Remembering the extraordinary life of free climber Michael Reardon

MARCI Reardon sits at her desk in the offices of Countrywide Financial in Oak Park, California. It’s Friday morning, Jul 13, 2007, and she’s fighting this niggling feeling something’s not right. Michael. For the longest time she’s tended to receive this odd sensation whenever Michael’s been hurt, some kind of connection.

People don’t get it at first. This one time Michael was out climbing with Con Moriarty in the Gap of Dunloe while Marci was off doing some tourist trail around Killarney. She’d joked with Con that morning that she’d know if anything happened. Not two minutes after Michael nearly brained himself off a rope, Con’s phone rang.

“Well, is he ok?”

“You must be joking me.”

Now she’s unsettled. She knows Michael had planned on getting out to some islands off the Kerry coast with Damon Corso; the last day of an epic month of climbing around Ireland. They’d spoken that morning when she was out walking the dogs. He was excited to be coming home, show her the rings. On their first trip to Ireland years back, they’d found matching rings; Michael had lost his within a month. It’d been a joke between the two ever since. Now he swore he’d found more and couldn’t wait to prove it.

She tries to ignore the ache. Marci had finally convinced Michael to take a mobile phone that was free to receive calls from the US for the trip. Every day, the same routine. Around her lunch time Michael would ring as a sign and Marci would call him back right away. She can’t wait the few hours till then. She rings Michael’s phone.

“Marci?”

“Damon, why are you answering Michael’s phone?”

“Ah, Marci, amm, I’m going to have to ring you back.”

She hangs up. Something is wrong. That wait is the longest of her life.

Michael Reardon landed in Ireland that June with pretty much the same intentions he went into every adventure with: live every minute. It was a blast. Enough new friends to fill an address book in each town. Whiskeys drained and local food sampled. And climbing, brother was there climbing. By the time photographer Damon Corso arrived a couple of weeks into the trip, his previous reluctance had been consumed by the excitement of the images he’d been sent every day from Reardon and the sheer idea of creating new ones. They went on a kind of pilgrimage of Irish rockclimbing — Fair Head, The Burren, Ailladie, Glendalough, all down the coast of Kerry, the Gap of Dunloe. They made an impact; that tended to follow Michael around.

Michael stood out, in just about every sense. There was the appearance: 5 foot 7 inches, long shiny blonde hair with the buzz of sparky energy and that American accent. There was the personality: warm, outgoing, affectionate, in-your-face, a guy more likely to hug you on meeting than shake your hand, as friend Con Moriarty put it. There was the climbing. In the sports world, climbing is towards the extreme end of things.

Michael Reardon was a free soloist — he basically climbed the trickiest, highest routes without ropes or any safety equipment — which is at the extreme end of that discipline. And nobody pushed the world of free soloing harder or more aggressively than Reardon at his peak. At that elite climbing level what he was doing was jaw-dropping; for the mortal person, it was extraordinary. (His personal life is left as a mere footnote even though he’d also been in an 80s glam rock band that toured with Motley Crue and made millions of dollars with a film production company on movies like Cabin Fever and Richie Rich.)

Out in his backyard of the southern California rocks, he was putting up crazy numbers almost every time he went out. Reardon scuttled up an 800 foot monster that’d never been done before — a route called Shikata Ga Nai.

He free soloed climbs that’d only been done with the help of ropes — the 5.12c Equinox (climbs are categorised from 5.1 (easy) up to 5.15 with variations of a,b,c, and d) and Vampire at Tahquitz. He onsighted (basically climbed without any pre-planning or inspection) a notorious 1,000 foot belter called Romantic Warrior in a matter of hours when it was taking experienced roped climbers a full day. He free soloed 280 routes (about two miles of tough climbing) in one day at Joshua Tree. He earned the blessing of climbers such as John Bachar; think the Pele of free soloing. The heights and distances were phenomenal and it was just Michael Reardon and his hands and the rock with sheer falls of hundreds of feet. No filter. No room for error. It drew attention. It drew people. It was spectacular.

Ireland was no different. Relentless energy and long days. Reardon climbed with Clare O’Leary in the Burren. He took on the awesome power of the Atlantic at Ailladie cliffs. In an email to friends at the time he described the cliffs as “redefining everything I know about the mental game of climbing” and went through in great detail some of the more exciting nooks and crannies he’d found out there. Damon Corso recalls “almost fainting” with delight at the sight of the crags and climbs Reardon had mapped out for them.

