Terminal Velocity: The Death of the Master of Gravity Dan Osman

Categories: Life Stories

"He wanted me to do it, but I wouldn't," said climber Ron Kauk. "I was intimidated by it—it's super scary. It's against my nature to let go of the rock."

ON A BRIGHT WINTER DAY NEAR YOSEMITE'S CAMP FOUR, Kauk was scrambling like a spider up the side of a big boulder. We were just out of sight across the valley from the overhanging granite wall of Leaning Tower, which rose 1,300 feet behind the thundering rush of Bridalveil Falls.

Kauk, 41, is a longtime valley local and one of its best climbers, and he and I had known each other since my years as a beginning climber on rocks not far from the trees we were under. I'd never gone much past novice climbs, but when I talked about the special fear I always felt when I was rappelling or otherwise depending entirely on a piece of equipment rather than on my hands and feet, Kauk nodded.

"Dano knew what he was doing, knew more about ropes and rigging than anybody," he said, "but I didn't like the idea that others who didn't know as much might try it. It's how I felt when John Bachar started free soloing back in the mideighties. I thought it was taking climbing in a direction I didn't want to see it go."

Dean Potter, a 26-year-old climber and Camp Four search-and-rescue team member, was working on a nearby boulder. Potter had helped put up the Leaning Tower rig and had jumped with Osman from a valley landmark called The Rostrum. "I did that one jump and I didn't like it," he said. "My climbing has always been about control, so throwing myself off the rocks like that—thinking maybe I live, maybe I die—pretty much freaked me out. But Dano was a master at this stuff. He had these elaborate drawings, and while we were working on Leaning Tower, he'd get up all excited in the morning, saying he hadn't slept all night thinking about the rig."

Yosemite authorities, not surprisingly, cast a jaundiced eye on Osman's activities. They had outlawed BASE jumping in the park years earlier, and though what Osman was doing was not illegal, the rangers clearly worried about adding him to their already long list of potential search-and-rescue victims. They were particularly irked by the fact that many of Osman's jumps were filmed for commercials and adventure videos and photographed for print ads. To them, Osman's work for the cameras was an open invitation to every adrenaline-addled kid with a climbing rope.

Soon I would get my first look at one of the videos that had made Osman's jumps famous. It was called Masters of Stone 4, and I couldn't help but be amused by the warning that opened the film. "If you want a long and happy life," it read, "don't attempt the radical activities depicted in this program."

That's exactly the kind of caveat that makes dangerous games irresistible to some people, including me. I've taken long falls out of airplanes and on bungee cords, I've ice-climbed, ski-jumped, and even gone hand-over-hand onto the wing of a biplane, as if for me, neither a long nor a short life could ever be happy without taking a few gratuitous chances. But most of the risky things I've done, I've done only once, and though they've all scared the hell out of me, none of them has put me or the equipment near the breaking point. But watching Dan Osman cartwheeling off high sandstone cliffs and then riding a bicycle and then a skateboard over the brink, I couldn't shake the feeling that he was trapped in a reach for limits he was most likely to find only in a death fall. It doesn't matter how well designed and executed a system is, things can go wrong, things that might or might not have anything to do with your abilities. Osman, to my eyes, was flying without a parachute in a plane that had "experimental" stenciled on the tail.

Sadly enough, watching someone in danger has an undeniable magnetism to it, and if the many TV shows and commercials built around such thrill scenes are any evidence, our appetite for seeing other people do things that might kill or cripple them is insatiable. And though it's often called sick, I've always considered it just a vivid way of thinking about death, a no-risk look down the dark hole that all of us eventually fall into. But to keep us tuned in, the athletes who star in these video moments have to push further toward the deadly edge every time out. Osman, at age 35, was caught in the hard choice between the nerve it takes to keep going higher, faster, closer to the invisible line between life and death and the very different kind of courage it takes to step back from the game, from the adulation, and figure out what you're going to do with the rest of your life.

Osman arrived in Yosemite late last October determined to make a record-breaking jump. With the help of several friends, he rigged anchors and lines to the Leaning Tower rocks. The rig consisted of a 1,200-foot Tyrolean traverse, a thick line strung like a tightrope, between the tower and a smaller outcrop called Fifi Buttress. The jump line was fastened near the tower side of the traverse so that he would fall away from the rocks. Osman made his first leap on 600 feet of rope, and over the course of a week the jumps got longer—750, 800, 850, 900 feet.

ON OCTOBER 26, just as Osman was preparing for another jump, he got a cell phone call from his 12-year-old daughter, Emma, who lives in Gardnerville with her mother. She was crying, worried about him, she said, and he responded without hesitation. He told his friends he had to leave, got in his truck, and headed off to be with her. Osman was by all accounts dedicated to Emma and concerned that his high jinks put her in a precarious spot that she had not chosen. He talked about his anxieties in Andrew Todhunter's book about him, the breathlessly titled Fall of the Phantom Lord, published in 1998 before the Leaning Tower jump. "By dying," Osman said, "I would be letting everybody down—my family, my friends ... My daughter will manage, she'll be okay ... but I'd be robbing her."

Two days later, as he arrived back in the Valley, he was confronted and taken into custody by park rangers. The arrest had nothing to do with his jumps; rather, he was charged with a loose-end collection of Danny-I-Forgot offenses that had multiplied and festered as the result of his chronic inattention to the nagging details of everyday life, including driving with a suspended license (a federal misdemeanor because he was in a national park), a state felony for having failed to register for probation, and a state misdemeanor for unpaid traffic tickets. He was held in the Yosemite jail for 14 days—its only prisoner for most of that time—while friends and family raised money and pledged collateral to post the $1,500 federal and $21,000 state bonds.

He was released to his sister and brother-in-law, who took him back to Reno, where he spent time with Emma and filmmaker-friend Eric Perlman, who had offered his house against bail and who now suggested to Osman that it was time for him to get his life in order.

"I told him, 'You've gone far enough, pushed it probably farther than it should be pushed. Nobody's going to touch this one for a long time. Take the rig down, show the judge you're serious, that you're playing by the rules here,'" says Perlman, who filmed Masters of Stone 4, among other Osman videos. "And he agreed absolutely. He said, 'You know, you're right. It's what I should do. And my guardian angels need a break anyway. They've been working overtime for me.'"

Despite Osman's acquiescence, Perlman sensed a dour restlessness in his friend. "He was depressed as hell after all that time alone in jail," he says. "And when he got back to Yosemite and saw all the hard work and creativity it had taken to put up the rig..." Perlman's voice trails off.

Osman called his friend Miles Daisher on Wednesday, November 18, and said he needed a ride to Yosemite so he could take the rig down; the rangers had threatened to confiscate it. The two of them left late on the 20th, arrived the next day, and climbed to the tower that night. But the following afternoon, instead of removing the rig, Osman made a 925-foot jump on ropes that had been hanging in intermittent rain and snow for more than a month.

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