In the early ‘90s I spent 3 summers living just outside Yosemite National Park. I found a cement pad that was the partial remains of an old house; a huge tree arched over the pad provided a shady spot to camp and pack. A nearby stream offered fresh fish and a chilly bath, and was the perfect sound machine when it came time to sleep.
At the time, the 2 main monoliths that attracted BASE jumpers were Half Dome and El Capitan. El Cap was more popular due to the easier hike and generous landing area. The problem was that it was in the great wide-open and one could be easily detected. It was getting jumped a lot and the bust factor was high, so during the first 2 of those 3 summers I made most of my jumps from Half Dome to deal with less ranger danger.
Most of my jumps were solo with no ground crew. I enjoy being in the wild and BASE jumping alone. It really allows me to get into my own head. Jumping alone heightens awareness of everything involved. Risks increase. While hiking, I could fall and land on a rock or a rock could break loose from above and fall on me. There was potential to have a wall strike, a lightning strike and a timber-rattler strike. I could hit a tree and snap off a limb—or my own. I could be eating lunch and become a snack for a bear. With all this and more unknowns lurking, it sure made me feel alive. There was no time to be unaware in this environment. Every moment must be in the now. Many of my hikes were off trail to avoid the enemy. Without a jump buddy, ground crew, and most definitely no telephone (what a buzz kill), a simple injury could put me face to face with the Harpy.
To cover myself in as many areas as I could while jumping solo, I designed a backcountry BASE rig I called the “ParaPak.” (The rig has been co-redesigned and is currently manufactured and sold by Apex BASE under the new name “DPx,” short for “Dual Pin eXpandable.”) It is a two-pin rig with the ability to expand away from your back, leaving a storage compartment between your back and the container. With low-bulk, lightweight camping supplies I could take my home with me: tent, sleeping bag and pad, stove, food, water filter, head lamp, snake-bite and first-aid kits, rain gear, fishing gear, music, microwave, blow-up doll, fax machine. OK, not the last three but really anything you desire that will fit. Climbing gear, snowshoes, man’s best friend; you name it. All of this including the BASE rig was transported in a custom low-bulk backpack I also designed and built. All my BASE gear was protected from the elements and I fit in as a backpacker. This was my reserve. My out. My second chance. I had everything I needed to be quite comfy for 6 to 8 days. I would not get forced off the rock. I was always at home.
In fact, on an earlier trip to El Cap I ran into 4 other jumpers near the trailhead. They recognized me and started to hike with me. I really wanted to be alone so I purposely lollygagged along, forcing them to pull ahead of me. As the miles clicked by, I picked up all their empty beer cans. (I had seen the six packs bulging from their stash bags earlier.) Before I topped out, a towering cumulus let loose and heavy rains arrived. Temperatures dropped. All Gore-Tex’ed up, I snickered to myself, “Those littering jerks ahead in their cotton clothing, street shoes and soaked skydiving gear are paying their karmic debt.”
On top, Mother Nature had them huddled together under a rock, wrapped in their unpacked rigs trying to survive the cold wind and pelting rain. Me? I deployed my reserve; I set up my tent, put on dry clothes, fired up, fired up a hot meal and slept like a baby. Got up early, packed up my house along with the crushed beer cans and bailed. When I left, those shivering bozos were trying to dry out their gear and pack amongst the boulders. They might have to stay ‘til nighttime since they would not be ready before the sun came up. Or risk jumping in daylight. The Karma Man was having fun. When I went home for a few days to regroup, I mailed back all their empty beer cans with a nasty letter citing them as reason the Park Service didn’t want BASE jumping.
