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BASE jumping in Yosemite

By Q.-Tuan Luong for the Yosemite Rock page

Summary: a detailed history of base jumping in Yosemite, from how it came to be illegal, to some recent events. Please note that this is from the perspective of a non-base jumper

A personal view

The first time I had heard of El Capitan, more than fifteen years ago, was not from another climber, but from a French army officer of the Air Force Fusilliers Commandos. He was traveling to California and couldn't pass up on the opportunity. He hiked by himself in the afternoon to the top of the mountain, waited a few hours into the night, and jumped and landed in the dark without any fear. Aftewards, he had a custom T-shirt made, and was amused to see how some American skydivers seemed outraged.

BASE jumping refers to the four general types of structures from which people jump: Buildings, Antennas, Spans (bridges) and Earth (cliffs). It is the most extreme form of skydiving because altitudes can be ridiculously low, the objects themselves represent a hazard, and landing areas can be quite small. Of course, the more extreme it is, the more it attracts some people. At one point, I looked seriously into it, but fortunately :-) I was distracted by other pursuits. The sport really begin in earnest in 1978, when freefall photographer Carl Boenish led a group of jumpers to El Capitan's summit and produced a spectacular short film of their skydives. The film inspired jumpers to visit Yosemite Valley and NPS, not knowing how to respond to this new activity, eventually banned it.

People still seem to jump there all the time. I have seen many articles in climbing magazines with interviews of someone who mentioned (often with a lot of details) that he had jumped. I've heard that the late Xavier Bongard (who, by the way died BASE jumping in Switzerland) had jumped more than 10 times. Almost everyone who has spend time on El Cap or at its base has seen someone jump. I have heard a few people (on the net or live) reporting that they saw someone die. Jumps happen usually before sunrise, but I have seen two people jump at 8pm in June and apparently get away with that.

After climbing the Nose, Frank and I bivied at the top. At sunrise, we were surprised to see two French guys walking around. They happened to be somewhat well known climbers. They had hiked up the day before, and planned to jump, but decided not to because of some wind, and ended up descending the East Ledges route with us. The most favored exit point seems to be an overhanging triangular piece of rock at the top of Mescalito aptly named the "diving board".

The only problems is not to be killed and not to be caught. There has been a few reported fatalities. I think the NPS tries to avoid publicity about this sort of thing, so the actual number might be higher, maybe a few per year. It doesn't look like a very dangerous jump (by BASE standards, I mean. BASE is a extremely dangerous sport). The upper two-thirds of the wall is overhanging, and I have seen videos of people jumping in tandems, on bikes, etc... something you would not do on a risky jump.

If caught, you'd go to jail, be fined $2000, and have your gear confiscated. A pretty stiff punishment, in my opinion, for a legally rather minor violation. Paragliding, a very different, and considerably safer sport, which consists of taking off a slope or cliff with an open canopy is banned mostly because the Park rangers assimilate everybody with a parachute to a BASE jumper. However, some windows are open for hang-gliding, despite the more obstrusive nature of the sport. If your car has bumper stickers which mention skydiving, the rangers might even hassle you, like searching it or showing you pictures of the dismembered bodies. They really hate that. They have to do a lot of paperwork and clean up the mess.

When commenting on why BASE jumping is illegal in Yosemite, Eugene Miya wrote:

The problem with BASE jumping (and hang gliding in Yosemite) isn't the hazard to the jumper (pilot), the problem is that tourists do two things not in keeping with the Park: 1) they drive into meadows and park for better views, and 2) they drive in the trees and rocks on the side of the road because of the distraction. So it's scooping up the remains of the spectators which causes big Park problems.

Some history

Kenn Osborne gave me the following details:

The FAA is the only organization that sets actual laws related to skydiving. They have FAR's for jump aircraft and riggers(reserve manufacture and repack) and a small section on skydiving that is rather brief. These are the only real laws about skydiving specifically . The FAA lets skydivers be 'self-regulating' through the USPA. The USPA has manual with BSR's which are supposed to be followed strictly and the rest of the manual is guidelines which are meant to be flexible. If you as an individual or a drop zone violate the BSR's the USPA can take action, which means kicking you or the drop zone out of the USPA. This has no legal weight though. Many drop zones are not USPA Group members and you can run a drop zone and/or skydive legally without being affiliated with the USPA. The reasons some are not is partly because they might disagree with some of the BSR's but primarily because of the attitude that many people have of 'fuck the goverment, I don't want anyone regulating me." In my opinion dealing with the USPA is much easier than the FAA. I think you should understand this situation to fully understand the situation.

