Three weeks ago, on February 11, Dan Osman would have turned 50. He died 15 years ago this year. A friend remembers adventures in bridge jumping with this climber and rope jumper who went bigger and bigger.
"The edge ... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over." – Hunter S. Thompson
Perched on the edge of a concrete pillar with the girders of the bridge above me, I could feel the rope sway in the breeze. The cord ran down a sloping section of concrete, then hung into the darkness and arced away from me to an anchor on a steel beam over 50 feet away. The stillness of the deep night was broken as a car passed overhead, tires thumping on the metal joints in the roadway. My friends Jason and Dan waited behind me in the darkness.
I could just make out the trees 250 feet below. The rope tugging on my chest harness encouraged me to jump, but my sense of self-preservation resisted. I’m here, I thought, I should just go for it. But: This is not right.
I started to turn around, but two feet pressed into my backside and pushed me toward the edge. My feet slipped off and my right hand grabbed for something, anything, but only slapped the cold concrete. I sailed backward toward the ground. As I fell my mind whirred, trying to grasp what was happening. The dampness of the cool air rushed past my face. The rope gradually began to pull my GriGri and I entered into a giant pendulum. I let loose a whoop as adrenaline and relief surged through me.
Back and forth I swung, in decreasing arcs. Finally regaining control of my nerves, I shakily untied the backup knot from my waist harness. I pulled the rest of the rope out of my backpack, lowered the end to the ground and rappelled.
As I touched down into the bushes at the bottom, I had to lean for a moment on the rope, trying to balance on my shaking legs. Once I was able to stand, I unclipped from the GriGri.
“I’m off,” I yelled up into the darkness.
Clambering up the steep embankment under the bridge, I eased over a barbed-wire fence, then climbed back up to the bridge using a black-painted, homemade rope ladder. My friend and roommate, Jason “Singer” Smith, was waiting for me on the causeway.
“Dude, that was rad,” Singer exclaimed, a mischievous grin lighting his face. “I convinced Dan that he should push you off. You’re the first person he’s hucked from a bridge.”
“He’s never done that?”
“No,” Singer said. “He doesn’t push people to do things they aren’t comfortable with. But I convinced him to make an exception for you.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, thanks. I guess.”
I followed Singer back along the catwalk to the pillar and our gear stash. Dan Osman had just finished pulling the rope up and was casually walking, unroped, toward us along a narrow I-beam. I saw a cautious smile on his face, and could tell he was suppressing a laugh, but he spoke sheepishly.
“I’m sorry about pushing you over the edge,” Dan said. “How’s your hand?”
“It’s OK,” I replied. It actually still hurt. “That was a hell of a rush. I was about to bail, but that was awesome.”
“Yeah? So you’re psyched to go again?” Dan asked.
“Maybe not tonight.”
Dan loaded the rope into his GriGri, clipped it to his chest harness, tied a back-up knot at his waist, and stuffed the remainder of the rope into a pouch attached to his right leg. As another car thumped along above our heads, he ducked under the large beam, climbed up to the edge of the roadway, hung upside down from his toes, pointed a fist at the ground and then dropped like a missile into the pale emerging dawn.
My introduction to Dan Osman, or DanO to many who knew him, came in high school through his feature roles in many of the climbing videos my friends and I watched. He had developed a host of hard sport routes at Cave Rock, above Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and had climbed in Alaska and Kyrgyzstan. He was also known for adrenaline-fueled exploits such as free-soloing, speed-soloing and climbing unfrozen waterfalls. The image that still resonates in my mind, from the film New River Gorge: A Climbing Exposé, is of him free-soloing Gun Club
(5.12c) in New River Gorge, West Virginia. Dan was wearing only black tights decorated with white skulls and crossbones, and Metallica blared from a portable stereo at the base of the cliff, as he moved fluidly up the overhanging line. His black, shoulder-length hair swayed below him as he reached from hold to hold. Other images showed him crashing a BMX bike, ziplining off the Witch tower in the Needles, and taking a 200-foot whipper in Yosemite—for fun.
