Last base

Frank Gambalie lived to test the limits of BASE jumping

Updated: March 18, 2013, 12:14 PM ET
By Janet Reitman

gambalieThomas Kent Cooke for ESPNBASE jumping is practiced regularly by only about 1,500 people worldwide.

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 21, 2000, issue. Subscribe today!

NEARLY DAWN in Yosemite, and the crisp June air crackled with an icy chill. Atop the ghostly summit of El Capitan, the park's most famous peak, BASE jumper Frank Gambalie knelt by the western precipice, shivering slightly. Yosemite Valley lay 3,600 feet below, sliced by the Merced River and enveloped in velvet darkness. Gambalie stared into the abyss, then, tethered to a short length of climbing rope, he belayed down several feet until he hung backward off the wall's face. He pulled a stone from his pocket and dropped it, following its trajectory, calculating its fall rate against the wind. He repeated the experiment several times. Then he pulled himself back onto the summit.

In minutes, Gambalie would jump from this spot, plunging nearly a third of a mile and accelerating to a heart-stopping 120 miles per hour before deploying his parachute 1,500 feet above the valley floor. He'd BASE jumped from the eastern face of El Cap more than a dozen times, but the western, or Salathe, face, was more challenging. To avoid spanking the side of the wall, he had to clear a large boulder protruding 100 feet below the summit, then immediately sail away. Gambalie had made this jump once before -- the only person to have done so.

With a friend named Andy West assisting, Gambalie performed a last-minute gear check. He paced back and forth from the edge, measuring every step. Finally, as the first weak light touched the far northern peaks of the valley, he approached the edge, savoring those last seconds before giving himself over to what he called his "moment of commitment."

"Fly like a beagle, dude," West joked, as Gambalie flashed thumbs-up. Then, taking three steps forward, he sprung from a chicken-head nub of granite: head out, chest high, back slightly arched. Frank Gambalie had begun his fall.

Even among the extreme world's hardest-core, BASE jumping -- the acronym stands for Buildings, Antennas, Spans and Earth -- is a sport that just may go too far. Practiced regularly by only 1,500 people worldwide -- mostly experienced skydivers -- BASE jumping has claimed up to 40 lives in the past two decades. Though not technically illegal, authorities consider BASE, or "object," jumping a misuse of public space, and the techniques jumpers use to access a launch point -- sneaking over walls, jumping fences, climbing scaffolding -- amount to trespassing. The sport is officially banned in all 55 of this country's national parks. Punishments vary, although culprits rarely receive more than a moderate fine.

Yosemite, the jewel of the national park system, is different. With its tall granite peaks and open grassy meadows, the park is by far the most frequented BASE jumping site in the United States. Since 1979 an estimated 6,000 illegal jumps have taken place there, six of them ending in death. The park, not surprisingly, isn't pleased with its popularity, which is why BASE jumpers are prosecuted to the full extent of the law: fines as high as $5,000 and the seizure of gear, another $2,000 loss. Run from the rangers and face up to six months in jail. Many jumpers have been locked up for at least one night.

Image is everything for Yosemite, and the park's image has suffered a series of blows in recent years. Throughout the '90s, brush fires, rockslides and floods forced several park closings. Then, last February, the burnt and mutilated bodies of three female tourists were found just outside the park, crashing the network news and prompting one of the largest manhunts in Mariposa County history. And on July 22, the decapitated body of naturalist Joie Ruth Armstrong was found near her isolated cabin, deep in the park.

This was 15 days after Frank Gambalie's lifeless, algae-covered body was dragged from the Merced River.

At 28, Frank Gambalie III was one of the top BASE jumpers in the world. He was fearless, willing to jump from virtually any object: an alpine cliff, an 800-foot-high bridge, a gothic cathedral, even New York City's Chrysler Building. Known for his daring aerial maneuvers, Gambalie added glamour to a sport previously defined as much for its secrecy as for its risk. Darkly handsome, with olive skin, a shock of black hair and a perpetual gleam in his eye, Gambalie's image graced the pages of major climbing and skydiving magazines. His fluid, athletic stunts were featured in Warren Miller's high-gloss ski films.

