Gearing Up - April 2017
Here's a jump story. Or rather, a story about a jump that didn't happen. But first, do you believe that things happen for a reason? Or alternatively, do you believe that a bad outcome can later be viewed as a good outcome?
In the summer of 1980, a jump buddy of mine—actually a local skygod who let me jump with him—found himself in California. With nine others, he laid plans to jump off of El Capitan, a rock formation jutting 3,235 feet above the valley of Yosemite National Park. Though BASE wasn’t really a sport yet, jumping El Cap was the thing to do among increasing numbers of skydivers. So my friend and nine others loaded on a flatbed truck and attempted a nighttime drive up the back side of El Cap for a sunrise jump. Enter National Park Service Rangers, who were quite upset to find a vehicle on a closed road in the backcountry. They arrested the Flatbed 10.
But the Park Service wasn’t the only organization that was upset. Throughout early 1980, USPA had spent considerable capital on getting the Park Service to agree to a controlled test of jumps off of El Cap. Starting August 1 that year, current USPA members with a D license could apply to the NPS for one of 12 daily permits for jumps from sunrise to 8:30 a.m. Hiking was the only way up; jumpers had to arrange for others to carry down their hiking and camping equipment. The test was to end October 31, after which date the Park Service would determine whether the jumps would become a permitted use of El Capitan. Alas, the test had only been in place for 30 days when the rangers apprehended the Flatbed 10. The 10 joined a growing number of jumpers apprehended for leaping without permits. Arrest, incarceration, fines and injuries did little to slow down the jumping crowd, whether they had permits or not. By September 9, less than six weeks after the test began, the Park Service had had enough and halted it.
USPA’s board was in a foul mood, bent on punishing the skydivers who had ignored the rules or acted in ways that ended the El Cap experiment. The Park Service let USPA know that it wouldn’t even consider reopening
El Cap until USPA took disciplinary action against those whom the service apprehended.
And act the board did. USPA revoked the memberships of seven who were apprehended without permits. USPA gave the Flatbed 10 (whose permits the Park Service pulled) one-year membership suspensions. Still, no one ever made a legal jump from El Capitan again.
Looking back, was it all fortuitous? Had the test succeeded, would USPA have acted to open other sites for BASE jumping? Taken further, would USPA have become an association not just for skydiving but for BASE jumping, as well? (USPA announced in 1980 that it would begin issuing El Cap numbers and listing them in Parachutist.) If the saying, “No man can serve two masters,” is true, is it possible for a member association to represent two different aerial sports? As it happened, perhaps USPA avoided an ugly, turbulent period that would have seen BASE and skydiving members competing for limited association attention and resources. Instead, USPA was able to focus all its resources on growing skydiving and safeguarding its right to airports and airspace while BASE jumpers grew their own community.
Perhaps it was fortuitous for one of the Flatbed 10, as well. Following his apprehension by the Park Service, my friend never jumped El Capitan. But he jumped the same rig a week later at the DZ and had a cutaway and reserve ride. Had that occurred after a 10-second delay off El Cap …