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15 Years Ago One of America’s Greatest Free Soloists Was Taken by the Sea

Remembering Michael Reardon, the free soloist, husband, father, and free spirit who passed away on July 13, 2007, after being swept away by a rogue wave.

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15 years ago, the famed California climber and free soloist Michael Reardon was swept by a rogue wave into the Atlantic Ocean off Valentia Island, Ireland, never to be seen again, leaving behind a beloved wife and daughter and friends in the climbing community too numerous to count. It’s rare that a day goes by that I don’t think of him. I even have a poster of him soloing at Joshua Tree—an old Urban Climber magazine cover—up in my garage to keep me company while I’m training.

With his booming voice, long blond hair, and larger-than-life personality (Michael was once the frontman for a heavy-metal hairband, Rocks Milan), he could be a polarizing figure. Michael knew he was over the top, but he didn’t care; he was who he was unapologetically, which was what was so wonderful about him. He was funny as hell and loud as hell and he loved to talk trash—it was great, and in our own crag-slander version of The Dozens we would try to top each other until we were both rolling in the dirt in stitches, too convulsed with laughter to breathe.

Reardon as Wonder Woman. Free soloing of course. (Photo: Mark Niles)

Michael and I climbed together extensively, almost always in California, where he lived. I would free solo a bit with Michael to humor him, but we roped up plenty too, even though he often told me he felt safer without a rope, that he climbed better and with greater focus when the cord wasn’t on.

On a one-week trip to the Needles, California, Michael—always bursting with manic energy and a fervor to climb—would wake up before me and head out to the domes to solo just after sunrise. One morning I came out to the notch to find him near the top on the classic three-pitch finger crack Igor Unchained (5.9+). Somehow one of his knuckles had gotten stuck in a fingerlock. Three hundred feet up, he cracked jokes with me as he tried to floss his digit out of the crack. I sat there at the notch, semi-horrified, probably because I knew if I was in the same situation I’d be panicking, though of course I’d never have had the mindset or skill to be up there unroped. But Michael was at home, and after some minutes he extracted his finger and continued on as if nothing had happened, scampering up to the summit of the Witch.

Michael was one of the true, authentic personalities in our sport, and one of the most loyal, generous friends I’ve had. His death was sudden, shocking, and almost mythical in its dimensions, swept out to sea in the country of his heritage, a very “Michael” way of making an exit. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone 15 years, but that much time has passed. Now, as then, I do my best to emulate his untamable spirit both on and off the rock. “We only get one shot on this dustball,” he’d say, a lesson we’d all do well to remember.

—Matt Samet, July 13, 2022

Matt Samet standing in the very spot from which Reardon was swept by a rogue wave. Samet left a pair of rock shoes and a chalk bag as a memorial; right as he opened the chalk bag, the skies opened up with rain. Reardon had just soloed the first ascent of the black face above, at 5.12a, and down-soloed the adjacent 5.10. When he saw the wave coming, he tried to climb onto a higher ledge to escape it. His chalk marks were still on the edge of the ledge (he almost made it) when Samet arrived two days later. (Photo: Mark Niles)

Remembering Michael Reardon

(Published in Climbing Magazine in 2007.)

On July 13, 2007, the climbing world lost a great one: Michael Reardon, 42, the accomplished free soloist from Oak Park, California. Reardon met with a freak accident at the headland of Dohilla, on the island of Valentia off the southwest coast of Ireland. The ocean conjured a rogue wave, and the wave took Michael while he stood just feet above the water.

“I’ve never been a middle-of- the-road kind of guy. It is too easy and causes complacency. You’re never wrong when you’re in the middle, but you’re never right.”

Michael Reardon on pitch 5 (5.12a) of  Romantic Warrior,  a 1,000 foot 5.12b that he onsighted without a rope. (Photo: Mark Niles)

In the last five years, Michael Reardon went big with ropeless free climbing—routes up to 5.13b in difficulty, some 900 feet high, some done as onsight first ascents. He was without peer in the free-soloing realm today, and his 2005 onsight solo of the Needles’ Romantic Warrior (V 5.12b) and 2006 onsight-solo first ascent of the nearby arête Shikata Ga Nai (sandbag 5.11+, 800 feet), have left a high mark not likely to be equaled for some time.

During his fourth climbing trip in Ireland, a country he—with his great-great grandfather hailing from Cork—had come to call home, Reardon met with a freak accident at the headland of Dohilla (aka Reenadrolaun). Dohilla sits at the sea-lashed tip of a stony peninsula of ancient beauty on the island of Valentia, off the southwest coast. The ocean conjured a rogue wave, and the wave took Michael while he stood just feet above the waters, at the base of a 100-foot cliff on which he’d been playing. The current carried him away quickly, and rescuers and searchers, who arrived on the scene within 15 minutes, have not found him.

Some 150-plus people gathered July 17 atop Dohilla to celebrate Michael Reardon, and a plaque reading “An solas geal lonrach”—”bright, shining light,” in Irish—carved from slate taken from just up the hill, sits in commemoration, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Michael leaves behind his beloved wife, Marci; cherished daughter, Nikki; a giant white Husky mutt, Reno; a Papillon, Bailey… and too many friends (climbers and otherwise) to list.