Raised in the blue-collar suburb of Antioch in San Francisco's East Bay, Gambalie (pronounced Gam-BAL-ee) moved restlessly through his early years. Friends speak of his "life wish," a ceaseless desire to push limits. He lived by a special code, even as a teenager. "When Frank cared about something, he could do it better than anyone else, but if he didn't care, he just didn't bother," says his father, Frank Jr., a foreman at a Bay Area Shell oil plant. "Everything had to be on Frank's terms."

An avid skier, skateboarder and bungee jumper, Gambalie finished high school in 1989 and moved through a series of odd jobs, ultimately gravitating to a life more suited to his high-octane passions. In 1992, he moved to Lake Tahoe, where he settled into the tight-knit community of rock rats, snowboarders and bungee jumpers of Squaw Valley. He rose to the upper echelon of the bungee circuit within a year, but by 1993 was again looking to push the edge. "It was almost by accident that Frank discovered BASE," says Gambalie's former roommate, Jim Fritsch. "We were just watching a ski film one day, and suddenly here comes this dude with a parachute on his back skiing off a huge cliff. Frank was totally blown away by that. It was like, 'Bing!' A huge light went on in his head."

As he had with all other sports, Gambalie threw himself into BASE jumping, disregarding the sport's cardinal rule: that beginners should be experienced skydivers. "Frank had made a dozen skydives tops, but he didn't believe in going slowly," says Gambalie's mentor, California BASE jumper Adam Filippino. "And he was like a sponge. He absorbed everything he was taught and ran with it." Gambalie's innovative style distinguished him from other jumpers, as did his passion for stealthily pioneering leaps from places previously deemed unjumpable. "Being sneaky was part of the fun for Frank. It was like a mission," says his friend Tom Cooke.

Incorporating acrobatics into the sport for the first time, Gambalie astounded the BASE world with his triple and quadruple gainers, appearing at BASE events such as Bridge Day, a legal competition held annually in West Virginia. By 1995, Gambalie had become the unofficial wild man of BASE. But his brashness came at a price. The Hollywood stunt world closed ranks. "Most professional BASE jumpers work in films and commercials," says Fritsch. "But it's a tight little circle, and they froze him out." So Gambalie carved a niche where no jumper had gone before, in the lucrative world of corporate sponsorship. Armed with a demo reel, Gambalie made the rounds of adventure-sports trade shows, hawking his BASE talents the way a whiz-kid cyber-entrepreneur might push his latest start-up. "Frank marketed himself better than anyone I've ever seen," says Filippino, a leading designer of BASE gear. "It was brilliant. A sales rep would pop in Frank's tape and all of a sudden, there's Frank doing all this awesome stuff -- and he's using a competitor's gear." Filippino laughs. "Obviously you'd want to snatch some of that up for yourself."

By early 1999, Gambalie had racked up at least a dozen of the most sought-after sponsorships in adventure sports, including Oakley, Obermeyer, K2, Nike and Red Bull. But for all his success, he continued to test himself against increasingly higher odds. Still, if Gambalie was compelled to head-butt death, he also engineered each jump to minimize his risk. Among the hundreds of hours of Gambalie's video footage, there's a clip from a TV show entitled "The Extremists" in which Gambalie, dressed in T-shirt and shorts, perches on an 850-foot-high bridge in northern California. As techno throbs in the background, Gambalie jumps backward, spinning like a gyroscope and performing multiple flips before popping his chute. The sequence is brash, almost reckless. But Gambalie is calm. "I can handle the jump, the jump you can control," he says, back on earth, dark eyes staring unblinkingly into the camera. "It's the authorities you can't control. Getting caught -- that's what scares me."

