IT WAS TWILIGHT IN YOSEMITE after a day of light rain. Headlights flickered in the dark of the valley floor below as Dan Osman took out his cell phone and called his friends Jim Fritsch and Frank Gambalie. "It's all set," he said. "Why aren't you here? You guys have to do this." Big storm, they told him. The roads out of Squaw Valley had been closed because of the snow. They wanted to be there, had planned to make the five-hour drive south to watch their friend take the longest, most dangerous plunge he'd ever attempted. Both of them were experienced jumpers. Gambalie was also a high-diving parachutist who'd made hundreds of leaps from bridges, buildings, cliffs, antennae—any lofty place with a landing zone; Fritsch, meanwhile, owned a bungee-jumping operation. But the fall Osman was about to make was beyond BASE or bungee. Dano, as they called him, was about to pitch himself off a rock pillar called Leaning Tower and plunge 1,100 feet tethered only to a climbing rope rigged to stop his fall just 150 feet above the boulder field at the base of the cliff.
Gambalie and Fritsch had taken these prejump calls before, had listened to Osman's countdown and then to the whistle of the wind as they marked the interval, had imagined the rush of the ground coming up as both of them had experienced many times themselves jumping on Osman's rigs. Osman himself had used his unique system of ropes, pulleys, and anchors more than a thousand times, and had developed a careful series of safety checks to assure that he and his equipment were ready. This time, however, in the chill of a late-November evening, he seemed hurried. He interrupted the countdown twice. Then, from an angle on the pillar he hadn't tried before, he leapt. The heavy whisper of the wind through the phone lasted ten, 11, 12 seconds, past what Fritsch and Gambalie knew to be the limit of the rope. The phone went dead.
No problem, thought Gambalie. He imagined the phone cutting out from the impact of the rope coming taut as Dano ran out of slack, bounced, and swung in a wide, jubilant arc at the bottom of the fall. Gambalie called back and was put into Osman's voice mail. "That was totally rad," he said. "We're on our way. Give me a call and let me know how it went."
At 35 years old, Dan Osman had long since become a famous name in the world of extreme—many would say senseless—risk environment. For close to a decade his bizarre specialty was jumps like the one at Leaning Tower: single-rope plunges from bridges or cliffs that Osman would make for videos and commercials and, more often, just for the sheer hell of it. Though I'd never met him, I'd read about him, seen some magazine pictures—the long dark hair, the gymnast's body hurtling through the sky like a rag doll. Having taken more than a few unwitting falls on climbing ropes myself, I thought Osman's deliberate leaps into the void were reckless, nuts, a no-net circus act ultimately bound for catastrophe. My opinion was seconded by this magazine, which in January 1996 published a short but highly critical piece about Osman titled "Really Quite Stupid."
Osman began his career, not surprisingly, as a climber. His home turf was Cave Rock, the vaulted outside face of a tunnel near Lake Tahoe's south shore, where he spent years attempting difficult routes that spat him off the wall again and again. After high school he took off for a couple of years in Yosemite and fell comfortably into the lost-boy culture of drifters who live on the rocks during the day, sleep in the dirt at night, scrounge for food and showers, work only enough to earn whatever money it takes to keep them at their sport, and spend long periods away from telephones and mailboxes, outside the catch of ordinary responsibilities. In the mideighties he returned to Tahoe and continued his Peter Pan drift: He climbed and worked construction intermittently; he and his girlfriend had a child and then separated. His friends joked about "Dano Time" when he arrived a few hours or a few days late for appointments. His mother's childhood nickname for him, "Danny I Forgot," hung on in the form of unpaid speeding tickets, unregistered vehicles, broken steps to his small cluttered apartment that went unrepaired though he was an accomplished carpenter.
"It disappointed me that he didn't take care of those things," says his father, Les Osman, a Japanese-American man who was once a SWAT team cop. "And I finally told him I wouldn't bail him out when his unpaid tickets landed him in jail. But he never had a lot of money; he was grossly underpaid for the risks he took. He usually earned just enough to take care of his daughter, Emma, and to pay his bills, including his hospital bills. Things like traffic tickets just came last."
BAILING OSMAN OUT OF HIS JAMS often fell to his friends, many of them rock rats like himself, others more attuned to the day-to-day realities of adult life but nonetheless charmed by Osman's perpetual good nature.
"Whatever rough edges there were got smoothed out by a genuine fondness for the guy," said Roger Rogalski, a climber and orthopedic surgeon who became Osman's doctor, as we sat in his south Tahoe office. "He had his demons, sure, but I can't say a single bad thing about him."