A mud-splattered Jeep Cherokee pulls over on the shoulder of an empty road and stops. It is a gray, 40-degree January day, too cold for dallying. A man dressed in black with a sun-worn face and gray-nipped beard steps out, and pulls a camouflage backpack over his shoulders.
He eyes a distant truck heading toward him: "This guy looks official." But it passes by.
The man strides across the road, jumps over a barbed-wire fence with its "No Trespassing" sign, and heads toward the base of a 510-foot-tall utility tower 40 miles east of San Francisco. The Black Tower, he calls it. He hoists himself onto the first rung of a ladder hanging five feet off the ground and starts climbing the stairs, zigzagging a vertiginous 50 stories into the air. The narrow staircases sway from side to side under his weight, and as he ascends, his form fades into the chiaroscuro of black iron against the sky, invisible to anyone not specifically looking for him.
After 10 minutes of rapid climbing, he reaches the tower's top struts and tiptoes as if on a balancing beam out to the edge. He takes one last look at the landscape: kelly-green fields, the tiny cows. A factory whirs in the distance.
He is serene; this was exactly how he'd planned it. He arches up toward the sky, lets out a deep "Huh," and pushes off.
Of all the reasons Ammon McNeely shouldn't have just done that, the gravity now pulling him to earth is just the first. If he's caught doing this he could face significant earthly consequences. He is on federal probation for jumping off the side of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in August. Having pleaded guilty in federal court in December to illegal air delivery of a person by parachute, he's supposed to be following the law to the letter.
But McNeely needs his free-fall fix, even if it means breaking the law to get it. Among rock climbers, he is known as the "El Cap Pirate" for capturing speed records up the iconic cliff's sheer face while flying a Jolly Roger flag. In recent years he's brought his devil-may-care bravado to BASE jumping, so called for the buildings, antennas, spans, and earth that the sport's acolytes jump off and then pull their parachutes before hitting the ground. Think skydiving with a lot less room for error — no reserve chute, less airtime, usually illegal. McNeely has leaped off the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, antennas, cranes, and cliffs.
But last summer, he became the movement's newest martyr when he set yet another first in Yosemite: the first BASE jumper to get Tased by a park ranger.
The incident ripped open the wounds in a nasty decades-long battle between jumpers who want the freedom to "fly" and the rangers who try to stop them. It fired up the debate of whether, with 161 BASE jumping deaths worldwide — five of them in Yosemite — the government has the right to stop people from pursuing a possibly fatal sport on public land.
But that's a lofty discussion to ponder when McNeely is hurtling to the ground with only four and a half seconds to do something about it.
His limbs are sprawled, his belly toward the ground. His mind finds a surreal calm as the earth lurches up to meet him, almost like a dream. He is flying, the wind rushing by his face, and he holds on until he knows the moment must come to an end.
"Time stands still, kind of," he says. "I get this feeling that everything is all okay in this world, and if I do go in [skydiver lingo for dying], it's going to be okay." On count three, he throws out his small pilot chute. On count four, the small chute tugs out a larger rectangular one with a crisp snap.
His velocity brakes. McNeely floats to the ground, landing on both feet like a child hopping off a swing.
Smiling wildly, the adrenaline fully kicked in, he hastily pulls the parachute back into his pack and retreats to his jeep.
Most jumpers would now make a quick getaway: A day jump increases the risk that he's been spotted. McNeely will not, though his inability to hold back has often burned him in the past: It was the second jump off a crane in Salt Lake City when he was tackled by a security guard and nailed with a trespassing charge. It was the second jump off an antenna in Pennsylvania when the wind rammed him into the side of a building, leaving him with a concussion and 19 staples in his head. It was the second jump off El Cap when he got Tased and thrown in jail.
The Greek myth of Icarus comes up a lot in reference to BASE jumping: the human who attached wings to his arms with wax in order to fly. Seized by the glory of flight, he ignored warnings not to fly too close to the sun and plummeted to his death. McNeely doesn't plan on dying — "If I didn't want to live, I wouldn't pull my chute." Still, the myth's parallels are unsettling. He grabs another parachute pack out of his jeep and heads toward the tower.
The whole idea of a reporter witnessing the jump had only come up the night before. McNeely left a voicemail garbled by spotty reception, the only discernible lines of which were "Fuck it!" and "I'm ready to talk to the media."
Once at the site, he seemed to have had — and then dismissed — second thoughts. "I'm probably going to piss people off doing this, but fuck it, I don't care. This is like the slut of jumps — everyone does it." In the end, he asked that the exact location not be revealed.
Some BASE jumpers post videos of their exploits on YouTube. Others try to abide by a strict code of never being seen by outsiders. An attempt last fall to contact jumpers on the sport's most popular website, BLiNC Magazine (run by Mick Knutson, a jumping devotee who lives in the Mission District) tanked. Some dude named Huck typed, "BASE jumpers don't go around sharing their jump info to people, especially reporters. ... BTW, I have 2 Bs [jargon for jumps], one of which I opened and a crane all in downtown, but I won't tell you squat about them ... even for a blowjob!!" nicknitro71 then chimed in: "Unlike Huck, for a blow job and some anal sex I'll tell you all you want to know, bitch!"