"Jump and run" has been an abiding philosophy in BASE since the sport began in the late '70s. The ethos is particularly strong in Yosemite, where rangers have a reputation for zealously pursuing jumpers. Tales of parties busted up, vehicles searched and climbers spied on make up an ever-expanding canon of anti-ranger paranoia. The recent death of world-class rock climber Dan Osman adds a particularly sad chapter. An extreme sports icon and close friend of Gambalie's, Osman pioneered the dangerous -- some would say ludicrous -- sport of rope jumping: swinging at incredible heights from a climbing rope tethered to a piece of rock. In November 1998, Osman died in Yosemite after one of his ropes snapped during a jump from a rock pillar known as Leaning Tower. Climbers and BASE jumpers accuse rangers of "murdering" Osman, who spent the two weeks before his death in the Yosemite jail on a variety of misdemeanor charges. Friends say he emerged from confinement badly shaken. They insist Osman was mistreated while in custody, which shook his confidence and led him to make critical errors in judgment, most dramatically his decision to use ropes that had been weakened by a month's exposure to sun and snow. Yosemite authorities deny the accusations of mistreatment, but the "charges" nonetheless speak to the tension between the park's counterculture denizens and its rangers. "Bottom line, there's a dislike of us in Yosemite," Filippino says. "It's not the rules, it's the bitter relationship that's built up for so many years."

Dan Horner, a Yosemite special agent, begs to differ. "These guys think we get our yucks hiding in the woods waiting to catch them," he says. "But we don't have the time, let alone the overtime money, to do that." In fact, he insists, rangers actually catch only 5% of jumpers each year.

In any event, Gambalie had jumped enough in Yosemite to know that he didn't want to be among that 5%. And he had stayed under the radar until Osman's death. In contact with Osman via cellphone during his friend's fatal fall, Gambalie raced to the park and stayed with the body until rescuers were able to get there. But he feared his heroics had raised his profile among park officials. "Frank was concerned that the rangers might try to make an example of him if he was ever caught," says his mother, Ricci Mescola. "Especially after hearing all the stories about how they'd mistreated Dano." But though Gambalie had achieved celebrity status in Yosemite, it didn't deter him from jumping. "Frank had never been caught in Yosemite and he never intended to be," says rock climber and Gambalie friend Dean Fidelman. "And you know, Frank was cocky. 'No way are they gonna get me,' he'd say. 'Let them chase me -- I'll just laugh in their faces and jump in the river.' "

Rising 7,569 feet above sea level, El Capitan is the Everest of jump sites. Towering monolithically at the gateway to Yosemite Valley, it is dramatically overhung, enabling a jumper to sail away from the rock for up to 18 seconds -- an extremely long free fall -- before pulling his release. And with spacious meadows below offering comfortable drop zones, El Cap is irresistible to jumpers. So it was to Gambalie, the Salathe face most of all. The Salathe is one of the tallest sheer rock faces in the continental United States, and since his pioneering first jump in 1998, Gambalie had dreamed of an encore. On the morning of June 8, 1999, he got in his blue Subaru wagon and drove to Yosemite, ready to jump it again. It was Gambalie's first time back to the park since Osman's death seven months before. "He was a little scared right after Dano died," says West, who had agreed to meet Gambalie on the summit of El Cap that afternoon. "It was weird. I'd never seen Frankie say he was scared about anything."

Though he had been a jump buddy of Gambalie's for years, West hadn't seen him in months. Gambalie had spent most of the year working on films for a sponsor, and it seemed to West that his friend had changed. "I remember thinking he had matured," says West. "He was like a true man -- you could tell from his handshake, even his handshake was strong." Gambalie was eager to show West the launch point, and together the two walked toward the precipice. A group of climbers was hanging out near the edge of the west face. one, Scott Burk, was a well-known big-wall climber who had recently become one of six people to successfully free-solo the Nose, El Cap's highest point. Burk had been climbing in Yosemite since 1981 and knew most of the BASE guys. "BASE jumpers are just not like other people," Burk says. "They're like drug addicts, the way some of them act. The cat-and-mouse with the rangers is part of it."

