By MIKE MORRIS
The Union Democrat
Two men who allegedly BASE jumped off Yosemite National Park's famed El Capitan are scheduled to appear in federal court later this month.
The Dec. 3 arrest of Walden Grindle, 28, of Angwin, Napa County, and citation of Fernando Motta, 29, of Oakland, was the first BASE jumping-related arrest or citation in the park since 2004, when a man and woman got caught after jumping from El Capitan, said Yosemite spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman.
According to a park report, Grindle and Motta told off-duty ranger Keith Lober, who was rock climbing that early December day, that they planned to BASE jump from the famous granite rock formation that night.
The pair jumped several hours later, and Grindle was arrested by Lober and other rangers shortly after landing. Motta escaped the rangers in the dark, but was cited after he turned himself over to authorities two hours later, Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said.
Grindle, who pleaded not guilty during an arraignment the following day, is due back for a "status conference" in Yosemite's federal courthouse on Jan. 23. Motta, meanwhile, is scheduled for arraignment on Jan. 30, said courtroom deputy Laurie Yu.
Both men were charged with "illegal air delivery," and Motta was charged with marijuana possession. Rangers also seized video from Motta's helmet camera as evidence.
"(The name of the charge) sounds really strange, but they were kind of delivering themselves through the air," Yu said.
BASE jumping illegal in most places, including Yosemite is a sport in which a parachute is used to jump from fixed objects. BASE is an acronym for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth.
"We're not looking at legalizing it any time soon," Gediman said.
With its more than 3,000 vertical-foot drop and breathtaking scenery, El Capitan has been known to attract BASE jumpers.
"It's the ultimate thing for them," Gediman said.
Although illegal, BASE jumping does periodically happen in the park.
"I can't say if it's once or twice a year, but we do know that it's not a big number," Gediman said.
Jumpers usually brave the stunt in poor lighting at dusk or dawn to avoid getting caught.
Occasionally, such as with Grindle and Motta, rangers are tipped off and are waiting to make an arrest at the bottom.
"It's not a top priority in the park," Gediman said. "We can't just sit in El Cap Meadow all night and every day waiting for someone to jump."
BASE jumping can not only create natural resource damage to the park, but it also creates what Gediman calls the "circus aspect" when large crowds gather to watch jumpers in sensitive places like meadows.
Safety is another concern as Yosemite has a history of BASE jumping-related deaths.
In October 1996, a 42-year-old BASE jumper from Arizona died after crashing into the wall of El Cap and nearly missing two rock climbers.
Almost three years later, jumper Frank Gambalie died but not from the free fall. He drowned in the Merced River while trying to escape park police pursuing him after a jump.
A group protesting Gambalie's June 1999 death brought television crews and newspaper reporters to the park later that year to watch them jump from El Cap, Gediman said.
The first three people who jumped were arrested, fined $2,000 and had their equipment confiscated.
But the parachute of the fourth jumper a 60-year-old veteran stuntwoman from Santa Barbara never opened.
"When she hit, the ground shook and all the car alarms went off and we knew she was dead," Gediman said. "After that, obviously, we weren't going to legalize it."
Following that deadly incident, rangers didn't arrest anyone for BASE jumping until 2003, when three men made the giant leap of faith from Half Dome, Freeman said.