Back to El Cap, in 1980 the park experimented with allowing skydiving. Some people who wanted to legalize and promote jumping off of EL Cap convinced the USPA to establish legal jumping with the NPS. Reasonable guidlines were set up like permits, liscense requirements, time of jumping, probably similar to what is happening now with hanggliding. This lasted about 2 or 3 months. There were a lot of problems such as people leaving trash and damaging the environment and not following the requirments.In general many people were not behaving responsibly. There were a few rescues and minor landing injuries but no fatalities of major injuries. While all this was happening 'the assholes' decided that they didn't want to hike all the way to El Cap so they drove there truck up an old logging road as far as they could. This must have been from Big Oak Flat. The Park may have arrested or cited them, but the USPA thought It would help our image if they took action against them and expelled the people involved. Then these people sued the USPA claiming they had no business regualating base jumping. The USPA decided to drop the whole thing. The NPS outlawed base jumping in national parks. Skydivers and base jumpers did not make a very good impression with the NPS and base jumpers alienated the USPA. Now back to the present. In 1993 a base jumping organization tried to convince the park to allow base jumping and was not succesful. I think that it would take an organization such as the USPA to convince the NPS to allow base jumping. There is little chance of this happening because of the past incident in yosemite and the liability it would place on the USPA.

More details are given in this posting, which Kenn helped me trace:

From: Tom Lance Kirwin (tlkirwin@iprolink.co.nz)
Newsgroups: rec.skydiving
Subject: Re: Fixed Object Jumping (BASE)
Date: 13 Apr 1995 11:54:59 GMT

bonitz@ocelot.ece.ucdavis.edu (Robert Bonitz) wrote:
>   The Park Service wasn't looking for any organization. 
> USPA took it upon themselves to set up an El Cap jump program and convince
> the Park Sevice that it was acceptalbe.  I remember when Carl Boesnish came
> to a BOD meeting and showed some footage of jumping off the rock.  It was 
> truly awesome and the BOD was wowed to say the least.  Joe Svec (director
> from the SW conference) took it upon himself to get involved and helped 
> establish the program.  There were somes rules - e.g., no RW, limited jump 
> hours and days, etc.  The Park Sevice eventually agreed.  I think they had a 
> pretty good idea that we would hang ourselves eventually.
> ...
> The authority to permit El Cap jumping lies totally with the Park Service.
> USPA has no authority whatsoever in permitting or banning El Cap jumping. 
> The Park Service banned El Cap jumping after a short period of legal jumping
> (we're talking months) due to the high injury rate, breaking of the rules 
> (the Flatbed Ten the most notable), etc.  The BOD suspended the Flatbed Ten
> to show the Park Service that the rules were going to be enforced, but that
> didn't impress them.  

Bob, thanks for setting the record straight.  As a new skydiver in 
the late 70's, I too watched Carl's films of El Cap in total awe and 
scrambled to complete my D License requirements so that I could apply
for a slot off of the rock.  One of the great fears of the Park service 
was a lack of coordinated and controlled activity off of El Cap.  Lots 
of meek tourists have to be rescued off of the many cliff faces in 
Yosemite each year, so the idea of contending with hordes of bandit
jumpers (their perception of skydivers) must have inspired great 

Consequently, one of their requirements was to establish 
minimum safety requirements in the hope that this activity would not 
unduely disturb the enjoyment of the park by the MILLIONS of 
non-skydiving visitors, or demand a disproportionate share of their 
very limited safety and management resources.  As I recall, they were 
pretty reasonable, given that they were under no obligation to let us
jump, and all of their previous encounters with skydivers had them 
believing that we rere all outlaw jumpers with no concern for our own
safety, or anyone else's for that matter.  They also felt that we had 
no appreciation for their swarn duty to ensure the safe enjoyment of 
the park by all visitors, which they took very seriously.

