Michael Reardon vanished, sucked out to sea by an enormous wave as he stood near the base of the Irish sea cliff Rinn na Droilan. I figured that knowing Reardon, who loved a good prank, that he’d soon surface in an Irish pub, having survived yet another outlandish ordeal that only he could pull off.
But as the days passed, it became sadly clear that America’s most outrageous, profane, loyal, controversial and bluntly honest climber was indeed gone, taken, ironically, on Friday the 13th, and not in a ropeless fall, but by the earth itself.
If you didn’t know Reardon, your opinion of him was likely gleaned from a hodgepodge of Internet postings, which were rarely kind, and magazine articles and news stories about his massive free solos and antics that included climbing naked and leaving tubes of Vagisil atop Sierra peaks. Beginning in August 2004 and up until he disappeared, I e-mailed back and forth with Reardon, trying to ascertain his incredible motivation and what he thought of his many critics and to pin him down on the details that would prove his claims of free soloing Romantic Warrior (V 5.12b), Equinox (5.12c/d), 280 Joshua Tree routes in a single day, and his 22-hour blitz of the Palisade Traverse (VI 5.9). These achievements, like others of his, were too fantastic to believe. As one of the doubters and also as an editor at Rock and Ice, I felt it necessary to check his claims. I examined the data imprints in his photos, interviewed his various photographers and partners, and pulled archived weather reports and compared them to the day and time of his climbs. His claims checked out—it was the comments from skeptics that often didn’t add up.
Reardon welcomed the scrutiny and always quickly responded to my queries and in minute detail, even offering to solo Romantic Warrior again in front of a photographer of our choosing.
When I finally met him, I was surprised by his sincerity and warmth. I had expected a loudmouth who would talk about nothing but himself, but he constantly wove his wife and daughter into the conversation, asked to see photos of my kids, and listened quietly when someone else had something to say.
Lately, I’d been asking him, “What’s next?” He loathed Yosemite, he said, but wanted to spend time there acclimating to the granite, then free solo the Rostrum North Face (5.11c).
After that, he was thinking about a solo that would top them all. “El Cap?” I asked. “This is totally off the record,” he replied, “because I don’t want any pressure, but I’d like to work Freerider (VI 5.12c), then solo it.”
Would Michael Reardon have blown everyone’s minds and become the first person to free solo El Cap? I’d like to think so, but we’ll never know.
Here, I’ve extracted bits of correspondence that show you the full Reardon, as only he could articulate. — Duane Raleigh
On what his wife, Marci, thought of his soloing:
“Now that you got that out of your system, is the Mexican restaurant open for dinner?”
Reardon loved to tweak the locals. When asked what he was going to do during a Colorado visit:
I got a 21-inch Papua, New Guinea, Penis Pouch that I’m going to stamp with every 5.11 that I solo with it on. Marci is helping me decorate it with rhinestones. I should bring it to Colorado and put the locals into a tizzy. Or better yet, wear it on the gritstone. Time for a true American invasion from a natural blonde—I’ll make sure to wear green nail polish with the pouch.
Reardon, a Hollywood producer and actor, was worried about losing work because of his age. So how old was he?
My “listed” age is a “Hollywood 29!” Actually, 37—I was born May 1, 1970. Maybe next year I’ll list myself as 50 and really mess with folks’ heads.
His wisdom about the Internet:
The Internet is like a large laundry chute. All the socks go in, but only a few make it back out.
After the death of Todd Skinner:
I may not have agreed with everything he’s done, but I never heard him say anything bad about anyone else, and for that alone, he stands far above the rest. In a perfect world, he’s keeping the pints chilled and the whiskey warm for all of us when we finally head over.
He was troubled by his daughter’s growth spurt, and a sudden interest in boys:
I’m definitely thinking about the “ball-cutting” strategy for the bastards in our neighborhood. I have a couple of posters of me on the walls and we’ve made a point of telling the boys that “this is what I do for fun, imagine me pissed off” … . Of course I have to stop by the sheep ranch and get some ball-cutters first.
Reardon’s response to an article about him in RI:
Once again the facts in that sheet of paper you call a magazine were skewed in favor of potentially increasing sales. Anyone who has spent a modicum of time with me knows that I would never call English whiskey even favorable when, in fact, I consider its taste only slightly better than used bath water, and my golden locks do not wave in some arbitrary wind, but are blown majestically by the fan my personal valet keeps on medium-high at all times regardless of the weather.
