Last summer, the buzz in climbing circles was Michael Reardon's ascent of Romantic Warrior, in the California Needles near the Nevada line. Everything about the climb is challenging: From the base, you look up almost a thousand feet (305 meters), all vertical or overhanging granite. There is no warm-up; first pitch, you are into 5.10, an expert-level climb. By the fourth, it is an even harder 5.12, with the kind of exposure that makes nonclimbers feel weak simply looking at the photographs. The only break comes on the ninth and final pitch, a 5.9. For the sport's finest talents, Romantic Warrior is a long and hard day's climb, but Reardon, 35, a movie director from outside of Los Angeles, sent it in less than two hours—and he did it without a rope.
Reardon is a free soloist, one of the very few who climb entirely without protection. Without it, of course, any mishap could be lethal. The unexpected wet spot on the rock, the unseen fracture that gives under pressure, the momentary loss of concentration after hours of intense focus—all fatal.
The question, then—so obvious you want to scream it—is, Why?
"You get so cluttered up with gear and tools that you lose the purity of the experience," Reardon says. "Climbing is all about going until you get too scared to go any farther, like when you were a kid climbing trees."
After Romantic Warrior, Reardon attempted the Palisades Traverse, a 160-pitch route across 13 peaks in the eastern Sierra. Previously, a pair of climbers had done it in 12 days. Reardon did it in 22 hours.
"People think I must have a death wish," Reardon says. "I don't. I have a wife and an 11-year-old girl." He explains, "There are just two kinds of relationships in this world, parasitic and reciprocal. I'm trying for a reciprocal relationship with the rock."
And that explains everything . . . or does it?