Jump Down Turnaround

The strange and untimely death of Frank Gambalie III

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

 The last time frank Gambalie III was mentioned in these pages, he was on a cell phone speaking with the pioneering "rope jumper"Dan Osman, who was in the process of making his final, fatal dive off Yosemite's Leaning Tower in November 1998 ("Terminal Velocity," April). Two months after that article appeared, Gambalie, 28, took a running leap off the edge of El Capitan's west wall. At 5:10 a.m.on the morning of June 9, he completed a 16-second free fall, opened his BASE-jumping parachute, and touched down unscathed in El Capitan Meadow. Minutes later Gambalie, who knew that jumping is illegal, was dead, drowned in the Merced River while trying to outrun park rangers. One of several bizarre incidents plaguing the Yosemite Valley area over the past year, his death was soon eclipsed by an even more horrifying tragedy:the July 22 discovery of the body of Joy Ruth Armstrong, a park naturalist who was beheaded by confessed serial killer Cary Stayner.

"BASE" stands for "Buildings, Antennae, Spans, and Earth," the four primary types of fixed objects from which skydiving's splinter sect leaps. Today, the activity is forbidden in all national parks at all times, but Yosemite officials estimate that each year around 100 jumpers poach its precipices. "El Cap is a crown jewel,"says Gambalie's mentor, Adam Filippino. "People travel from all over the world to do it. The lure is high."If caught, the Class B misdemeanor carries a maximum $5,000 fine or six months in jail and usually includes forfeiture of the perpetrator's gear. Park rangers are vigorous about prosecuting as many as they can catch. And that's where Gambalie came in.

When Gambalie landed in El Capitan Meadow, euphoric from his 3,000-foot drop, two rangers appeared, as if from nowhere, bent on apprehending him. Yosemite spokesman Kendell Thompson says the rangers had been alerted when they sighted the jumper's canopy opening in the predawn haze. But according to Gambalie's cohorts, the rangers had received an advance tip from an informant who camped atop El Cap the same night, cozied up to the jumper to learn his plans, and later alerted officials via cell phone. When the rangers immediately gave chase, Gambalie sprinted to the Merced River, which was swollen with spring snowmelt, dove in, and began to swim across. By the time the rangers reached the bank, Gambalie was gone. His body was recovered 28 days later, pinned beneath a river rock 300 feet from where he had last been seen. At the time of his death, Gambalie stood at the pinnacle of his sport, having made more than 600 jumps from structures all over the world, including New York's Chrysler Building and a thirteenth-century cathedral in Germany.

Filippino, who spent 36 hours behind bars in 1989 for jumping in the park, argues that Yosemite's rangers treat BASE jumping in a manner that is completely out of proportion to the scale of the violation. "They had a freaking serial killer in Yosemite living right under their noses,"he says, "and federal agents were chasing BASE jumpers to death." Rangers, however, contend that jumpers have no business in Yosemite. "This is not a low-risk activity,"says Thompson. "Four jumpers have died in the park. It's just not appropriate here."

Fatal Summer

"It's hard to fathom what goes on when water comes down these canyons," says Wolfgang Woernhard, director of the Association of Swiss Mountain Guides, of the July 27 flash flood that killed 21 tourists and guides when a tree-and-boulder-laden tidal wave raced through a gorge near the Swiss town of Interlaken. "The currents alone can kill you." The fatal canyoning expedition has unleashed a torrent of renewed debate over why, and at what cost, people are pursuing high-adrenaline adventure. It's a sentiment that seems especially apt, coming as it does near the end of a summer in which the cost of risk has been especially high, as evidenced by the July 8 disappearance on Mount Rainier of former Village Voice editor Joseph Wood Jr., whose presumed death is the fourth on the mountain since May—and the July 31 plane crash that killed nine members of a Michigan-based skydiving group. Why the rash of risk-related tragedies? "Some people want an adrenaline rush without paying their dues," says Outward Bound USA's vice-president of safety and programs, Lewis Glenn. Others argue that taking chances is worth it. "We embrace risk because it makes life more interesting," says Mountain Travel– president Richard Weiss. "Mercifully, these tragedies are rare. I really don't see this summer as out of the ordinary."