I remember thinking that he seemed so aggressive and wild that he would probably shun neophyte climbers such as my friends and me. However, when I met him in 1997, in California, I was surprised to find Dan both welcoming and unassuming. He had come to San Leandro to visit the A5 shop, which was housed in The North Face headquarters, where I worked. Singer, who worked at A5, introduced us. Dan grasped my hand firmly and greeted me with a gracious, almost shy, “How’s it going?” He was half-Japanese, slight at 5’10” and 155 pounds but muscled. He was surprisingly soft-spoken.
Since Dan would occasionally come down from his home near Lake Tahoe to work at A5, Singer invited him to stay with us in Oakland whenever he wanted. When Dan was around we often went on nighttime adventures, usually jumping from bridges. These escapades were open to anyone who wanted to spend weeknights scuffling around under dirty bridges.
After the night Dan pushed me off the I-280 bridge, we returned two more times, and I jumped once per visit. Though one jump was enough for me, Dan would drop from the bridge until some of us had dozed off. He seemed to have an insatiable appetite to fill every moment with thrills. During the next few months, Singer and I went on jumping excursions with him to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Foresthill Bridge, near Auburn, California.
Though at first Dan’s bridge jumping seemed foolhardy, I came to realize that he was careful and methodical. He perpetually made improvements to his system of rigging the anchors and ropes, and he customized gear specifically for jumping. I still have a chest harness he made, based on an A5 design. His confidence and proficiency in rigging eventually assuaged my concerns.
After work one night in January, 1998, Dan, Singer, our roommate Jim, and I had dinner at our apartment before an outing to the Golden Gate Bridge. Dan looked as excited as a child as he told us about his reconnaissance foray the night before. He had found a way to access the underside of the bridge’s northern end, where he could set up a rope that would swing the jumper out toward the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. He told us about all of the motion detectors and video cameras he had seen and that he thought they could be avoided. The four of us set off around 10 p.m.
When we reached Battery Spencer, a promontory overlooking the northern end of the bridge, Dan’s friend Chris met us. He was going to shoot video and I‘d shoot photos. It was now after 11 p.m., and traffic had thinned. We clambered over an old wire fence, and picked our way down the steep hill.
Dan tossed a rope over a beam about 12 feet overhead, and hoisted his black rope ladder into place. As Dan, Singer, and Jim climbed the ladder to the girders above, Chris and I set up our tripods and camera equipment on the ground near a cliff that dropped 100 feet to the water. After the three jumpers ascended the rope ladder, Dan pulled the ladder up and piled it on the beam. Chris and I whiled away the time admiring the lights of San Francisco. A cargo ship slid slowly under the bridge into the bay.
The dark shapes of our companions moved along beams and around girders above the void. Over the walkie-talkie, Dan let us know they were in position and setting up the anchor and rope.
The walkie-talkie came alive.
“Hey,” Dan whispered, “there’s someone coming down the hill with a flashlight. Hang tight.”
Chris and I peered up the hill but could see nothing through the vegetation.
We started to collapse the legs of our tripods.
Dan radioed back.
“That person is getting closer,” he said. “You guys should get out of here.”
Slinging our packs onto our backs and cradling our tripods, Chris and I scrambled away from the edge of the cliff. We ran, stooped, toward where the bridge met the land and hid behind a concrete barrier to watch whatever was about to happen.
A man with a flashlight walked into the space we had just vacated, and shone the beam up into the girders. It stopped and we knew that he had spotted the piled-up ladder. He pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt and talked into it.
Chris and I crawled into the bushes.
“If we can get back to the cars, I can give you a ride home,” Chris whispered.
Soon two other men were walking down the hill to where the first man was standing. We shuffled farther into the brush and came upon a chain-link fence topped with strands of barbed wire. Chris scaled the fence, straddled the barbed wire and eased down to the ground on the other side. I climbed up the fence with his backpack, held the barbed wire down with one hand and hucked his gear over with my other hand. He caught his pack and we repeated the process for my pack and our tripods.
We pushed through the thick vegetation, hoping to end up somewhere down the road from our vehicles. As we came upon a gravel service road, the headlights of a car rolled slowly down the hill toward us. We ducked back into the bushes and a white sedan with the Golden Gate Park insignia crept past, its side-mounted spotlight sweeping over our heads.
After the car passed out of sight, we dashed across the road with our gear and into the bushes on the other side. At the main road, we saw a collection of police and park ranger cars among our vehicles at the top of the hill.