West was suspicious of Burk, believing he was the one who'd tipped off the rangers when West was arrested after jumping El Cap in 1997. West wasn't even supposed to be anywhere near BASE jumpers; he was still on probation. Gambalie spent an hour with Burk and the other climbers, then joined West at their campsite after dark. Aside from Gambalie and West, Burk and a friend were the only people camped on the summit that night.

The sky was not quite light on June 9 when Gambalie awoke, just before 5 a.m. Ten minutes later he jumped, clearing the protruding rock just beneath the launch and flying away from the wall. He fell for eight, nine, 10 seconds, disappeared from West's view for three, then reappeared, still falling. Finally, after 16 seconds, West heard the bang of Gambalie's chute opening and saw his friend, a speck on the horizon, float toward the valley. Gambalie glided west toward the woodshed road, then abruptly turned back almost 180 degrees and zigzagged east, eventually landing across from the turnout at the westernmost edge of the El Cap meadow. It was, West says, as clean a jump as he'd ever seen.

And then West saw a set of car headlights approach the landing area, flashing several times. He assumed they belonged to a curious passerby. He waited a few minutes, then walked back to the campsite to organize his gear. He turned on his cellphone; calling from below to arrange a rendezvous is standard operating procedure after any jump. But Gambalie never called. Odd, West thought, but Frank was on that phone so much, maybe the battery died. Or maybe the phone dropped. Might as well head down, West said to himself as he finished packing, Frank will call when he can. Then, strapping on his pack, he began the long hike back to the valley.

It is mid-October in the El Cap meadow, just off Northside Drive, some 50 feet from where Frank Gambalie landed on the morning of June 9. Twenty yards south, the deep meadow grass turns to woods, which in turn lead to the banks of the Merced River. In autumn, the river is shallow and less than 100 yards across. But in June, the Merced is more than six feet deep, raging with 40-degree snowmelt. Water at this temperature shocks the body like lightning, sucking your strength before you have time to react. At peak speed -- roughly 8 mph -- the river's force and volume can trap a body within its rush and sweep it downstream.

Gambalie landed in the southwest end of the meadow and almost immediately rangers converged upon him from two directions. He could have given up. Instead, he dropped his chute, turned and, as the rangers reported, flashed a smile. Then he sprinted into the woods, toward the Merced.

Later, much was made of Gambalie's decision. It seemed suicidal, almost absurd, for someone known for his meticulousness. "The river is a seasonal escape route," says West. "You use it when it's low, after August. Never in peak season. Frank didn't know that. He was so good at evading, I doubt he ever thought he'd need it. If you ask me, he had been in a rush to get to the summit before dark, and he slipped up on his prep work."

Approaching the right bank, an area known as Ribbon Creek, Gambalie threw down the rest of his rig and, with a wicked grin, flipped off the rangers, diving headfirst into the river. The surface was smooth and glassy where he entered, but a bit farther down a large boulder blocked the rest of the Merced from view. Had Gambalie seen past the boulder he would have realized that just beyond, the river fed directly into a tongue of rapids. As he began to swim across, according to the pursuing rangers, Gambalie's paddling grew increasingly urgent. He tried to swim upstream, straining against a current that was dragging him farther downstream. As he neared the boulder, Gambalie's body was heading feet first toward the rapids. The rangers watched from shore as he disappeared behind the rock.

It's possible that Gambalie was swept under as he passed around the rock. It's also possible that, with the strain of the jump and the heat of the chase, hypothermia had set in well before and he swept by the rock unconscious. What's known is that the force of the river, compounded by the aerated swirl of white water, would have sucked him under within seconds of his hitting the rapids, churning him around like a washing machine. An obstruction in the river, such as a rock, increases pressure even more. If there's a gap beneath the rock, a person can easily get sucked under and pinned there. Divers call it a "strainer."