On the death of fellow climbers:
Death of others in the community always gives a reminder that sometimes the phone isn’t picked up enough.
When asked if he was bothered by all of the questions about his solos:
I do find it humorous that I have to give you minute-by-minute plays for anything I’ve ever done during the last five years minimum, while others don’t even have to get the decade correct to be believed.
If people are demanding more proof than the dates, times, photos and a witness as being the baseline for accepting whether something has been soloed, then I think those same people need to say that Dean Potter is the only person who has soloed Astroman, and that the Moratorium is waiting for an onsight solo as well as three routes in a day on the Diamond. [Referencing, respectively, Peter Croft’s, John Bachar’s and Derek Hersey’s well-known feats.]
And, on his Romantic Warrior solo:
So either hundreds of complete strangers are willing participants in the greatest conspiracy of all time, or just maybe training and hard work pay off.
Reardon sent me a copy of his film, Bachar: Man, Myth, Legend, which I watched alongside my daughters, ages 4 and 5:
You watched the Bachar flick with the kids? Sorry, should have warned you about the F-bombs. Then again, you know Bachar; it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
What did he learn from working on the Bachar film?
Climbers have been pretty crappy to each other for a long time. Reinhold Messner had to live with 30 years of accusations by some of the greatest mountaineers that he killed his brother. Norman Clyde unbelievably soloed 42 routes in 1925, Bachar got sucker-punched for pulling bolts on a route he didn’t touch, Kauk and Schultz tumbled around in the parking lot over a rumor, Gill was dismissed because he wasn’t doing “long” routes, Sharma the same. I’m not saying I’m in their league, but using them as examples that climbing hasn’t changed a whole lot in terms of attitudes. What has changed is the way things have been reported.
On the new generation of climber:
Today’s crop of climbers definitely plays into the safety game, which is homogenizing this sport to oblivion. Pretty soon you’re going to be reporting about the hardest boulder problems being done in the gym. Ugh. Where’s the nobility? Where are the real heroes? Robbins, Gill, Barber, Bachar; those guys understood this sport better than anyone and went to the obvious next levels. There’s more to this sport than just physical difficulty, but somewhere along the way it got lost.
About his first trip to the U.K.:
In Ireland the climbers were psyched and I did some of my hardest soloing in front of them partly due to that energy. It was a very chilly reception in England. Me being me, I responded with plenty of sheep jokes.
I am so sick of this whole, “I’m in touch with my inner spirit, which makes me a better climber in my mental pursuits blah blah blah.” SHUT THE HELL UP! Yoga has nothing to do with reaching the inner spirit and everything to do with being able to imitate your own dog while looking at some soccer- mom hottie in skin-tight clothing as she touches her ankles to her earlobes, showing that hoop earings are, in fact, foot rests.
On bolted choss crags:
In an age of climbing gyms, why are people bolting up piles of choss? All of them are admittedly “outdoor gyms.” The common adage is that it’s a shitpile so why not treat it as such. Take Echo Cliffs, which is a pile. Someone decides to glue, chip and generally make a sport crag of the place. Someone else climbs there a bunch, then heads to Joshua Tree and decides that the rock in the North Wonderland is the same kind of pile, might as well use the same kind of ethics.
I appreciate that Caldwell is climbing some 5.14d in the middle of an atmosphere where astronauts need to suit up, but Wolfgang put up 5.14d 13 years ago! Sharma is bouldering stuff that people love to talk about, but Gill and Holloway put up stuff that still hasn’t been repeated. And there are at least 100 trad lines waiting for repeats. Climbers today are softer, safer and in the end, weaker than the generation(s) before them. Where are the heroes? Who’s really the Babe Ruth, or does one even exist? If not, let’s stop the wannabe worship and get out the yoga mats.
What was it like to solo Romantic Warrior?
RW allowed me the freedom to only think about the next move. There was no past, no future, no physical limitation, no extraneous mental garbage, no thought of death, no thought of life, merely the next move and the singular goal of performing that next move in that present time. I gave up the luxury of wondering if I could do the route, or thinking about that move just prior, or what was coming up, or the fact that my foot didn’t feel that great 100 feet below, or that my palm didn’t have enough chalk for five moves later—nothing but the moment.
And when I was done, I reached an understanding that whether our time on this plane is our only existence, or the body is merely a vessel for the next stage of development, our existence is only a moment.