Their requirements likely seemed like common sense to them. They set 
things like experience (D minimum), equipment (squares only - round 
jumpers had already been seriously injured on the boulders below), no 
RW or Night jumps, jumper responsibility for the equipment and trash 
they brought with them (do not throw anything off the rock but 
yourself), and hours for jumping, to minimize impact on the vast 
majority of visitors who came to enjoy the view. To get an exit slot 
required an application in advance to allow resource planning and 
ensure their control of the situation.  In essence, they required the 
same responsibilities they asked of participants of other activities 
(like hang-gliders who were delegated to the back of Half Dome) and 
let us do it on the center showcase of the entire park.

Against the Park Rangers' instincts and fears, USPA was finally able 
to secure permission to jump.  With much trepedation, the Park Service
opened their doors to jumping, convinced that we were not to be 
trusted.  Unfortunately, it took less than 90 days for the selfish and 
irresponsible behavior of scores of skydivers to break or ignore 
virtually EVERY requirement set.  The Park Service had never 
encountered a group that so quickly, consistantly, and blatantly broke
every rule in their book.  The behavior of our fellow skydivers cast 
us all as irresponsible, criminal, and a general threat to safety and 
peace in Yosemite.

The USPA valiantly attempted to hold on to this newly won priveledge 
by "coming down hard" on the misfits, but folks like the "Flatbed 10" 
were not content to be merely irresponsible and rather than acknowledge 
their misconduct, became defiant and belligerent.  They sued the USPA
and showed that they had no real power to control skydivers conduct in 
a BASE environment and confirmed the fears that skydivers (or at least
BASE jumpers) are impossible to manage as a group.  In the midst of 
this circus, and having the Park Rangers' worst fears confirmed, the 
door to legal jumps off of El Cap was slammed shut.

Eventually, USPA elected to stop consuming membership resources in the 
legal quagmire asserted by the Flatbed 10, and abandoned their efforts
to provide legitamacy to BASE issues.   In the meantime, the Rangers 
were hard at work in their swarn task of defending the peace and order
of Yosemite, and came up with a more powerful deterrent to BASE jumper 
misconduct off El Cap.  It seems there is an endangered specie of bird
that nests in the rock of El Cap, so now it is a federal crime to jump 
in the area.

I long fantasized about jumping off that rock (legally), so I will 
conceed my obvious bias (I qualified for my D as the door closed). 
I suspect that many of those whose conduct resulted in the loss of 
this opportunity may show pride in their performance as they allude 
to "freedom" and "personal rights."  Speaking as a Midwest jumper who
would have happily accepted the requirements given ( and more for that
matter), I think you ruined an incredible opportunity for the rest of 
I was not on the USPA board when this happened, but I can imagine that 
those who put their heart, soul and reputation on the line to make El
Cap legal may well have strong opinions about the downside of being 
associated with BASE activities.  I personally do not care about BASE 
ads, but I support the board, if their counsel believes that membership 
monies would be at risk if they allow the ads or show an association 
with BASE activities.  I believe the majority of skydivers are 
flexible on BASE issues, but may be hard pressed to risk their own 
money and membership dues to help legitimize a group who primarily 
operate illegally.

A few accidents

In 1993, a pair jumped from El Cap. The guy made it, but his girlfriend hit El Capitan Tower and died. Then a heated debate on rec.climbing followed, with many people claiming that it is an irresponsible attitude to jump because "other people will have to risk their lives to scoop your remains".

From the San Francisco Examiner, Tue, 22 Oct 1996:

Parachutist dies at Yosemite

Yosemite National Park -- An Arizona man died while illegally
parachuting off El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, park
officials said. At the time of the accident Monday, Jeff
Christman was performing a sport that involves leaping from
a fixed point and then deploying a parachute.

"We think that his parachute was loaded backwards, and when he
deployed his chute he was spun around and sent into the side
of the wall," Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said. Gediman
added that Christman narrowly missed hitting two rock climbers
sleeping on a ledge of the 7,569 foot granite monolith.

Christman, 42, was one of seven people from Buckeye, Ariz.,
a Phoenix suburb, who rented a motor home to drive to Yosemite,
Gediman said. Two of Christman's friends successfully jumped
off El Capitan just prior to his death.