(Photo: Mark Niles)

Michael once told me he’d been soloing since early on, when he began in California (Tahquitz Rock) in the late 1980s—he’d simply hid it from his partners. For while you find a tremendous poetry in soloing, you also face a tremendous reality: If you fall, you die. And not all climbers react well to this, for only a few have soloed freely, without fear. Michael carried this power inside him every day, climbing more comfortably off the rope than on (I’ve belayed him—trust me). But he didn’t just arrive at [his onsight free solo of] Romantic Warrior (5.12b), either. Michael began in the late 1980s as a clueless sport-climbing n00b with a jellyroll and a penchant for eye make-up (a holder from his heavy metal days). He’d head out to Joshua Tree for the weekend, provisioned only with canned ravioli and whiskey. Gradually, he morphed into a trad climber, boulderer, and soloist. Later, in the 1990s and 2000s, he became a dedicated athlete, throwing mountains and longer routes into the equation. He cultivated his mental game by following the same logical progression. His spiritual game, he alone can speak to.

Michael willingly shared his craft and he knew the responsibility that came with that. His openness and choice to make a living at free soloing took persistence and courage, even exposing him to accusations of deceit… and sociopathically mean-spirited jabs by a club of Internet haters. I come from an era in which you took a fellow climber at his word—in the vertical world, there are no referees. Michael did his best to document his ascents, and he climbed what he said he climbed. (His talent is indisputable; if you shared the rock with him, you know.) And for those who could stand comfortably by and appreciate his art, his dance and life energy exploded the prosaic. The list is long: the 5,000-foot days whipping by in a maelstrom of denim (jeans) and red (cotton T-shirt) up the fingertip laybacks and rounded cracks of his beloved Joshua Tree. The blisteringly difficult ropeless forays up the lichen-splashed corners of California’s otherworldly Needles, a beetling of haunted granite domes on a ridge high in the western Sierra. The marathon days at Tahquitz that might include a trip up the The Vampire, a razor-thin 5.11 not previously conceived of as a solo. And, of course, his pilgrimages to Ireland, where lifetimes’ worth of bolt-free, virgin rock still wait. It was literally impossible to wear Michael out, and if you climbed with Michael, you climbed till dark and you damned well tried your hardest.

“Soloing is a life wish, not a death wish.” —Michael Reardon (Photo: Mark Niles)

Michael lived volumes in his 42 years. He scrapped by as a poor Yankee kid, slurping dandelion soup to stave off the hunger while he and his father lived out of their car. He partied like a Roman as a 1980s glam rocker, in the heavy metal band Rocks Milan, and was once evicted from Japan—yes, the whole country. He came onto the Hollywood scene as a music-video director, and then producer. He cracked the books as a Pepperdine University law student and then entertainment-law consultant. He knuckled in as a climbing filmmaker and the documentarian of the free-soloing legacy of his friend and inspiration John Bachar. In the last two years, Michael worked on his movie Free Soloist, an epic voyage into his world and that of his heroes, through their words, psyches, and climbs. And he made up a third of a family unit so healthy and grounded that it provided a fertile ground in which to sow his talents.

Reardon free soling at Tahquitz. (Photo: Mark Niles)

Michael and I talked about a lot of things—the big stuff, the painful stuff. His operating theory was that “We only get one shot on this dustball,” so he was going to do his thing while he was here—player haters and gravity be damned.And so he did.Some will see poetry or fate or even irony in the sea’s taking him, but such forces bar easy analysis. A wave came and took Michael when it did, and none of us could do a damned thing. There are two other things Michael told me, though. Firstly, that he wasn’t going to die climbing. And secondly, Ireland felt like home.Walk out to Dohilla. Pick your way along the faint track through bent grasses, flakes of grey-black slate shuffled about like cards in sea meadows popping with flowers and herbs. Watch the Atlantic below, pushing in edge-of-the-galaxy blues against a coastline teeming with square cut rock, forming massive headlands that loom over the raw waters. Feel the wind come in, pressing higher the waves and sculpting finger-perfect fissures, pockets, and hollows into the stone’s serpentinite skin. Go pay Michael a visit. Sit in the sun and pick out all the lines he would have climbed, or ask a local to show you where he high-marked white chalk against the jet-black stone, the last traces of his unstoppable play: ropeless, high above the deep, noodling around on little edges in a way only he could. Visit him in this place of power: he’s there and he’s climbing, and I know he’d be glad to see you.

Reardon soloing The Stoop (E3 5c) in the Gap of Dunloe, County kerry, Ireland.

Some of Michael Reardon’s Top Free Solos:

  • Palisade Traverse (VI 5.9; onsight), High Sierra, California
  • Romantic Warrior (V 5.12b; onsight), Sorcerer Needle, California
  • Sea of Tranquility (V 5.11+; onsight), Sorcerer Needle, California
  • Shikata Ga Nai (IV sandbag 5.11+; onsight first ascent; 800 feet), Witch Needle, California
  • EBGBs (5.10d), Joshua Tree National Park, California
  • Equinox (5.12c), Joshua Tree National Park, California
  • MRSR (5.12a first ascent), Joshua Tree National Park, California
  • Tic-tic Boom (5.12b), Joshua Tree National Park, California
  • The Pirate (5.12c), Suicide Rock, Idyllwild, California
  • The Vampire (III 5.11a), Tahquitz Rock, Idyllwild, California
  • Ghettoblaster (5.13b), Malibu Creek, California
  • Jules Verne (first pitch, 5.11a; onsight), Eldorado Springs Canyon, Colorado
  • Sunset Boulevard (5.11b/c; onsight), Eldorado Springs Canyon, Colorado

Matt Samet was the Editor of Climbing.

Michael Reardon Tribute Gallery by Damon Corso

Michael Reardon Tribute Gallery by Mark Niles