During the third summer’s stay in my “World of Granite and Gravity,” word was that the rangers had backed off on the busts on El Cap. There were some incidents late in the previous season where jumpers were taking more risks of getting injured—or worse—trying to avoid the rangers. Things like hiking off trail to avoid being checked for permits, jumping into a river to escape, landing in tighter areas with trees and boulders and jumping in poor weather conditions. I was doing my thing at Half Dome but kept up with the jumps being made on El Cap. It was definitely loosening up. I was in great shape from hiking to 10 grand a couple of times a week so I thought I could scurry up The Cap and get off at dusk. Then I wouldn’t have to camp on top. I would take my home with me just in case. That’s what a reserve is all about; you never need it ‘til you need it. Time to prepare.
Due to popularity, hiking permits are hard to get for both El Cap and Half Dome, especially multiple trip permits. Only a limited number of people were allowed in the back country. Mr. Ranger would catch on quickly. Here is how I “BASEd it:” During the winter months, you could self-register due to less activity than summer’s busy season. So I would snatch a stack of blank permits in winter. Then when spring arrived I would register using a fake name for a one-time-only hiking permit. Now I would have a ranger’s signature. Next I would lay the ranger’s signature on top of the new permit and carbon copy it through. This gave me a current ranger’s signature and the rest was just filling in the dates, specific trails, destination, etc. I would also have a second permit—for when I landed—with the relevant information.
For example: One permit going to Half Dome (exit) should I get checked on trail (and I had), and one coming from Teneya Canyon (landing) where I would hike out as a backpacker. I also had a current fishing license, so as soon as I landed near the river, I would do a quick stash of my jump gear, deploy my backpacker’s fishing gear and cast away, noting the reflection of The Dome in the still glass water. I actually caught 2 trout one time while watching a pair of mallards preening each other as they drifted downstream at sunrise … For a moment, I became a mallard.
The jump is a big part of the overall trip, but it’s not ALL about the jump. When I would have a friend join me, I would send him or her off with a bird-watching book and a set of binoculars. We would meet up hours later. The idea is to fit in, not run. (I’ve never used this one in the city but I’m dying to; as soon as I touch down for landing, pull out 2 industrial trash bags. Stuff my gear in one and hop in the other. Lean up against the building and poke a straw through the bag to breathe and wait ‘til all is clear. I guess my biggest fear would be getting picked up by the garbage man! )
Even though my permits were all up to par, I left from the valley floor and hiked off trail for about half the trip. Not wanting to leave a car at the trailhead on top and have to retrieve it, I bushwhacked up a gully that gave wondrous views of the valley. Halfway up, with the 3,000-foot profile of El Capitan in full view and the 5,000-foot face of Half Dome in the distance, is a perspective not many see. I enjoy it while I can. Eventually I would be on a trail where I could get checked for a permit.
Ranger radar on full alert, I topped out of the gully and intersected the trail. All clear. It was getting late. The sun was adding pink to some high wispy mare’s tail clouds. If I hustled I could get off at dusk, still get some good visuals and have the cover of darkness in my favor should the enemy be a-lurkin’.
I arrived at the exit point with enough daylight to transfer my camping gear into my ParaPak’s storage compartment. With the Pak fully extended, there was room to spare. So I gathered up some broken whiskey bottles and other small bits of trash and bagged them, topping off the load with a total rig exit weight of approximately 35 pounds.
As I worked my way to the exit point, I faced a slight head wind. It shouldn’t be an issue. Standing back a bit from the edge, I assessed the rest of the components I could be dealing with in the next few moments. Automobile traffic on the looping one way road below was sparse. Cabin lights and camp fires started to appear. The valley was winding down. Gear checked. Feeling good.
I went over my jump plan. I would exit and track for about 12 seconds. That’s about when El Cap Towers rush up. Upon opening I would crab across a wood line and land near the river in a tight wooded pocket. Several yards away was a huge windfall that lifted its roots from the earth, leaving a hole to crawl into big enough for me and my gear. I could then cover up with leaves and pine boughs. (Years back I spent hours in there watching the flashlights of Mr. Rangers on the search. I also learned to lube up with bug repellent as I was swarmed by mosquitoes—still better than being bugged by The Man.) If all was clear I would sneak out and retrieve my gear later in the day. No evidence. If I did run into the enemy, I was just returning from a late evening stroll.