The only disconcerting thing was how Reardon seemed to be long-lost friends with every single person in the country. In Doolin they stayed for the bones of a week with a couple who ran the local cafe, people Mike had only met the week before. They rented bikes and cycled the length of the Aran Islands for one great climb. It was epic; even at the time Corso had the feeling those images were once-in-a-lifetime shots.

There was nothing conventional about Reardon. His climbing uniform consisted of anything from his superman shorts and bare torso, to jeans and a bright red T-shirt; something that made you take notice. Long-time friend Mark Niles first encountered Reardon totally naked on a route at Malibu Creek. Con Moriarty was flicking through a climbing magazine one day when he came across “this picture of my local crag (Gap of Dunloe) and this fella with a pair of jeans and long blonde hair hanging off it without a rope. He’d onsighted it. It sort of got my attention.”

Damon Corso was similarly knocked off his feet by Reardon. He explains, “The first time I met Mike was during my first year of climbing and I was bouldering on some pile at Malibu Creek. He stood out like a sore thumb, tossing wise remarks and witty comments to everyone at the cliff. I thought he seemed like quite a loudmouth, but I later discovered that was just Mike. He asked if I wanted help on my little pile of crap and I declined. Five minutes later I asked politely for his help.

We got talking for an hour or so, but he said little about his free soloing. Next time though I was at Joshua Tree National Park and he informed me that he had quite a good day of climbing a few days prior. I asked what he did and he informed me he free-soloed 280 routes up to 5.13a in a day... my jaw dropped. While my drool seeped into the sand he walked over to a climb and waltzed right up it while I gathered my composure. I made it a point to shoot together after that.”

Climbing with Reardon was always an intense experience and always an interesting challenge. He climbed faster, harder, for longer and with a constant soundtrack of jokes, songs and conversation. Matt Samet talks of wanting to strangle him the first time they met as Reardon shot his mouth off scattergun-style for about four hours as they drove to their climb.

From early next morning when he woke Samet with a drawling Californian, “Let’s do it, brother!” Samet was a convert. He says, “That trip to the Needles was the first time I saw Michael climb. I always thought I had a voracious obsession with the sport, but he made me feel like a sloth. Michael was up at 5 am. every day. He’d walk out three miles to these wild, haunted, 600-foot spires to climb ropeless in the cool of the morning, by himself. So by the time I was up at 8 or 9 and had hiked out, he’d perhaps climbed thousands of feet. Then we’d climb together all day till dark.”

Samet describes him as machine-like. Con Moriarty remembered a day Reardon went out to the Gap of Dunloe and climbed for ten hours straight. Even John Bachar recalled being wrecked after a day’s heavy climbing together and yet Reardon was still out there, pushing hard. Corso thinks back to working a climb called Tic Tic Boom in Joshua Tree — “not that hard but very bold, the real climb starts 60 feet up and moves to an overhanging 5.12 section” says Corso. They rope-climbed a few times to prepare and came back a few weeks later for Reardon to solo and get photos.

Corso brought his girlfriend along for the first time to see Reardon. “Mike stepped up to the plate and went off,” he laughs. “Within a minute he was past the crux. I laughed and my girlfriend asked what was funny. She hadn’t even noticed he’d gone up so quickly. He flowed like water, like Bruce Lee on a rock. He slowed down so I could get shots, even reversed a few moves, laughing and joking all the while. God damn Mike, that’s just how he rolled.”

That athletic ability was phenomenal. Con Moriarty reckoned there’s a big deal made of sportspeople coming to Ireland every year, but Reardon was up there as one of the most impressive to perform on these shores. He practiced and climbed hours upon hours to hone his technique and developed special exercises to strengthen his fingers for grip.

The real magic was in the head though, that ability to focus and be in control of what he was doing even when hanging hundreds of feet up in the air with no rope as backup. Corso describes a guy who’d be “wound up so damn tight I thought he was going to explode on the way to a climb, talking a mile a minute about what he was going to do. Then when it came time to perform, he would just zen the fuck out!”

