Michael Reardon, a world renowned Southern California free solo rock climber who scaled towering cliff faces without a rope, was presumed dead after a rogue wave swept him into the sea Friday on an island off the southwest coast of Ireland.
The 42-year-old Oak Park, Calif.-based Reardon, known as a free soloist for scaling cliffs equipped only with sticky rubber-soled shoes and a chalk bag to keep his hands dry, had just finished two successful cliff climbs on the small island of Valentia when he disappeared into the sea.
"It was just another day of climbing on Atlantic sea cliffs in Ireland with Mike," photographer Damon Corso said in a first-person account on www.climbing.com. "Mike took me around the bottom of Wireless Point to an inlet merely 15 feet above the roaring Atlantic."
After Reardon finished his two cliff climbs, Corso said, he "was waiting on an algae-covered platform for the big swells to pass by so that he could walk back over to me on the opposite side of the inlet. A rogue wave came into the inlet and curved rightwards as it crashed into Mike.
"He tried to stabilize himself on the platform but the water was too powerful and sucked him in. The current pulled Mike out 150-plus meters in mere seconds. I ran up the hill to the Valentia Coast Guard station a mile away. Mike was still conscious in the water when I left him."
The Coast Guard arrived no more than 15 minutes after Reardon was swept out to sea, Corso said, but Reardon was nowhere to be seen. By evening, he said, 12 volunteer rescue boats, the Coast Guard lifeboat and a helicopter were on the scene.
As divers continued to search for Reardon's body, the Irish Independent reported that on Tuesday up to 150 people -- including Reardon's wife, Marci, and 13-year-old daughter Nicki -- gathered on the Valentia Island cliff-top to pay their respects to the climber.
As one of the world's top free soloists, Reardon was known for numerous climbing accomplishments, including a total of 16,000 vertical feet of climbing along various routes on Tahquitz, the granite spire outside Idyllwild, Calif., and completing the nine-mile-long "Palisade Traverse" in the eastern Sierra in 22 hours.
He also soloed 280 climbing routes in one day at Joshua Tree National Park.
"A lot of what he did just seemed unfathomable," Tom Bristow, a close friend and climber, told The Times on Wednesday. "He had an incredible athleticism. But probably more outstanding than the physical capability was the inconceivable mental focus.
"He loved life, and he expressed it through climbing."
In 2005, Reardon gained further renown as a climber for completing the first solo ascent of Romantic Warrior, a climbing route in the California Needles, which are granite spires in the southern Sierra.
It typically takes climbers equipped with ropes and safety gear half a day or longer to climb to the top of the nearly 1,000-foot-high granite wall.
Reardon made the climb in less than two hours, earning recognition in National Geographic Adventure magazine's "Adventures of the Year" edition.
"You get so cluttered up with gear and tools that you lose the purity of the experience," Reardon told the magazine on why he climbed without the safety of a rope and gear. "Climbing is all about going until you get too scared to go any farther, like when you were a kid climbing trees."
Climber Tom Kranzle said Reardon "wasn't just someone who soloed once in awhile."
"Everything he did every day was climbing without a rope; this was his life," said Kranzle, a cinematographer who spent the last two years shooting an unfinished documentary on free soloing that Reardon wrote and directed. Reardon was editing the film when he left for Ireland.
Reardon was born at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island on May 1, 1965. A UCLA graduate, he was a member of the late 1980s rock band Rocks Milan and, while he earned a law degree at the Pepperdine University School of Law, he produced a series of climbing videos.
After running business affairs for Harvey Entertainment, he formed Black Sky Entertainment, which produced the 2002 horror film "Cabin Fever." He also wrote and directed "Bachar: One Man One Myth One Legend," a recent video about rock climber John Bachar.
"He was always on top of his mental and physical game" as a climber, Kranzle said, "and safety was always his prime concern. There is no one I'd rather have trusted my life to. It's kind of ironic, I suppose, after he just got done with a hard climb, that he'd go the way he did."