BASE Jumper Won't Stop Illegal Leaps Despite Yosemite Tasing

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A mud-splattered Jeep Cherokee pulls over on the shoulder of an empty road and stops. It is a gray, 40-degree January day, too cold for dallying. A man dressed in black with a sun-worn face and gray-nipped beard steps out, and pulls a camouflage backpack over his shoulders.

He eyes a distant truck heading toward him: "This guy looks official." But it passes by.

McNeely climbs a tower and 
jumps off.
Joseph Schell
McNeely climbs a tower and jumps off.
Jumping during the day increases the risk of getting spotted.
Joseph Schell
Jumping during the day increases the risk of getting spotted.

The man strides across the road, jumps over a barbed-wire fence with its "No Trespassing" sign, and heads toward the base of a 510-foot-tall utility tower 40 miles east of San Francisco. The Black Tower, he calls it. He hoists himself onto the first rung of a ladder hanging five feet off the ground and starts climbing the stairs, zigzagging a vertiginous 50 stories into the air. The narrow staircases sway from side to side under his weight, and as he ascends, his form fades into the chiaroscuro of black iron against the sky, invisible to anyone not specifically looking for him.

After 10 minutes of rapid climbing, he reaches the tower's top struts and tiptoes as if on a balancing beam out to the edge. He takes one last look at the landscape: kelly-green fields, the tiny cows. A factory whirs in the distance.

He is serene; this was exactly how he'd planned it. He arches up toward the sky, lets out a deep "Huh," and pushes off.

Of all the reasons Ammon McNeely shouldn't have just done that, the gravity now pulling him to earth is just the first. If he's caught doing this he could face significant earthly consequences. He is on federal probation for jumping off the side of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in August. Having pleaded guilty in federal court in December to illegal air delivery of a person by parachute, he's supposed to be following the law to the letter.

But McNeely needs his free-fall fix, even if it means breaking the law to get it. Among rock climbers, he is known as the "El Cap Pirate" for capturing speed records up the iconic cliff's sheer face while flying a Jolly Roger flag. In recent years he's brought his devil-may-care bravado to BASE jumping, so called for the buildings, antennas, spans, and earth that the sport's acolytes jump off and then pull their parachutes before hitting the ground. Think skydiving with a lot less room for error — no reserve chute, less airtime, usually illegal. McNeely has leaped off the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, antennas, cranes, and cliffs.

But last summer, he became the movement's newest martyr when he set yet another first in Yosemite: the first BASE jumper to get Tased by a park ranger.

The incident ripped open the wounds in a nasty decades-long battle between jumpers who want the freedom to "fly" and the rangers who try to stop them. It fired up the debate of whether, with 161 BASE jumping deaths worldwide — five of them in Yosemite — the government has the right to stop people from pursuing a possibly fatal sport on public land.

But that's a lofty discussion to ponder when McNeely is hurtling to the ground with only four and a half seconds to do something about it.

His limbs are sprawled, his belly toward the ground. His mind finds a surreal calm as the earth lurches up to meet him, almost like a dream. He is flying, the wind rushing by his face, and he holds on until he knows the moment must come to an end.

"Time stands still, kind of," he says. "I get this feeling that everything is all okay in this world, and if I do go in [skydiver lingo for dying], it's going to be okay." On count three, he throws out his small pilot chute. On count four, the small chute tugs out a larger rectangular one with a crisp snap.

His velocity brakes. McNeely floats to the ground, landing on both feet like a child hopping off a swing.

Smiling wildly, the adrenaline fully kicked in, he hastily pulls the parachute back into his pack and retreats to his jeep.

Most jumpers would now make a quick getaway: A day jump increases the risk that he's been spotted. McNeely will not, though his inability to hold back has often burned him in the past: It was the second jump off a crane in Salt Lake City when he was tackled by a security guard and nailed with a trespassing charge. It was the second jump off an antenna in Pennsylvania when the wind rammed him into the side of a building, leaving him with a concussion and 19 staples in his head. It was the second jump off El Cap when he got Tased and thrown in jail.

The Greek myth of Icarus comes up a lot in reference to BASE jumping: the human who attached wings to his arms with wax in order to fly. Seized by the glory of flight, he ignored warnings not to fly too close to the sun and plummeted to his death. McNeely doesn't plan on dying — "If I didn't want to live, I wouldn't pull my chute." Still, the myth's parallels are unsettling. He grabs another parachute pack out of his jeep and heads toward the tower.