Matt Samet remembers Reardon about 350 feet up a 5.9 climb called Igor Unchained one morning, getting his little finger stuck in a crack. “A scary experience on a rope, a potentially fatal one without“, Samet says. “He was just joking about it, hollering down to me he’d need some butter. He just stood there and fished his finger out after a minute or two. It takes a rare headspace to keep that sort of poise.

He spoke about his eight-foot eggshell a lot, where he was only aware of everything a couple of feet in each direction, all the other elements fade away. He had that ability to zone out and climb the same whether he was 10 foot or 600 foot in the air.”

Free soloing can be pretty divisive and controversial. Con Moriarty admits Reardon was a provocative figure until you got to understand his motivations. Marci Reardon would say her husband became part of the rock, almost like he blended into whatever cliff or boulder or mountain he was floating up at the time, that it was a spiritual conviction. He placed a great emphasis on not interfering with the natural state of the stone; that was a large part of the reason he free soloed rather than hammered in bolts and ropes and ladders.

Matt Samet reckons Reardon free soloed simply because he could; he’d found something he was good at early on and had that personality to push limits and boundaries (plus, he loved it). There was a certain style aspect for him. Reardon was very aware of how the climbing looked, in pictures, on film, the lighting aspect, the colours involved. Con Moriarty mentioned Reardon’s liking for climbing certain shapes of rock, just from a pure beauty viewpoint. Most everyone who shared a day’s climbing with him spoke of standing there mesmerised at some stage, just being hypnotised by the beautiful rhythm, the red shirt and blue jeans hanging off a vertical backdrop.

It certainly wasn’t a glory trip. Everybody who was in Reardon’s brotherhood can recall some day where he jumped out of a climb because it didn’t feel right, where he traded kudos for safety and instinct. Reardon was always in control of his environment and his decisions. Con Moriarty explains, “There was never a question of him going out and chancing something, there was no chancing something. It was always well thought out, because the cost of someone chancing something on a rope and winging off 10/ 20 metres onto a runner in rockclimbing, that’s the price you pay for trying something you mightn’t be good enough for or couldn’t get up on. He was working at a level where if he tried something and came off it, he was dead. There was no coming off option.”

He was aware of a responsibility to evolve the sport too. He spoke with John Bachar about the impression his feats were leaving on the climbing world and about the intricacies of the science of free soloing, about the mental preparation involved. Bachar was impressed by Reardon’s belief. Con Moriarty said Reardon never got scared, that there was no space in his bubble for fear. Reardon wanted to push limits and there were plans to do just that.

Sign off on last email sent by Mike Reardon to Matt Samet, Wednesday, Jun 27, 2007:

Soon, I head off to the “end of the world”, an island that has never been touched by human hands. The adventures are unreal beyond my Irish story-telling, and it has only been ten days, the month will surely carry more.

See you soon,

Michael.

Since Damon Corso had arrived in Ireland, Michael Reardon wouldn’t shut up about one thing in particular: The Skelligs. He’d taken a boat tour out, felt a deep spiritual connection with the rocks, the idea of the monks out there climbing hundreds of years before and was desperate to get a shot on a particular crack. The weather wasn’t playing ball and days were running out. That Thursday, Jul 12, they headed to a sea stack on the Dingle peninsula but the climbing or form wasn’t great. Corso was miserable heading back to the car that evening.

“What’s up Damon?”

“I’m worn out Mike. It’s been a long two weeks. I just want to get home now.”

“Me too, man. I can’t wait to get back to Marci and Nikki. We’ve done so much though, just one more big day.”

Con Moriarty left his house next morning, Friday 13th, at 5.30am with Reardon reading Tim Pat Coogan’s The Diapora — Wherever Green is Worn and in great mood, planning a meal in the Beaufort Inn that night. The Skelligs was cancelled again and plan B became a trip to Valentia out to Fogher Cliffs, a wild spot on a windswept island. Rain pelted against the car the whole way out. Damon Corso remembers a funny feeling in his bones; he wanted the day to be over and be warm and dry back in California. The power of the location took over though and they spent an age negotiating over some slippery rocks to get to the spot Reardon want to climb. Huge waves slapped up against the back of the rocks. Corso recalls, “It was intimidating. But I’d gotten so used to being so close to the ocean at this point I just brushed any fear off.”

