By Polly Timberman
Vine jumping. In the Pentecost Islands of New Guinea, it is a death-defying rite of passage for a boy on his way to adulthood.
Vine tied to foot, he dives from a tree-borne perch, tempting the fates in a ritual that has survived some 1,500 years.
The lianas vine, stretched by the weight of a plummeting body, extends until the hair of the jumper brushes the ground. It then snaps back, bouncing him high into the air and providing a moment of weightlessness before he again plunges toward the ground.
It is that weightless moment - that instant between rising and falling - that is hailed as the ultimate thrill of bungee jumping, says Ted Perry of Hood River. At age 50, Ted calls it the experience of a lifetime.
His son Thad, 34, refers to it as absolute terror.
They didn't jump with a vine secured to a foot. Instead, they wore both a seat harness and a chest harness attached to a group of four bungee cords. Bungee Masters of Eugene also required its clients to don a hockey helmet.
They got no arguments from the Perrys. It seemed little enough to ask of someone about to step off a platform and dive a distance equal to the height of a 10-story building. Besides, the Perrys had watched a young woman who dived with a different group that didn't require the helmet. Smacked in the mouth with the cords, she came up bruised and bloody. The Perrys did their jumping off a structure at the Blue River Reservoir, up the McKenzie River from Eugene. They each paid $99 for two jumps, once forward and once backward, off a platform attached outside the railing, 150 feet above water.
Because their jump had been rescheduled, the Perrys were offered a third jump free.
Thanks, but no thanks, they said.
It was father, not son, who saw the jump portrayed on television and decided it would be the thrill of a lifetime.
"I wanted to try it," Ted says.
"And I was gullible enough to go along," says Thad.
Ted contacted Bungee Masters, one of the programs of the Dangerous Sports Club. (Other experiences offered by the club range through paragliding, sky diving, scuba diving, kayaking and kick boxing, among others.) It was instructor John Mayer who strapped them into their protective gear.
The Perrys - owners of Columbia Photo - weren't about to let the experience go by without capturing it on film. Thad took pictures of Ted's jumps. Ted took pictures of Thad's.
It was serious business, Ted says. "Once you step up on that platform, it's all serious deliberation.
"The instructor said you will be scared once you get on that platform," Thad says. "It's part of our genetic makeup to do so. Those who would be having fun doing that have been weeded out of our gene pool."
"When you are ready, you start counting down from five," Ted says. "The group joins in. It gets your courage up."
It was Saturday, Feb. 16, shortly before noon. Those in the group had listened to a few minutes of the history of the sport, then practiced jumping from a small ledge to prepare them for the real thing. Students were told to keep their head up and look out toward the horizon, and to try to not grab the cord as they bounced.
"Everyone grabbed the cord," Thad says. "It's a natural reaction."
The result was as predicted: scraped hands.
As the jumper plunged toward the waters of the reservoir (about 10 feet deep) the 50-foot-long cords would stretch to 100 feet before contracting and hurling the jumper 80 feet back upwards toward the platform.
"That's the real fun, the bounce back up - if your weren't so terrified," Thad says. "The initial fall is very quiet. It's the bouncing you remember more."
Ted likens the stomach-wrenching sensation of the free fall to that experienced to a lesser degree on a roller coaster or in an elevator. The speed is about 65 mph going down, and about 70 mph on the way back up.
"The bounce is more of a thrill than the initial jump," Ted agrees.
They had been told that at the apex of the bounce they could try some rolls or somersaults - anything but a spin. "We didn't see anyone do much of anything," Thad says. Ted did some whooping and hollering on the bounce, however. "You couldn't print what he said," says Thad, adding that few jumpers yelled anything at all.
Once the bouncing was finished, a line was dropped and the group hauled the jumper back up.
As Thad climbed back over the rail from his first jump, "the adrenaline was flowing. I didn't know if I could stand up." Not ready to step off the platform again just yet, he watched as a young man did three in a row before stepping up for his second jump.
"You experience the same terror each time. It didn't get any easier," he admits. He and Thad agree that jumping backward was more comfortable than frontward, however.
After Thad's first jump, the instructor told him "I was watching you on the platform, and I saw the most terrified look on your face."
"I believe it," Thad replied. He says it would have been nice to be able to loosen up and enjoy the experience.
Although they had eaten a hearty breakfast, they experienced no nausea. Ted bruised his back and hand a little. Thad experienced a little whiplash in his back.
Ted says he wouldn't have missed the experience, "but it's better to watch," he says.
According to legend, it was desperation, not courage, that inspired the forerunner of the bungee jump in the Pentecost Islands. It was a woman, trying to escape from an enraged husband, who made the leap. She had two choices - either climb down and face him or tie a lianas vine around her ankle and dive off to make her escape.
The tribesmen saw the jump and were humiliated by her courage. They vowed that all men would have to prove themselves by matching her bravery. They built a tower more than 60 feet tall and would dive off, the vine catching them just as their forehead touched the ground.
National Geographic did an extensive photo story in December, 1970, on the unusual rite of passage. The same year, according to Bungee Masters, a group of daredevils at Oxford, England, formed the original Dangerous Sports Club. They did all sorts of dangerous stunts, including tying bungee cords to their ankles and jumping off the highest places they could find.
The sport then lay dormant for about 15 years until A.J. Hackett of New Zealand took a bungee plunge off the Eiffel Tower and other places. Club Elastique de France was formed and more than 10,000 jumps have since taken place in that country.
Then, in 1988, John and Peter Kockelman of Palo Alto, Calif., formed the first commercial bungee organization. The company has arranged more than 15,000 jumps since then. (It was that group that did the controversial Reebok commercial.) Then Hackett formed a commercial operation in his native New Zealand, overseeing about 60,000 jumps since then, according to Bungee Masters. In those 60,000 jumps, three people died of heart attacks.
Two women died of accidents attributed to the foolish manner in which the jumps were performed. Both times a crane was used. One woman bounced upward and collided with the crane; the other hit the crane on her way down.
Miss Australia tried the sport and broke her collar bone.
Deaths and injuries are usually attributable to human error, according to Bungee Masters. There have been no recorded deaths from the sport in North America. (There is also a commercial firm at Vancouver, B.C.)
All the same, the sport hovers between being legal and illegal. It is now illegal in California to jump off bridges. The Bureau of Land Management has made it illegal to jump off some Oregon bridges.
Bungee Masters, in business since 1989, is one of a number of commercial operations springing up. The firm is gathering statistical data on this and other sports to counter those who try to halt bungee jumping. They are also putting together a safety network, to promote the use of safe equipment and techniques.
Ted and Thad Perry both attest to the careful attention to safety measures during their jumps.
Not that they intend to do it again next weekend, however. The terror is still fresh in their minds.