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27 comments
Aardvark
Aardvark

i agree this article is useless.

as for Amon and the laws regarding Base Jumping: If Amon and the base community want Base jumping to be legal, organize yourselves and go about creating change in a professional and coordinated way. Im all for sticking it to the man, preserving access for great things like climbing and jumping. BUT Getting drunk, jumping, and then running from the Rangers isnt going to help your cause one bit.

There is no mention of the fact that Base jumping was once legal in the park with guidelines similar to hang-gliding, but unlike hang-gliders, base jumpers were unable to work with those guidelines, jumped whenever they wanted, and thus made it illegal.

And another reason it is illegal - not mentioned in the article - is the necessary SAR response after someone jumps at mid day. At any given time on a busy summer day there are tens or hundreds of people gazing at el-cap. if someone sees a body falling from a distance, and is unable to see a chute open, they're going to call 911 and report someone falling off of El cap. Every call like this demands a full emergency response from SAR and emergency crews in the valley, including the possible the launch of the park helicopter. This costs thousands of dollars and puts a lot of people at risk.

as soon as Amon and the base community decide to put their energy into a constructive, organized, and professional movement, change will come.

but it may mean laying off the cobras.

John
John

"Somtimes falling feels like flying. . . for a little while" Bad Blake

Theloveguru
Theloveguru

We all just need to be friends. Likes chinesse and terrorist.

KTBee
KTBee

This article was supposed to be about how the NPS badly mistreats base jumpers and how we can all go about legalizing base jumping in national parks. More specifically how the Yosemite rangers are hasseling, out-of-control egotistical assholes, who always are known to take things too far.

Lauren Smiley is an unprofessional newspaper reporter. I happened to be around Ammon when he was talking to her regarding a question she had about him being tased by the Yosemite rangers. He told her what happened and the whole time she was laughing and giggling about him being tased. This is how very unprofessional she is. Who laughs about someone getting tased for a nonviolent crime, a potential lethal force that could and has killed human beings?

There were numerous times when Smiley acted unprofessional. She misled Ammon and manipulated his article. He solely wanted this article to focus on the mistreating of jumpers from the NPS and getting base legalized. That is what she told him she would write about. Ammon is a very genuine and trusting individual. He possesses NO ego despite the fact that he is one of the most accomplished big wall climbers in the world. He did not know that he was going to get burned by this INCOMPETENT reporter. The last thing Ammon wanted was exactly what this article turned out to be. It focused NOTHING on the NPS or legalizing base.

Ammon asked Lauren Smiley not to write the article, when he realized that it seemed she was starting to take it in the wrong direction. Instead, she denied his request and published it anyways. Lauren, you have absolutely no respect for Ammon or the base jumping community. You hurt everyone with this article that your wrote.

For all of you who don't know Ammon personally, I do. He has the BIGGEST heart of anyone I have ever met. He is always positive, encouraging, and helpful. He possesses devotion and passion towards both base jumping and climbing. So much passion that he wanted to spread the word about legalizing base and how the NPS mistreats base jumpers. Lauren Smiley COULD have written a truthful article. One that expressed Ammon's passion in a positive light. One that focused on how base jumping is a legitimate sport with professional athletes. One that showed how out-of-control Yosemite rangers have become. One that discussed legalizing base and bringing awareness to the community. This is the article that SHOULD have been written. This is the article that still needs to be written by a trusting, professional reporter who can do good for the base jumping community.

libertybelle
libertybelle

Lauren as a good journalist was unbiased,

Ammon thinks he is 'king of the hill' that rules and laws are for mere mortals and do not pertain to him

Scrambleeggs
Scrambleeggs

"One that focused on how base jumping is a legitimate sport with professional athletes." You are joking right? The juvenile comments made in regards to this article, the personal attacks on the journalist both here and on "your so called professional athletes" forums is further proof that the journalist was on target.

Matt
Matt

This is a trash article and a shining example of why jumpers do not usually talk to media. Distort facts or make them up as you go seems to be the motto here. And since when did quoting an anonymous forum qualify as a legitimate source? Pathetic!

Lickalotopus
Lickalotopus

Terrible article. You are a mean woman.

