Within weeks he came up to visit and I wanted to see him climb, to shake him down and see if he was full of hot air like the other Hollywood types I had encountered. I took him to the Fault Line boulders and showed him some of the harder problems. He did them all in a few attempts. Not only was he very strong, he was extremely energetic, always asking mindbender questions and pushing the philosophical envelope— which I liked instantly.
Shortly after, he returned with his wife, Marci, who operated the camera and sound gear, and they started interviewing me for the documentary. It went well. Michael asked questions that were easy to deal with. It was like he could read my mind—probably because he’d been in similar situations himself.
Over the months it took to produce the film, we became friends. We’d talk for hours about all aspects of free soloing. He’d tell me about his recent exploits, and I’d tell him of mine.
The film trailer came out, and we toured a bit together to promote it. These were exceptionally fun times—partying with Henry Barber and Duane Raleigh at the Taos Film Festival was some of the funniest shit I’d done in a long time.
One day Michael called and said he had soloed Equinox (5.12c) at Joshua Tree. I was blown away. Equinox is stout. We talked about his mindset and mental preparation. He was extremely comfortable with soloing, and we had deep conversations about onsight versus rehearsed, keeping the mind “empty,” tapping into the innate core, how to “not-think,” and all the other crazy stuff that goes through the mind of a soloist. I have only been able to have these conversations with three or four climbers in my entire climbing career. Michael was so full of life that the concept of death couldn’t be applied to him. He examined every aspect of the soloing “process” as if it was a science. Every day he went climbing, he was going to go home to his wife, Marci, and daughter, Nikki—that’s just how it was.
Months later he invited me down for a TV shoot of him at Tahquitz, and I met him a day early to solo. After doing three pretty long routes I was beat, but he kept going and soloed two more 800-foot 5.9s—he lapped those things in half an hour, including descents. His ability to block and concentrate were supreme. He had a great sense of tempo and rhythm. His slow contemplative approach was ever present, yet he just ran up the routes. His ability to flow, equally tight, was among the best I have ever witnessed.
Regardless of what you did with Michael, you were going to laugh. As his dear friend Anastasia Frangos said, “Even though sometimes the content of his conversations made you feel a bit dirty, it was ‘fun dirty,’ like getting away with stealing a kiss from your dream girl in church. It is wrong, but all about good feelings inside.” Michael had an unusual gift for cracking jokes that were at the edge of social acceptability. Like a professional comic, he’d make you think twice in a millisecond and wait there, grinning, for you to realize he wasn’t serious. He did this all the time and always had people busting their guts.
Michael loved people and climbing and mixed the two well. He lived it loud and proud. I think that is why so much controversy surrounded him. His love of the spotlight made people question his authenticity and intent. Many climbers are loners, but Michael was a socialite. He loved sharing his world with everyone he could and was so original that he was hard to comprehend. I don’t know if people really know how much he actually did. Those of us who knew him couldn’t help but love him and want to spend more time with him.
I do have to speak to his climbing adventures. As an artist in the free-solo realm, he wanted to know what people thought. How did his artistic “solo monuments” affect the world? Did he leave an impression on climbing? We talked about this many times. Would a concert violinist practice just as much if he/she were on a deserted island with no one to listen to the music? Maybe yes, maybe no. Some people want their music to be heard.
Michael was a great climber, but more than that he was a family man. Being a great father and husband was his number-one concern, and those who climbed with him will attest to that. “Dude, let’s hang out and do some more routes over the next few days!” I’d say.
“Sorry, gotta go back to the family tonight,” he’d reply. And off he’d go.
Michael often asked me what he needed to do to reach the next level. I told him about my training theories and strategies, and that he needed to hang out at the crags for more extended periods to dial in a particular area. This was the only way to really break some boundaries. Though he recognized this, he chose to develop his talents secondarily to his life with his family. To me this makes his climbing accomplishments even more impressive. I don’t think I could have ever achieved the things Michael did if I’d had the same constraints. He was a natural athlete. He worked hard at perfecting his climbing, but if he had climbed full time, he could have done much more.
Decades from now, climbers will recount Michael’s exceptional ascents, such as his solo of Romantic Warrior and his giant solo days at Josh, and be inspired in ways we can’t imagine. I believe Michael felt this and that constituted his music to the world. Free soloists have left a powerful impression on other people about the beauty and strength of the human spirit and what can be accomplished if we use our hearts to the fullest. Michael Reardon’s message to the world is, “If you truly believe, you can do it.”
Read more about Michael Reardon in the Michael Reardon interview.