The US Park Service arrested the group's members - four men and
two women - and charged them with misdemeanor illegal air delivery
and recovery. Other charges were pending. Gediman said Yosemite
officials allowed the sport on a trial basis in 1980 but discontinued
the activity because of the high number of injuries and damage to
the surroundings.

This report has an accuracy which is quite typical. First, it suggests that El Cap is 7,569 feet high, while this is the elevation above sea level (it is really more like 3000 feet high). Second, the mention of climbers "sleeping on a ledge" made sense at first but does not match well with the facts. This would suggest a dawn jump (as usual), but my friend Scott who was on the East Buttress the same day reports that the jump occured at mid-day. He saw the two first jumpers land in the Meadows. The last chute deployed, but didn't seem to be headed towards any "landable" spot.

In June 1998, Frank Gambalie successfully jumped from El Cap, but rangers were waiting for him at El Cap meadows using an informant's tip. He tried to escape by swimming across the runoff-swollen Merced River, but eventually drowned. The BASE community worldwide felt that the death was caused directly by the NPS BASE prohibition policy, created in large part 20 years ago by NPS prosecutor M. Scott Connelly (who incidentally was drummed out of the NPS after being convicted of having sex with young boys whom he'd plied with drugs, alcohol and money).

In the fall, BASE jumpers held a day of civil disobedience protest in Yosemite. A deal was worked out with the NPS. Instead of trying to sneak as usual, they would jump in full view of the media, and voluntarily surrender to rangers. The NPS would only cite them for "air delivery without a permit", instead of jailing them as usually done (and charging a $2000 fine). One woman who participated in this campaign, Jan Davis, a veteran with more than 70 jumps in the past 16 years, was using a borrowed parachute and gear that had a cord on the leg, unlike her usual gear where the cord was on her back. She used borrowed gear because she didn't want hers to be confiscated by rangers. Unfortunately, she couldn't deploy the parachute, and her death actually worked against the BASE cause, as it supported the view that BASE was dangerous. Some images of the event are here.

BASE Jumping Regulations Ruling

Following arrests in Lake Powell, BASE jumpers fought back against the NPS, with the interesting argument that they should be considered like planes, which were not prohibited there. Details are of this legal battle are here. In Aug 2000, Christian Caslin sent me the following update:

The Ninth Circuit has upheld several important regulations that are employed against BASE jumpers who illegally jump from heights within NPS areas. The court agreed with the Tenth Circuit in holding that the rectangular shaped ram-air aeroplastic wings employed by BASE jumpers are "parachutes," in spite of the sophistication of the device and its ability to operate like a hang glider. The defendant BASE jumpers had argued that the device qualified as powerless flight and accordingly could not be prohibited by 36 C.F.R. section 2.17(a)(3). The court also agreed with the Tenth Circuit that the term "delivery" used in section 2.17(a)(3) includes self-delivery, or "moving oneself from one area to another," which would apply to a single individual who BASE jumps. The court also noted that the NPS has authority to enforce these regulations. Although the Federal Aviation Administration has jurisdiction to "develop plans and policy for the use of the navigable airspace and assign by regulation or order the use of the airspace necessary to ensure the safety of aircraft and the efficient use of airspace," the FAA does not have exclusive jurisdiction in NPS areas and nothing precludes the NPS from regulating landings within NPS areas. Most important, the court also affirmed the conviction of a defendant for disorderly conduct under section 2.34(a)(4) for recklessly creating a risk of harm to himself, other BASE jumpers and to members of the public by "creating or maintaining a hazardous or physically offensive condition." "The safety threat implicated in BASE jumping is most often the potential harm to the jumper due to the fatalities and injuries characterizing the extreme sport. We do not, however, discount the safety risks in BASE jumping to members of the public, particularly in areas where people are likely to congregate... We therefore affirm the district court's determination that BASE jumping can create a risk of harm to the public and defer to the courts' evidentiary findings." United States v. Albers, No. 99-10071 (9th Cir. 7/17/00). See also earlier appellate case relating to seizures by rangers on houseboat in United States v. Albers, 136 F.3d 670 (9th Cir. 1998). For more information on this case or other court decisions, contact NPS legal instructor Don Usher at FLETC via cc:Mail at NP-WASO.

More info on BASE

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