“If we go up there, they might search us,” Chris said. “You have climbing equipment in your pack. I just have my video equipment. I’ll just tell them I was shooting footage of the bridge with San Fran as a backdrop. You wait here. I’ll pick you up on my way back down.”
“OK,” I said. “Good luck.”
Dan was wearing only black tights decorated with white skulls and crossbones, and Metallica blared from a portable stereo at the base of the cliff, as he moved fluidly up the overhanging line.
As Chris started to walk up the hill to his truck, I moved up an embankment and hid behind some boulders. My heart continued pounding as the minutes stretched on. Did he get arrested? How am I going to get home? Will I get busted too?
Eventually, a pickup truck drove slowly down the road. When it was nearly to my hiding place, the headlights flashed. I jumped up, skidded down the dirt, ran around the back of the truck, yanked open the door, and hopped in. Chris pressed the gas pedal and we escaped.
We spoke little on the way back to Oakland, he dropped me off, and I fell asleep wondering what was happening to my friends on the bridge.
Sometime around sunrise Dan, Singer, and Jim woke me, their faces a mix of exhaustion and excitement. After I told them about my escape with Chris, they told me about their morning.
Dan decided to get a few last jumps in before dismantling his set up. Wanting his last jump to beat his previous record, Dan chose a new jump-off point, which required him to run the line over another rope hanging below.
They had hidden, shivering from the cold, among the girders under the roadway for four hours until two bridge-workers, upset about having been awakened so early in the morning, clambered down to find them. One of the workers held them at bay with a large wrench while the other collected the rope-jumping gear. Then the workers herded Dan, Singer and Jim up to the roadway, where they met police and Golden Gate Bridge Authority officers, who confiscated their gear and drove them to their station, in San Francisco. The authorities interrogated them and threatened to charge each with the maximum fine of $10,000. While being reprimanded, Dan peered over the officers’ shoulders at the bank of monitors displaying different camera views of the bridge.
“I think I know how to avoid the sensors next time,” Dan told me.
A few weeks later Singer, Jim and Dan received their fine notices in the mail and were relieved to find they each owed only $36.
Summer came and offered new jumping opportunities in Yosemite Valley. That autumn Dan achieved record-breaking jumps of over 1,000 feet from the Leaning Tower in Yosemite.
Late in the evening on November 23, 1998, my phone rang. I had just gotten out of the shower in my basement apartment in Carbondale, Colorado. When I picked up the phone, I could hear Singer crying on the other end.
“Dan’s dead,” he said.
I froze and stared blankly across my small bedroom, focusing on the bookshelf. Several seconds passed.
“Oh no,” I stammered. “What happened?”
“I don’t really know,” Singer said. “Nobody seems to know. I just talked to MC (Mihai Constantinescu) and Frank (Gambalie). They were on the phone with him when he jumped from the Leaning Tower. The phone went dead after 11 seconds. They’re driving to Yosemite from Tahoe right now.”
Eventually I replied. “Thanks for letting me know.”
I replaced the handset, and stared vaguely across the room at a poster of Dan jumaring on a free-hanging rope on El Capitan. His black hair whipped away from his dark-tanned face as he pointed promisingly into the distance.
How could he be gone? He seemed so indestructible. Had his confidence and enthusiasm persuaded me that the risks he was taking would not catch up with him? How could his strength and years of experience not keep him from slipping over the edge he so frequently walked?
That evening in Yosemite he stumbled over that edge.
After hitching a ride with Miles Dasher, of Lake Tahoe, back to Yosemite to retrieve some fixed ropes and gear, Dan decided to get a few last jumps in before dismantling his set up. Wanting his last jump to beat his previous record, Dan chose a new jump-off point, which required him to run the line over another rope hanging below. The jump line may have snapped when it snagged against a pulley attached to the other line. The ropes were likely weakened by several weeks of exposure to weather and more than a dozen jumps.
I only knew Dan a year, but in that time he welcomed me into his world and gave me a taste of an untethered life. A life in which success is not measured by material gain, but in overcoming mental obstacles and creating experiences with friends.
I am still thrilled when I recall him hanging like a bat from the I-280 bridge, then silently punching downward through the air as the sun rose over the hills.
Lee Pruitt has been climbing since 1989. He is a photographer currently based out of Boulder, Colorado.