Chris Van Leuven
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Ryan Sheridan & Priscilla Mewborne

Living the highlife in Yosemite

By sharing a tiny canvas cabin and working menial labor jobs to reside in the park, Ryan Sheridan and Priscilla Mewborne maximize their time on the soaring walls of Yosemite.

Sheridan resides in a 10’ X 12’ white canvas cabin in Curry Village in Yosemite Valley. He shares the tiny space with his partner, professional athlete Mewborne. They’re crammed into the tight rectangle frame house among piles of climbing gear, static ropes, and aerial silks.

For eight years Sheridan has lived here; Mewborne five. Summers are baking hot, and the winters are cold and snowy, with strong winds blowing overhead. Nearby, Glacier Point Apron — nearly a mile wide and thousands of feet tall — reaches up to the sky. The beauty overwhelms them.

To live in Yosemite, Sheridan ekes out a living for the park’s concessionaire doing bike and raft rentals, stocking linens, shoveling snow, emptying trash cans, and working for employee recreation. Mewborne works as a hotel porter in Curry Village, where she drives a golf cart and helps guests by carrying luggage to their rooms.

This allows them to live legally in the park. Unlike the rest of us, they don’t have to adhere to annual visitation limits — two weeks during peak season — or deal with the day-use permit system enacted during the rise of Covid.

Photo of Ryan Sheridan climbing South Seas while establishing a highline across the Alcove

Ryan Sheridan climbs South Seas while establishing a highline across the Alcove. Photo by Justin Olsen

“If you don’t get a job for the park service, the concessionaire, or others, law enforcement will notice your vehicle,” Sheridan says. “Shoveling snow eight hours a day is less work than running away from the rangers.”

Mewborne adds,  “More often than not I find myself putting in long days. This includes working a full shift, heading straight to the big walls once I’m off, and staying out until it is time to clock back in the next day.”

Over their tenure in the park, they’ve balanced low-skill jobs with high-skill professional athleticism and expert rigging. Sheridan applies his background in physics from the University of Buffalo and Mewborne uses her engineering degree from Cal State Fullerton to make high-strength, naturally protected highlines.Highlining means walking across one-inch webbing strung between vertical points, and setting it naturally, meaning not piercing the rock with a drill to install permanent bolts.

If you commit your day to tying knots and rigging you might as well be comfy. Sheridan secures the ropes while establishing the highline “bottom of our heart.” Photo: Devon Delattre

 

Mewborne climbing towards one of the best campsites in the park, Peanut Ledge (Ryan Sheridan

Sheridan and Mewborne’s strong big wall climbing skills, where they rely on pitons hammered into thin cracks  to ascend the massive walls of Yosemite, allow them to access vertical locations seen by very few. Midway up these routes, Mewborne does aerial silks with the security of the climbing rope tied to her harness and tucked out of view. In one image she posted on Instagram (@lovealwayspriscilla), she hangs inverted, with her silks wrapped around one leg and firmly clasped with one hand. Snow-filled gullies shine in the background and Horsetail Fall, which spills over the precipice from the top of El Cap, flows behind her.

“Every climbing route is so unique and in order to silk from a wall there are a number of factors that must align. It’s very exciting when I find a place that is steep enough to fly from and when it works out, it really makes the whole experience for me.”

In fall 2021 Mewborne and Sheridan partnered with highline experts Ryan Jenks, Alonso Rodriguez, Greg Kommel, and Jose Oliva to rig a massive highline from the edge of Leaning Tower, above Bridal Veil Falls. The goal was to walk the highline, do aerial silks and perform record-length rope jumps. They rigged the jump in remembrance of Dan “Dano” Osman, who died at age 35 leaping from that very location.

“Yosemite’s Leaning Tower is about 1,150 feet tall. The exposure is really intimidating. Luckily we were prepared to make things as safe as possible. We did thousands of break tests, set up hundreds of highlines and did over a dozen rope jumps to feel ready to repeat the Osman rope jump off Leaning Tower,” said project leader Jenks of the massively complicated jump.

For years during the ‘90s, Osman took the sport of rope jumping to extremes and starred in several Masters of Stone climbing films. In the movies he free soloed at a high level, climbed active waterfalls with ice tools and flung himself off bridges and cliffs, plummeting hundreds of feet before climbing ropes stretched tight and arrested him. Osman’s final jumps from Leaning Tower were so long that at rope’s end he flew through the space between giant pines that grow up from the base of the wall. He died on November 23, 1998, when his rope jammed up in the rigging during mid-flight from Leaning Tower.

Twenty-three years after Osman’s final jump, to help build the Leaning Tower rope system, Sheridan and Mewborne climbed the hard aid route Roulette (A4) on the face of Leaning Tower. Sheridan and Mewborne chose Roulette because of its location on the wall — it faces directly across the canyon from Fifi Buttress. As they climbed the route over several days and nights, they fixed static lines up the route for use in rigging and hauling up supplies.

Osman in his element before his tragic death in 1998. Photo: Eric Perlman

 

One night after completing her shift, Mewborne found herself leading a crux pitch on Roulette, when suddenly a piece of gear ripped out and she fell back to the belay. Between all the hiking, climbing and anchor rigging, they’d been in the field 20 hours a day. Then they’d stumble back to work and do it all over again.

After months spread out over weekends, the line was ready. On November 23, twenty-three years to the day Osman made his final leap from Leaning Tower, Rodriguez successfully walked across the 300-meter highline located 1,500 feet above the ground and Mewborne danced on her silks positioned midway across the highline. Then, one after another, five people successfully leapt off the edge of Leaning Tower, in a massive free fall Osman called “Flossing the Sky.” One jumped with arms and legs outstretched like a starfish, another did a backflip, and Sheridan, last on the line, did a triple backflip into a cork screw spin. He completed his rotation as wind rushed through his ears like a jet airplane and the ropes stretched tight on either side of his body. The catch was “softer than most climbing whippers I’ve taken,” he says.

Gear safety has improved over the two-plus decades since Osman’s final jump but rope jumping remains a sport practiced by very few. The team, utilizing the finest tools of the trade, plus jumping with a redundant system, two ropes instead of a single one as Osman had done, succeeded without incident.

The Leaning Tower jump was a tribute to Dan “Dano” Osman who pioneered Yosemite rope jumping in the 1990s. Photo: Andrea Nicole

“I did it at last light, and it was beautiful,” Sheridan says describing his jump from Leaning Tower. “I could see lights from Merced, The Rostrum where I did a previous rope jump, and I could see the light behind the Tunnel View overlook.”

With the tribute  jump behind them,  and the joyous memory of the flight still firmly in their minds, Sheridan and Mewborne are back at work dreaming of other projects. In the meantime they are back to working long hours at various jobs in the Valley, keeping their Yosemite dreams alive.

To view footage of the Flossing the Sky jump from Leaning Tower, visit Ryan Jenks’ social channels, including youtube.com/c/HowNOT2, Instagram @hownottohighline, and his website hownot2.com. A tribute to Dan Osman’s final Leaning Tower jump is also featured In Masters Of Stone 5 by Eric Perlman.