Time to flick off this 3,000-foot nose. A couple of steps led to that familiar feeling of falling, which in a few seconds gave way to enough cushion to start flying. As I tracked, I could see lights on the Towers coming up, telling me that climbers were spending the night there. I remember grinning, wondering what they would think when they heard me rush by at 120 mph. After doing just that, I unpacked a sweet one and released my brakes to find myself lower than I should have been to make my preferred landing spot. And to make things even more interesting, the ground winds had picked up a bit. I was going to land dead center in El Cap Meadow.
I touched down ever so lightly due to the headwind and before my canopy hit the ground I heard from behind me, “Park ranger. Stop. You are under arrest.”
I didn’t see him as darkness had set into the valley. I leaned into the still inflated canopy behind me and chopped it. I started to run and was trying to get my chest strap undone so I could donate another 15 hundred bucks worth of high-tech camping gear and my beloved rig, on top of the grand I had just jettisoned. The knife on my chest strap was hanging up preventing me from getting it released. Expecting to get tackled, I stopped and undid it. I loosened my leg straps and slid out. On the run again. To my rear, I heard a broadcast from the radio of Mr. Ranger.
“Give me a verbal! Give me a verbal! ”
Still on my tail, Mr. Ranger obliged and started yelling so his buddy up ahead could hear us and then intercept me. I guessed they were lined up so I made a 90 right and picked up speed—but only briefly, as I tripped in a rut and fell flat on my face. Before I could get up, boom! Ranger Baker, a 6-foot-plus woman pounced on me. I immediately said, “Game over, ma’am. I will fully cooperate,” as I put my hands behind my back.
When Ms. Ranger pounced on me, her belly ended up on my butt, as she was 90 degrees to me. She was fumbling with the radio and jostling around trying to handcuff me at the same time. Her weight on me started a grumbling in my gut. I had been eating freeze-dried foods for a couple of weeks; along with the altitude change and fear, I had gas. Serious gas. I was doing my best to hold it in but with all the right factors in place I couldn’t help but let one slip out. Ppputt putt.
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
She didn’t respond and continued to squirm with the radio and cuffs. Starting to cramp, gut audibly rumbling, I couldn’t help it, I had to get some relief. Pputputputt.
“Excuse me, ma’am. I am reeally sorry.”
She could probably tell I was really trying to hold back as I squeezed my butt cheeks tight. She chirped, “Just go ahead and fart.” So with her permission, I let ‘er rip. It was like taking a full breath and blowing raspberries on a baby’s belly. Except no one was laughing.
I was apologizing again as she stood me up. Flashlight in my face.
“Where is your radio?”
“I don’t have a radio ma’am.”
“I thought you were going to cooperate.”
“I am cooperating. Honest, ma’am. I am alone.”
At least eight other rangers showed up. As we were walking out of the meadow, I stopped and suggested that we all walk single file on the trail instead of abreast so we didn’t stomp down the precious meadow. They obliged.
When we arrived at the road, there were several other rangers huddled around my ParaPak which was sitting on the tailgate of one of their trucks. One of them had a knife and was about to slice it open. I interrupted, “I can show you how to get in there without destroying anything.” They probably never saw a BASE rig like this before.
After I explained how to gain entrance he opened the access door. Pulling the bag of broken glass and trash from the top of the storage compartment, he asked, “What’s this?”
“I had some extra room in there so I gathered up someone else’s trash.”
“And what else is in there?” he asked inquisitively.
“My home,” I paused. “Tent, stove, sleeping bag—camping gear that I use on a daily basis.”
I asked, “May I ask you sirs, how in the heck did you know I was going to jump?”
