Rick Harrison: El Capitan Jump

El Capitan and Half Dome

Image by Frank Kehren via Flickr

Half Dome was a completely different experience as we grew up in Iowa and had never really seen cliffs except on a couple visits to Colorado as kids. We wanted our night cliff to get the “E” for B.A.S.E. and Night B.A.S.E. we headed to California to do El Capitan in June of 1982. When we arrived out near Yosemite and called Carl Boenish he informed us that no one had ever jumped Half Dome at night. Well, the challenge of being first to do it immediately had us change plans to do Half Dome.

Half Dome is not overhung like El Cap but is further up the valley which actually makes it safer in those days from getting busted. Randy’s girlfriend, along with an old friend of ours acted as ground crew. We spent two days stepping off the distance to the meadow and planning the hike up, the jump and our escape route.

We got a late start in the early afternoon and barely made the top before dusk as we needed to get to the top before night to verify an exit point and the landing area. We actually argued as to where the meadow was, but finally settled on it, lined it up with a hump in the mountain across the valley in case it was too dark that night to see a heading in freefall and under canopy, we could aim for the mountain hump which we figured would be visible in moonlight. Using 5 cell canopies, we planned on only doing 7 second delays since we had well over a mile to get to the landing area. We hid out in a little snow fort area from 7:00pm that evening until 2:00am so people wouldn’t see our rigs and question our activity.

We signaled our ground crew at 2:00am and they signaled back with a flashlight from below the talus. At 2:30am, we were still waiting on the moon to rise over the back of Half Dome to provide some light in the valley. We signaled our ground crew again and no signal came back. We found out later that the Rangers had seen their small camp fire from the Glacier Point Ranger station and they chased them out of the area since it was not a camping area.

B.A.S.E. jumping in those days was limited to El Capitan in the front part of the valley so rangers were not looking for jumpers on Half Dome. At 3:30am, we decided to go even though it was pitch black on the wall. We had one wind indicator tied onto a glow stick, threw it down the wall and after 7 seconds, it sucked into the wall. We looked at each other and said we wished we’d had one more glow stick.

Randy went first; I saw his opening of his mainly white canopy spin hard left. He came out finally and I wasn’t certain if he had hit the cliff or not, but I felt he had and was concerned he may be unconscious. I took 3 countdowns to get my shit together and after seeing how close he was to the wall on a 7 second delay, I said to hell with the 7, I’m doing a 10 second delay.

I had a good exit, went into a full track after a couple seconds and held it for the entire 10 seconds. I came out of the track and fired the pilot chute going about 150 mph. That old tired Stratostar snapped the left steering line in half and the right steering locked in a very tight half hitch. I was spinning violently to the right, however due to tracking for 10 seconds; I was a long way from the wall. Problem being I was under a spinning canopy and getting close to the top of the talus which at Half Dome is still nearly 3000 feet from the valley floor and not a fun place to hike down. I grabbed a left rear riser hard, and had to also grab a front right nose line to get the canopy to fly straight and still be able to penetrate the wind. I waited a few seconds and tried to clear the locked right brake one more time which put me in another stall turn to the right so I gave up. I flew the canopy with the riser and nose line towards the hump in the mountain we had lined up.

At an estimated 400 feet, I was coming in over the meadow where a little moonlight was hitting the trees and could see Randy limping and cussing out loud. I landed and asked him immediately what had gone wrong. He was mad and scared after hitting the wall and hurting his knee. He also had a steering line lock up causing a hard spin and he hit the wall on the second go around before he cleared the steering line hang up. He could walk but his knee was sore so I carried both of our rigs out of the meadow back to the campground.

That was one of the hardest, scariest, and most memorable nights of my life. Needless to say, the gear today makes this much safer, but in those days, we figured we were invincible after all the antics we had pulled in skydiving over the years.

Rick Harrison Interview

All rights reserved. No republication of this material, in any form or medium, is permitted without express permission of the author. All images and words are protected by U.S. and International Copyright laws. Copyright 2009

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