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

Categories: Life Stories

After finding a video on Facebook, where Dan Osman speed climbs Lover's Leap in California I was amazed and terrified at the same time. My fear of heights combined with the fact that in this video he's not wearing any kind of safety gear made me uncomfortable, but compelled. I wanted to know more about him because the footage seemed old and found out that on November 23rd 1998 his luck ran out and fell to his death. In a way when "You Live by the Sword, you Die by the Sword", I guess. He swallowed all the stars in one bunch and met his match.  I admire people that live their life to the fullest and fearlessly. The following is an article I found that talks about Dan's life.  Original article's link is at the bottom of the page

Call it inevitable that Dan Osman found the fatal edge of his signature sport, a thing known as "free-falling." But were his leaps of faith—and thus his sad death—as profound as he imagined? Or just a stunt taken to foolish extremes?

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."

By the late eighties Osman had made a name for himself as an accomplished rock and ice climber and as a no-ropes free soloist. Rogalski, who treated him mostly for small injuries—broken ribs and ankles—often suspended his payment, and Osman responded by gifting him with jackets and shoes that he had begun to receive from a handful of climbing sponsors. But Osman's interest in the sport was flagging. In 1989, working with a top rope to put up a 5.13 climb at Cave Rock that he called Phantom Lord, he fell 50 times trying to place a single bolt above a particularly torturous move. In the process he discovered that he was more exhilarated by the falling than the climbing.

"I'm not sure why," Rogalski said. "Maybe when a couple of the hot French guys came along and did Slayer on sight—a 5.14 route that took Dan a year to put up. Sometime after that he sort of drifted away from serious climbing and got very into the jumping. Most of us thought it was crazy, putting your life in the trust of a rope, but he was a passionate guy, and when his passion for climbing cooled he had to replace it with something. And it wasn't going to be backgammon."

Osman took small jumps at first, the length of ordinary climbing falls that could be caught by traditional belays and anchors. Then, as the falls got longer and longer, as he grew confident of the equipment, he began designing complex systems to anchor the lines in a way that would spread the load at impact and allow him to plunge from heights that no one had ever dared to try on climbing ropes. In Yosemite and elsewhere, he gathered groups of climbers to take turns at his new "sport," sometimes called "body hurling" or, as one oxymoron had it, "controlled free-falling."

"When I finally did it, my brain just balked," says Gambalie, 28. "This wasn't like skydiving, where the ground is never really in perspective, or even like bungee, where you start decelerating long before you get to the bottom. On Dano's system you got so close to the ground before the rope caught, it really scared me. The rush was just phenomenal, because there was no comfort margin like there is in BASE jumping, no margin for error."

If anyone needed proof of the zero tolerance for mistakes in Osman-style rope jumps, it came in 1994 at a Utah bridge. Bobby Tarver, a 25-year-old climber, rigged a new set of ropes for a 250-foot jump. Climbing ropes are designed to stretch when fallen on, and Osman always prestretched new ones with a series of short falls to determine their maximum lengths, something that Tarver failed to do, though it was part of the detailed written instructions that Osman had given him. Tarver's jump stretched the unused rope far enough to slam him into the canyon wall, killing him instantly. His death was chalked up to pilot error, and Osman continued to encourage his friends to try jumping.

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