“By accident,” said the grinning ranger as he put his knife away. “We were monitoring a guy here in the meadow for quite a while. He was leaning on his VW bus looking at the face of El Cap with a pair of binoculars and talking to someone on a 2-way radio. After a while he got in his van and drove to the trail head. He got out with a pack and headed for the top. BASE jumper, we thought. So we lined up in the meadow. And you jumped right into us. Turned out the guy in the VW was support for a climbing team that was on the wall for 9 days. He was going meet the climbers with supplies when they topped out. One of our men nabbed him on top thinking he was a jumper just after you jumped.”
“Why didn’t you tackle me when I landed or when I stopped to shed my gear?” I asked.
“Someone discharged a weapon in the park earlier in the day so we were on alert. Just playin’ it safe,” he said.
They put me in the truck and took me to the park jail. While signing in and getting my tooth brush and orange coveralls, I noticed Ranger Baker in another office across the hall telling her story of how she was the one who nabbed me. She caught my eye and grinned; I grinned back. I was lucky to have my own cell. The guy in the next cell over was a whacko. It was Friday and there would be no judge until Monday.
Monday morning I was introduced to my public defender. He told me I was being charged with “unlawful aerial delivery” and the fine would be $2,200. And they would keep my gear indefinitely. (Before Yosemite became a National Park, miners of gold would have supplies delivered by parachute. When it became a park the free-falling supplies could be hazardous, so the law was developed.) He told me the judge would be in shortly and left me to wait on a bench just outside of the courtroom.
The entrance door in front of me opened and in charged 2 huge Rottweilers, followed by a heavyset man wearing cowboy boots, jeans, a plaid shirt and bolo tie. He was carrying 2 framed paintings. He apologized and called off the friendly dogs that were snorting and drooling as I was thumping their sides.
“Oh, no problem. Nice lookin’ dogs,” I said.
“Thanks. Check these out!” he said excitedly. He pulled one of the framed paintings from under his arm and propped it on his knee to show me. “I just picked these up. They were painted by a local Native Indian friend of mine.”
“Beauutiful,” I responded. It was a collage of an Indian, an eagle, a bear, a wolf and a deer amongst the heavens. The other was of a mountain lake at sunset. “That guy sure has some talent.”
“Sure does. I need to go hang these. C’mon.” The Rottweilers followed him into an office.
The bailiff and my public defender showed up about 15 minutes later and we went into the courtroom. As we approached, the judge was already seated and when we made eye contact, I realized he was the man from out front with the dogs and the paintings.
He told me what the charges were. Then he made mention of the events of my accidental capture. He was more than amused with my gear as well. The rangers must have given him the “blow by blow” details.
I can’t say for sure, but I think the judge was relatively easy on me due to my politeness, my concern about stomping down the meadow and jumping someone else’s trash off the top. And the moment when the two of us were admiring some fine artwork might have helped as well. The fine turned out to be $1,400 and they would keep my gear for a year.
I figure I got off easy. My friend got busted 2 weeks after me and MF’ed the rangers, giving them a hard time and claiming “it wasn’t their rock.” He brought his wife and kids to his court hearing, hoping the judge would have pity on a family man and go easy on him. He ended up with a fine of $4,000 and they kept his gear permanently. Yikes!
I asked the judge if I could have all the items inside the storage compartment, seeing as I used those things on a daily basis. He allowed it. I put everything in my backpack, left the courthouse and hiked around the valley all day. I didn’t want to go directly to my car because I had another complete rig there and didn’t want to risk being followed and possibly losing another.
One year later I called to have my gear returned. I asked to have it double boxed, insured for 2 grand and shipped UPS COD. Everything was returned and they paid the shipping and insurance. The only thing I noticed was that my gear reeked of weed. It must have been stashed in the evidence locker along with a marijuana bust.
With a federal offense on my record I stayed away from the park until 2000. That is when modern wingsuits were being developed and the big walls called again.
Would it be worth the risk? Of course. But that is another story.
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