Offkey
Offkey

This was a fair and interesting article, please keep your personal judgement of writer to yourself.

steph davis
steph davis

I know Ammon well, and have a hard time recognizing the alcoholic, juvenile, devil-may-care character that this writer has created out of a kind, sincere, well-loved member of the climbing and base jumping communities. It seems both unprofessional and poor style to violate a person's trust with a sensationalistic story that is damaging and hurtful to him.

I'm also very unimpressed by this writer's use of anonymous chatboard obscenities (which I was offended by having to read) to add to the cartoonish characterization she has made of the base jumping community, most of whom are serious athletes and professionals.

Poor use of an extremely interesting and multi-faceted topic, and as others have said, something like this will most likely prevent any other community members from sharing their intriguing sport and lifestyle with future writers.

Partolan
Partolan

Some "reporters" have integrity. Not the writer of this article. I agree with cuzucan. Fuck all the way off.

_cuzucan_
_cuzucan_

To the writer of this artice: Go F yourself!!!! From the BASE community and BASE 1459

baser
baser

All this horribly written article tells me is not to trust anything coming from this publication. Those that know Ammon can easily tell that he was taken advantage of by a worthless no-talent reporter.

Soup
Soup

This reporter chick is by far to stupid to do her job correctly. This is not how jumping objects goes down. And the NPS is the most unfair organization in this country. Lets start getting facts correct. I could care less about A.Mac, but don't try and make us all look bad, Ms Smiley. You fail at reporting.

Gauleyguide
Gauleyguide

I thought this was supposed to be an artical on how unfair the rangers and NPS are towards BASE jumping on NPS land? You lied. Why dont you tell everyone the truth for once?

Anotherjumper
Anotherjumper

I know Ammon personally and actually briefly met the writer of this article. Although Ammon has his faults as everyone does, he is a good guy with a genuine heart, maybe a little too trusting but is very passionate about his lifestyle. After talking with him and based on my initial impression of the writer I’ve came to a few conclusions:

Lauren Smiley manipulated and lied to Ammon saying that the article was about the power-hungry rangers. This type of scum is the catalyst of why I never talk to the media. They don’t care about the chaos that they leave in their wake or the harm they create, they have one objective and that is making a buck and a name for themselves. I’m also under the impression that she broke several laws “trying” to get her story.

Jump
Jump

Wow, this article dose a great job of sensationalizing base jumping and skydiving and making them all look like a bunch of pot smoking drunks. I skydive and base jump with doctors, lawyers, computer programers, ect, none of which resemble anything represented in this story. I guess theres a reason that no one talks to the media, good luck to anyone trying to write another article on base jumping after this gets around the community.

Bikerbawb58
Bikerbawb58

Please keep in mind that this article is partially fabricated in the shallow mind of the writer. Not all of it is fact and some facts are twisted. As usual, the media likes to sensationalize the story to aim for a potential Pulitzer Prize. It is interesting though in this context though. Now if the writer could just find the Zodiac killer we could have another nailbiter!

Photobyautumn
Photobyautumn

A very well written article that portrays the sport and the people well, both their idealism and their faults. I'm a skydiver and know quite a few BASE jumpers. They don't normally talk to media usually so good job on doing a story rarely told so thoroughly by mainstream news media outlets.

Dave
Dave

As someone who would never jump out of a perfectly good airplane, much less something a lot closer to the ground, I think this article is a great read. Glad I can get such thrills vicariously.

I couldn't stop thinking that McNeely is soon going to be the subject of another article if he stupidly keeps doing things like getting drunk before he jumps. Doing it illegally may be half the thrill, but he's not going to do himself, his friends, or the sport any favors by getting himself - or someone else - killed.

John
John

I have no problem with BASE jumpers taking off of El Capitan or other NPS landmarks. I do, however, object to using park service employees and funding for rescue and/or other responses to accidents or mishaps. There have been a hell of a lot more deaths and accidents on NPS lands from climbers, mountaineers, white water enthsiasts and backpackers for years. Perhaps a permit system for such endeavors is needed with proof of insurance or a bond to cover rescues or messy clean up operations. That way I don't have to pay for some fool's folly.