This, apparently, is what happened to Gambalie. For the next month, his body lay submerged in the Merced's icy waters until Yosemite divers finally found it on July 7, three football fields from where he'd dived in. By then, Gambalie's dark hair and eyes had lost their color and his skin, well-preserved in the cold, had begun to separate from his body. "It was his fatal mistake, not knowing about the rapids," says Jeff Follett, the rescue diver who discovered the body. "If he'd have gone in a quarter-mile upstream, he'd have made it. But people drown in the Merced even in flat water. Jumping in the river is a silly thing to do at any point, any time of year."

Initially Gambalie's disappearance was treated as a criminal incident. Frightened, West left the park. "I just assumed Frank hadn't called because his phone was wet or something," he says. "All I knew was I didn't want to be a part of this, whatever it was. I didn't want to be in jail." From his home near Los Angeles, West waited for word. Several hours passed, then a day. By now, convinced something had gone wrong, West called Filippino, crying.

Filippino had never heard West so upset. Still, he thought his friend's desire to call Gambalie's mom was premature. But when Gambalie's voice mail filled up, Filippino knew. "Somewhere inside, I knew he wasn't out there."

Rumors circulated throughout the BASE community: Frank skipped out of the country; was injured, perhaps, in the woods; had amnesia. "No one believed he'd have died in the river," says Lottie Aston, Gambalie's girlfriend. "If anyone would have survived that river it was Frank. Everybody who knew him knew that. Frank got away with everything."

Once his body was found, the rumors were replaced by questions. What really happened on the morning of June 9? Had overzealous rangers pressured Gambalie into a bad decision? And who alerted the rangers? Was it Burk? (He says no.) One of his friends? Was it fear of being caught that drove Gambalie to the river? Or was it a belief in his own indestructibility, a belief that had proved out so many times before? "Frank had an invincible view of life," says Filippino. " 'I'm gonna die doing this -- but not this time. It ain't gonna happen to me.' "

The park's official accident report states the cause of death as accidental drowning resulting from fleeing an illegal parachute jump. Soon after Gambalie's disappearance, his father met with the rangers. "I told them, look, my son broke the law, he made a bad decision. But there's something wrong with all of this. The law is made to protect people, not drive them to where they feel they have no choice." But, of course, Gambalie had a choice. "Frank wasn't worried about losing his rig," says West. "He hadn't paid for one in years." And though Osman's alleged mistreatment may have forced him to the edge, at least some who knew Gambalie think differently of his case. "Frank had a record to maintain," says pro rock climber Kevin Thaw, a Gambalie friend. Thaw believes that even had the rangers stopped their pursuit, Gambalie would have kept running. "It was a game to him, all of this," says Thaw. "And Frank loved the game."

Last Oct. 22, an event was held in Frank's honor at Yosemite to protest the ban against BASE jumping. Five jumpers were scheduled to take off from El Cap, with rangers on hand to cite them and confiscate gear. More than 100 spectators watched as the first jumper stepped to the edge and leaped. Two others followed. Then a fourth stepped up, committed and fell. And kept falling. The crowd grew silent as the jumper, an expert skydiver and stunt woman named Jan Davis, struggled to find the release on her borrowed rig. But it was too late. Her body hit the cliff base, sending a booming echo off the rock that thundered across the valley, a soul-crunching noise.

Human error, not gear malfunction, caused the accident. "That Jan would have jumped without 100% security with her equipment is outrageous," says BASE gear manufactuer Martin Tilley. "Know your equipment. That's a given in BASE jumping." It was a terrible embarrassment for the park, one more disaster in an already disastrous PR year. All talk of legalizing BASE jumping in Yosemite has ceased.

The irony of Davis dying while jumping in Gambalie's name hasn't escaped his friends. "Frank is probably rolling in his grave," says West. "He was a total pro, and someone who didn't measure up to his standard, well, he didn't respect that. And don't forget that he made his jump, and it was as beautiful a jump as I'd ever seen.

"Had he gotten away that day, he'd have been a hero."

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