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Ranger Confidential: Secrets of the National Park Rangers

True tales from the front lines--and behind the scenes--of America's national parks.

There’s an insider’s tour of Yosemite National Park. And only park rangers know the points of interest. Places like the campsites favored by "The Swatter"–a habituated bear that had slapped so many tourists it had earned itself a nickname. The backcountry clearing where a ranger caught a pack of wannabe ninjas swinging around nunchucks. The waterfall where the unlucky swimmer went over the edge. The brink where a sad, fat man leaped off a thousand-foot cliff. The restroom where some freak loaded human feces into the soap dispenser. The granite monolith where a woman fell from the sky.

That last one happened on a gorgeous Indian summer day. In the meadow below El Capitan, a crowd watched 58-year-old Jan Davis as she leaped off the Yosemite landmark, 3,500 feet above the valley floor. Davis and others were protesting a BASE-jumping ban—by jumping–and now she was twisting in the air, wiggling in an apparent attempt to reach her parachute chord.

"Yeah!" The protestors whistled and cheered as she approached 100 miles per hour. "Whoo-hoo! Go baby!" Another second went by. Then another.

Ranger Mary Litell-Hinson wasn’t cheering.

Five seconds had passed since Davis illegally BASE-jumped off El Capitan and the wind whipping at her clothes sounded like someone thumbing through a deck of cards, only louder. Much louder. It was a sound the ranger would never forget.

Twelve seconds. Chants changed from "Go baby go" to "Open, open, open."

Thirteen seconds. Davis was falling at a rate approaching 120 miles per hour.

Fourteen seconds. Fifteen. Davis had her hands at her sides, putting her body in what skydivers call "the boxman position"–a belly-to-ground position ideal for free falling.

Sixteen seconds. Seventeen seconds. Davis rolled slightly to the left. Eighteen seconds. She covered her face with both hands. Nineteen seconds. The rangers and a gathering of more than 150 spectators heard what sounded like an explosion. The ground shuddered. There was a brief moment of silence before a car alarm went off. The irritating honks and wails pierced the air. A child began to cry.

Davis, knowing that her parachute would be confiscated after her illegal jump, had borrowed one that was dispensable. Unfortunately, the release mechanism was different than the one on her own chute, and she failed to discover that in time.

Mary ran to the ambulance and climbed into the back. She dug through the packs until she found the heavy-duty rubber gloves. As she approached the spot where Davis hit the ground, she knew the stops on the Yosemite ranger tour had just increased by one. But this was one place she’d never need to visit again.

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