Mike Moon
Mike Moon

that was an exhilarating way to waste 15 minutes of my boring work day... seriously i loved it. I was in Yosemite last august for 2 weeks. i wouldnt be surprised if i bumped into ammon on accident. thanks for the read. i'll be googling books/videos/articles for the next 45 minutes lol. -mike (vacaville)

Paulse
Paulse

I'm an old geezer and I think all this criminalizing everything is anti-American. "illegal delivery of..." what fatuous dildo wrote that law? Laws are not given out in morning meetings, they need to be in the CA penal code for them to be real. They might fall under Park Ranger guidelines and thus be misdemeanors(sp), but this is still absurd.

It is all part of the "Us against them" attitude of elected officials and public employees have, especially those with "power" over others. It seems that once elected, America is theirs and the public is suspect. This isn't just true for adrenalin junkie activities, it's true for a whole range of boring things as well. People with power need to weild that power to feel that they are special, that they deserve that power,that those above and below them admire their use of power,or at least fear it. It's just like school bullies, but here the school administration is the biggest bully, and the ranks of bullies keeps growing. It is as addicting as the adrenalin rush from jumping. Besides,they get paid for it,which proves to them that it's right.

To me it's all part of a hidden truth and that is that we live in a police state as vile as any. Every city,county, state, and fed agency wants its citizens to act like sheep, do what they are told, pay taxes, and not make ANY fuss. WHAT THE EFF has happened to America; a bunch of old biddies complaining about everything has lawmakers criminalizing everything.

I can understand the tresspass part of the problem, but parks that allow "free" climbers can't claim base jumping is significantly more dangerous. Because something is dangerous bears no connection for it to be illegal. One only need look at bullriding and auto racing, surfing, walking down the street in Oakland. I think there is some inherent mental malady/delusion here with the "police" mentality of running the parks, andin fact governance in general. (This is a stretch to compare and I apologize for the connection) This is like the child porno watchers, they watch all the time, that's their job, really bad stuff all the time, yet they are "police" and immune. These are the really sick people. look at all the preachers and we find them to be frauds, like the politicians jumping up and down about gay stuff, turning out tobe closet gays.

God, please save me from the savers. The people running around "saving" the world from basejumping must be weird. It does sound like they got their kicks kicking hisass.

If I were young I'dbe a suit flyer if I could. Please don't let the biddies stop you.

Dan
Dan

I'd suggest hang-gliding off of Glacier Point instead -- it's regulated and legal, and lasts nearly 15 minutes with a trip across the valley to El Cap...scenic and fun.

Randy English
Randy English

NPS ban on BASE jumping is arbitrary and without merit. Higher risk activities such as free soloing are allowed. More environmentally destructive activities such as horseback riding are allowed. I would wager more people die annually going over Vernal or Nevada Falls than BASE jumping. Granted more people walk to the falls than BASE jump, but if safety is the reason for the ban on BASE jumping, the trail to Vernal/Nevada falls should be closed for safety as well.

In my discussion with NPS staff two reasons for the ban are cited. The first is safety. When I have countered with the above arguments about free soloing/tourists going over falls, they have stated their real concern is not the jumper, but motorists crashing because they are watching the jumper not the road. Then the real concern is cited, the fear of subsequent lawsuits from said motorists. The solution for their first concern is simple, scheduled road closures, perhaps for one hour every Wednesday afternoon (arbitrary time/day just for example). No traffic, no distracted motorists. Road would be open for emergency vehicles and since they are driven by professionals there should be no concern about the driver not watching the road. (Some may argue about closing the valley floor to automobile traffic altogether due to environmental degradation but that is another issue altogether)

Their second argument is BASE jumping is a nontraditional activity outside the scope of recreation in a national park. This argument is so spurious that it noes not merit a rebuttal. It makes as much sense as banning digital photography in the park because it was not in use during Ansel Adams lifetime.

NPS land is owned by the people not the agency that oversees the land. The NPS should not have the authority to ban any nondestructive use of the peoples land (Cue Woody Guthrie...)

I am not a BASE jumper. I am a climber/skier/backpacker. I am concerned that if the NPS can place an outright ban on an activity like BASE jumping, the activities I enjoy can be banned as well. Remember for a time in the 50's the NPS banned Warren Harding from his first ascent attempts on the Nose of El Cap due to traffic concerns.

As for BASE jumping off private property, well that is private property and the property owners have rights. Proceed at your own peril.

Dan
Dan

The distracted-drivers-crashing-into-each-other argument is suppsedly why hang-glider pilots have to launch by 9 and land by 10, instead of later when it is better. Maybe driving is the real hazard here.

 
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