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A Greater Fear than Falling

Since I've been slacking on posting fresh material, I figure I'll just keep digging in the archives. Below is a piece I published in the Mountain Gazette many years ago. Admittedly, it may be a little over-written. But I enjoyed writing it and was happy to see it published. 

The jagged shale that lines the walls and a great portion of the bottom of Flathead River is rivaled only by the coldness of the river itself. By August, the water has warmed from springtime temperatures, but northern Montana snow melt never really warms so much as sags to a cold burn. Into the North Fork, in these conditions, my cousin Ryan and I had decided to jump.

We had left our kayaks tucked in an eddy, and the cliff tore apart in our hands as we scaled it from the water. At about twenty-five feet, we confronted our ignorance of what lurked beneath the river, and I motioned Ryan to stop. Although we had just swum in the fast, frothy water below, all of the rocks and submerged ledges had not been disclosed to us. We decided this was high enough, but, wanting to best his older cousin, Ryan leapt first.

“Did you hit bottom?”

“No,” he gasped. So, I jumped in where he did. As I emerged, he must have seen my face.

“You hit bottom.”

“Yes,” I said, wincing, unsure whether it was a grievous injury or just the water. I swam into the eddy, crawled painfully up the sharp, fractured rocks and dragged myself into the boat. It was only a gash on my foot. I smiled up to the sun, which, along with the dry air, warmed me quickly; I was soon off, chasing Ryan into the next set of rapids.

To take the leap into cold, unknown waters is, for me, a sublime activity. As a pastime, jumping from heights is almost primal in its allure. Cliff-jumping is not base-jumping, however, and a joy-seeker should not conflate it with diving from the La Quebrada cliffs of Acapulco.

Rather, it is a more pedestrian event – a stunt that explorers of the old West would have indulged after a long haul through treacherous territory. Indeed, I do not consider the sport “extreme” – a term so tired that even the mocking of its usage is trite.

Cliff-jumping is a simple pleasure – a pure act born from childlike curiosity that thrives on the potent formula of forsaking personal control to comfortless heights and the unknowns of natural bodies of water. Those variables always make you stop, even if just for a second, and look inward before stepping from the edge.

Most of the time, it is not the height that gives me pause; it’s the water temperature. I’m afraid of being so shocked by sudden immersion that I may forget to swim – a definite possibility when doing a river jump.

Rivers, as opposed to lakes, move. Upon entry, you are propelled, sometimes into objects you were aiming to avoid.

On the Middle Fork of the American River in California, there’s a mandatory portage of a thirty-foot waterfall called Ruck-a-Chucky. To facilitate the ride, some companies, such as AO Rafting, send unmanned boats over the falls and retrieve them at the bottom.

To capture the boats, guides must take what’s known as “The Jump”. The job entails springing ten feet off a fifteen foot ledge into a small eddy pool that forms behind a boulder resting mid-river. As soon as you surface, you have to swim hard to the rock or be swept downstream – an occurrence that can keep you under for an unpleasant time while rinsing you in eddy wash called the “Wooggedy-Wooggedy”. While the act could be viewed unnecessary, I deem it thrilling – but it does not equate to a true cliff jump.

A cliff jump is more akin to running down a dock and launching into a mountain lake. To many people, the genre does not appeal, but dock-jumping holds a special place in Americana – an act reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn and, in our time, of advertisements for Country Time lemonade and Oppenheimer mutual funds.

I’ve always been exposed to bodies of water – oceans, lakes, rivers – and I consider myself a good swimmer. But I also have a fertile imagination when it comes to what else is in the water with me. When you start running down a dock, you can’t just stop at the end. You’re committed, and there’s always the possibility that an open-mouthed crocodile is waiting for you. Splinters be damned. An unforeseen encounter with a croc can abridge the whole adventure. With cliff jumping, the perceived danger is probably greater than the actual threat, but occasionally a mishap does occur.

This unknown factor provides much of the thrill. By voluntarily soaring into an uncomfortable yet survivable situation, you are abstracting yourself from the every-day. After you escape a ledge, nothing enters your mind. In fact, all thoughts take flight, the world departs and black water rushes to meet you. This is why, in my estimation, an ideal cliff jump is between thirty-five and forty feet. From this height, there is enough elevation to make you uneasy, but not enough distance to allow time for thinking.

It is not just the temporary reprieve from life. There is also the scare. How often anymore as adults do we really allow ourselves to be frightened? Being scared is a state largely brought on by uncertainty, and people tend not to enjoy that. Most live their whole lives walking the precarious line between being stuck in a rut and trying to maintain a predictable existence. So, a lot of people are afraid to take a leap into unfamiliar waters. That’s fine; not everyone needs to. But subscribing to absolutes – having “No Fear” – is an emotionally stunted position to take. I think it is for this reason why I disavow those who are “extreme” in the same way as I reject extremism and extremists.

