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BASE Jumping: Articles: Stories: Steve Morrell Stories: El Capitan

Steve Morrell Stories: El Capitan new

by Melissa Blanton and Bob Morrell
Steve went to jump El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, which required a lot of coordination, not just because of the danger, but because the jump is illegal. Steve had to hike to the jump spot, no small problem in itself. There was an issue with his assistants who did his job with dispatch, yet found that he had not brought enough water. Of course Steve didn't care, because he was not hiking back down... More important than the jump hike, there was the coordination of the landing site, a field some distance from the base. As in Steve’s days of urban building jumping, a good getaway van driver with nerves-of-steel was essential. You had to have a reliable person at the site to spirit you away before the authorities arrived. Unlike the building jumps, there was a much longer time between the time Steve and his team split up and time when they had to be back together to make their escape. In this case, Steve relied on an unidentified female who, to her credit, was in the right spot, ready to pick him up. The nerves-of-steel part is in question.

The jump at El Cap is one of the most spectacular BASE jumps there is (probably explaining why Steve had to do it), allowing one of the maximum free fall times of any cliff in the world. Steve used most of it. When he dumped his pilot chute, he had a spinning malfunction. El Cap is so high that it is one of the few BASE jumps where it makes sense to carry a reserve chute. Steve saw the rock pile coming up quickly cut his main and dumped his reserve.

Steve did not have time to prepare for a landing among a pile of boulders, and cracked some ribs and twisted an ankle pretty badly. Some rock climbers helped carry him down. Unfortunately, the getaway driver was so far away, she could not see Steve once he fell among the rocks and she flipped out. This was in the Days of Yore, before cell phones, so she had no way to communicate with Steve or the hike team. She went to a pay phone and called the park rangers to tell them that a Captain Steve Morrell had been killed on El Capitan. She even gave them Steve's home phone number, though exactly why they would require the phone number of a "dead" man is unclear. No nerves-of-steel, perhaps, but no fool either, she apparently fled.

In what was to foreshadow the infamous hike out of the desert in Saudi Arabia (more on that later), it took six hours for Steve to reach the pickup site, where he found no ride home. How exactly he got home is one of the many Mysteries of Steve, but when he arrived, there were two messages on his answering machine (the Days of Yore did include answering machines). The first message was from the park service, which was quite eager to talk to an actual dead man, having tramped all over the rock pile looking for his body. Finally the rock climbers informed them that he was, in fact, alive. They proceeded to charge him, with "Unauthorized aerial delivery of a person without a permit”. A felony would have gotten Steve dismissed from the Air Force. As Steve, the eternal optimist, said later, "If you throw enough money at something, it will go away," and the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor. Time has obscured exactly how this was done. The lawyer cost many thousands of dollars, but "throwing money" at the problem meant that Steve could stay in the Air Force. One version has the charges being reduced to not with jumping off the cliff, but to "disturbing Kestral nests". Even though Kestrals routinely dive past their nests at over 150 mph, the Federal government believes that baby Kestrals would be disturbed by seeing a human go by at a paltry 120 mph. Another version of the story says this was what the original charge was, there being no real law against jumping off cliffs. As for the Park Service, Steve joked, "We'll have no gravity in this park, young man!" However the Air Force knew about the entire affair because the Park Service had contacted them from the start and the AF decided Steve needed his "wings clipped,' so to speak.

{Major Stephen A. Morrell (USAF) was a pioneer in many areas of skydiving, including CRW and BASE jumping. 1956-1996}

Stephen A. Morrell Memorial Site & Foundation

Submitted by Melissa Blanton and Bob Morrell on 2009-09-23

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