Reardon did the climb he wanted; Corso got some shots, reluctantly, and put his camera away to go back home. Reardon was waiting on a platform for the ocean to die down to cross an inlet and asked Corso to get some pictures of the waves crashing in front of him. Corso rolled his eyes and did it. Come on Mike, time to get out of here, he thought. As the last snaps were clicking, Corso spotted a massive wave veering right onto the climber’s platform. Reardon turned to run but the force smacked against his knees and knocked him. He couldn’t grip onto the rock as the water pulled him out, first a 15 foot fall on his back and then out into the ocean.

Within a minute Corso got to a 60metre rope but Reardon was already 100 metres out and waving back into land, yelling something the photographer couldn’t make out. Corso checked for Mike’s mobile phone but it wasn’t in the bag, shouted out to sea he was going to get help and ran the mile up the hill to the coastguard station (The coastguard had just returned from a call on Skelligs that day and had the lifeboat and a fleet of 16 boats out within a half hour.) By the time Corso got back down to the cliffs there was no sign of Mike and he just knew he wasn’t seeing his friend again. No way was he coming back in from that swirl. As he stood on the cliff Michael’s phone rang in his hand. Marci’s name popped up. He said he’d ring her back and felt his body shutting down with the pressure. Somehow, with Con Moriarty’s help, he composed himself and dialled Marci’s number.

“Marci, Mike’s missing. He’s been taken out to sea.”

The search went on for several days. Michael Reardon’s body was never found.

What came next was a blur for Marci Reardon. That call, she had her work headset on at the time but something must have given way in her because it was her boss who had to pump Damon Corso for the details. Nikki, the hardest part of all. Marci will never forget her daughter collapsing to her knees at the news. They got a direct flight to Ireland and were out in the water off Valentia with the coastguard by the following afternoon. Searching for something, anything to cling onto. When a friend dropped her off at Valentia that day, he’d left with the words, “See you at the memorial Tuesday.” “A memorial?” Marci remembers thinking. Already?

Damon Corso had accepted Mike was gone when he got back down to the cliffs that day. Con Moriarty knew as soon as he got Damon’s call that evening. Ask Marci at what stage that hope was extinguished over that few days and she’ll say, well, it’s sort of never left. “I mean, I’m not stupid,” she says. “I knew about the Atlantic and what the sea does and how he wasn’t getting out of there. I know he’s not walking through the door. But they never recovered even his clothes or shoes or necklaces so I never had that closure.”

The memorial took place a few days later and about 150 people turned up. At one stage Mark Niles asked how many of the people who’d gathered there knew Mike for any length of time. About 20 people put up their hands; the rest had been drawn there by a short connection or brief meeting that’d stayed with them — some five minutes they’d shared a rock in Glendalough or happened upon him on some crag over in the Burren. The community mourned their brother and there’s no bitterness or anything towards the climbing; Marci had always felt safe when he was climbing and there was no reason to rethink that now. “If anything I kind of wish he’d gone while climbing,” she explains. “I was like, a freak wave? Really, that’s how it happens after everything? But I saw Michael climb and he didn’t take risks. He was so in control. I saw him walk away from climbs I’d do in heels because it didn’t feel right. I’ve been out climbing and seen some really careless people but I never got nervous of that with him. ” As Damon Corso commented, it was only Mother Nature with the strength to pull him down in the end.

Life goes on though. Last month Marci, Nikki, Damon and his girlfriend took in a flying visit to see the Red Sox — Mike’s team — win the World Series and she carved his name along with theirs into the Green Monster (the scoreboard wall) at Fenway Park. She was back in Ireland in July and took a hike out to Fogher cliffs. No regrets, just happy thoughts and memories. “I’m just so glad he got to spend that time in Ireland, doing what was his passion,” she explains. “He loved everything about the place — his ancestry, the climbing was special to him, just the connection with people. But we had 20 years together and I was completely fulfilled. I lived every day. That amount of time with someone like Michael is worth 60 years.”

A couple of days after that memorial in 2007, Marci was clearing up Michael’s things to go home when she came across a jewellery box under some clothes. She opened it up. Three matching rings. One for himself, Marci and Nikki. He’d pulled through, this one last time.



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