True, cliff-jumping may not be the answer. Given all of the variables to the activity, it can be dangerous; but then again, so can going for a bike ride.

Unfairly or not, cliff-jumping has acquired a terrible reputation. The problem is that the deed is associated with dead or paralyzed teenagers who had drunk too much down at an old rock quarry and felt they could perform the impossible. This is unfortunate because some of the best jumping can be found on historic ground.

The oldest marble quarry in the U.S. is in the town of Dorset, Vermont, just north of Manchester on Route 30. Opened in 1785, the quarry has long since been abandoned and is filled by natural run-off.

As popular, deep, graffiti-strewn swimming holes go, this one has its share of stories about bodies at the bottom, unrequited love, and mutant fish. Despite the tall tales, the Dorset quarry’s redeeming quality is a series of ledges of different heights that fall into water which, in most places, is at least one hundred feet deep. The most popular cliff is about thirty feet high. The most dangerous cliff is near the back, roughly forty-five feet off the water. While you could throw yourself off the thirty-footer in almost any manner and be threatened only by meningitis, the forty-five footer is a bit more caustic. There are several large and shapely chunks of marble submerged in deceptively shallow positions that you need to steer between.

This is the type of jump that cautionary tales are made of. Once you step off that ledge, it is nearly impossible to alter your trajectory. So, depth-perception problems are not what you want to bring to this feat. In all cases, reading the water’s depth is obviously important, for reasons of safety as well as for gauging the potential in a site.

A good example of this need is evinced by a forty-foot cliff on the northeastern edge of Relief Reservoir in California’s Emigrant Wilderness. At first glance, the water appears shallow, but that’s because the approach is hindered by undergrowth. Upon further inspection, the pellucid water is so deep you can’t see bottom. Consequently, a jump site that normally would be overlooked is one of the best I’ve seen.

This cliff was a unique find for a couple reasons, mostly relating to its aesthetic qualities. Jumping is not just invigorating; it can be a pleasure to watch, especially when you see the happiness – and relief – on someone’s face afterward. The sounds are crucial, moreover. Whether or not you shout, if you are at any height greater than twenty-five feet, the air slips past your ears so fast that all they pick up is a deafening whir.

For the witness, though, jumps generally consist of a terrific combination of three sounds: an echoic “whoo-hoo,” followed by the slap-splash of impact, and then the gasp and “yeah” of when the person emerges. At Relief Reservoir, the hollowness of the cliff made these sounds sing across the water, to such an extent that people came out of woods to jump with us – although we were nearly five miles from a trailhead!

Sharing a jump is a great feeling, but too many people at a spot can hinder the experience. Maybe this is because I view cliff-jumping as a sort of renewable secular baptism – an act that should be performed only among friends. So, there are few things more appealing to me than an undiscovered jumping spot.

My last cliff jump was exactly this. It occurred at Big Lost Lake, north of Ketchum, Idaho, three weeks after Flathead River. Only a couple miles in from a trailhead, the lake nestles at the bottom of a scree field and appears to be a caldera, though it is not. I was hiking with my friends Jamie and Devon, and we had spied the lake from the ridge above, where we were at about 10,000 feet and decidedly off-trail. We skied the scree almost right down to the water; at the bottom, Jamie promptly found a jumpable cliff. He and I are like-minded in our pursuit of good jumps.

Our ankles still smarted from the scree, which also lined the lake bottom, so we knew to keep our sneakers on – a move that should be considered for almost any jump. This leap wasn’t complex, but it did require some calculating to determine exactly the best place to aim for. Jamie leapt first and was successful. I was ready to go, but hesitated, thinking of my foot.

As I stood about to jump, I entered the trance of being on the edge of a rock over water – the state in which, after a while, nothing of the world exists but thoughts of jumping. Often the thoughts partake in a dialogue in which Hope and Fear – or, many times, two Fears – try to outweigh each other.

Standing atop that cliff, one Fear looked down to the water and said to me (a third person distinct from the two Fears), “There is nothing but jagged rock just ten feet under the water, but if you fling your arms out, you won’t go as deep.”

The Second Fear said, “It’s fifteen feet deep, not ten; and even if you do keep your arms out, this is a thirty-something foot drop. You’ll slap your arms pretty hard.”

The First Fear said, “There’s also a submerged boulder that you’ll have to jump to the right of.”

The Second Fear said, “But if you jump too far to the right and not far enough out, you’ll be sure to clip the overhang below.”

That’s how you know when you’ve thought too much – when you entertain a dialogue between You’ll probably hit the bottom and You’re sure to hit the bottom. But I didn’t quit thinking entirely, though I did switch subjects.

It’s human enough to be afraid, whether of the unknowns of the looming water or the world at large. But I profess that venturing beyond your comfort zone every now and again can be beneficial. I don’t want a life of swimming pools and diving boards. How much they are missing who will not embrace human vulnerability, and all our tentative gestures.

I thought all these thoughts, and more besides, then plunged neatly into the cold water.

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