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Tuesday, July 10, 1990

Bungee jumping: Moment of petrifying personal truth

By Cliff Pfenning

The fear that courses through your veins when you're standing on a little platform, looking straight down at slow-moving Grave Creek, 106 feet below, is inconceivable.

No matter that you're harnessed to 50-foot-long elastic "bungee" cords.

No matter that you've spent hours mentally preparing yourself for the view and the sensation.

It is a personal moment of truth. No amount of friendly encouragement or peer pressure can budge you. There is no fire-engulfed building to escape from, just the nervous tension of personal challenge - searching for courage or insanity.

Then, in an instant, the moment ends in a scream-filled plunge downward, followed by several fantastic rebounds.

"It's the scariest thing I've ever done, but I'm so happy I did," said University of Oregon student Laura Schaer last Sunday after jumping, for the first time, from the Grave Creek bridge about 120 miles south of Eugene and 10 miles north of Galice.

"I feel like I can do anything now."

Welcome to bungee jumping.

What historically has been a right of manhood or a sign of the coming harvest on South Pacific islands has turned into a mainstream test of personal fortitude and daring.

Five members of the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club who leaped from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1979 are credited, or blamed, for bringing bungee jumping to America.

The legality of the sport is, not surprisingly, something of a gray area. Who would think you'd need laws governing whether people can jump off bridges with giant rubber bands attached to them?

Curious adventurers lined up to attempt their own bit of insanity over the past decade and bungee jumping eventually evolved into a business in which people pay as much as $99 per jump in San Francisco even though the perceived risk is so high.

"It's inconceivable that you can do it, but you find a reserve of substance you didn't know you had," said Greg Jones of Eugene, the pioneer of Oregon bungee jumping. "It's priceless."

"I have friends who skydive and it will take some of them 20 minutes before they'll jump. They really have to work up the courage."

Jones who has been jumping with bungee cords for a year and a half, got into the sport through John Kockelman, who operates a highly successful Bay Area-based bungee jumping business.

Kockelman helped make a controversial television commercial for Reebok that was pulled from the airwaves earlier this year. The ad showed two bungee jumpers leaping from a bridge and implied that one did not survive.

The commercial showcased the danger in the sport, but the reality is far different.

Jones and those who jump with him use four cords attached to the bridge and the jumper. Each of the cords, which come from military parachutes used to land heavy artillery and machinery, are designed to stretch to twice their length and withstand 1,500 pounds of stress per square inch.

A few of the nearly 20 people in a group that jumped from the Grave Creek bridge last Sunday, however, were heavy enough to stretch the cords to a little more than twice their 50-foot-length. They sank part way into the river before the elastic cord snapped them back up toward the bridge.

Bungee jumpers experience two big bounces before gradually swinging to a stop. Then those on the bridge lower a rope, hoist them back up and begin strapping in the next person ready to make a leap of faith.

"There's no problem with (the cords) breaking," Jones said. "It's the implied threat of the jump that makes it exciting."

Because most of the places to jump in Oregon are public bridges and the activity is so new, policies governing the practice apparently have not yet been adopted by governmental agencies.

"We don't have a policy, but we try to discourage it," said Kurt Austermann, the Medford district public affairs coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the Grave Creek bridge. "There's no law to enforce, so there's not much we can do about it."

While no deaths have been reported from bungee jumping in the U.S., the threat of mishaps and lawsuits looms large.

"A lot of people are just horrified at the prospect of jumping off a bridge; they're just waiting to take offense," said Jones, who has written a book on martial arts.

"But it's really safe. It's a lot of fun without killing yourself."

This isn't the first time Jones' adventures have captured the public eye.

In February, Jones was "base jumping" out of a tree above Multnomah Falls when his parachute got snagged, stranding him on the side of the cliff. Base jumping is parachuting from a point on the ground.

Jones, a skydiver, has even combined that sport with bungee jumping. In "para-bungee jumping," two skydivers use a bungee cord to link themselves together. When one opens his parachute, his partner rebounds below him like a yo-yo on a string. Then the second jumper disengages himself and opens his parachute.

Bungee jumping is merely one of the outlets to find new depths of the soul, Jones says with a preacher's zeal.

"The deeper you reach, the more you come up with," he said. "You don't have many vehicles to truly find yourself these days."

Another Eugenean who has leaped into bungee jumping with both feet is Casey Dale, supervisor of the Eugene Parks and Recreation Department's outdoor program.

Dale, who was introduced to bungee jumping by Jones, leads sporadic expeditions to the Grave Creek bridge. Dale takes donations of $55 for two to three jumps on an outing.

Because no local bridges are suitable for bungee jumping, long expeditions to remote areas such as Grave Creek are necessary, although Dale says he plans to purchase a hot air balloon, the platform from which Kockelman now operates his Bay Area bungee business.

Meanwhile, Jones' 19-year-old son, Chris, plans on opening a business with 100-foot bungee cords to leap off bridges such as the one that crosses Brookings Harbor a 354-feet high span.

Most of those who jump are college-age men, although some women and middle-age people make jumps.

Although the height can change, the moment on the platform remains the same. "The perspectives from the ground change a lot when you climb on the platform," Jones said, enough so that even experienced veterans still feel nervous.

"I've jumped dozens of times and I've never gotten desensitized," Dale said. "It still scares the hell out of me."

"It's so easy to rationalize that (jumping) has no purpose," said Schaer, who stepped back to the safety of the bridge on her first trip to the platform, then jumped on her second.

"It takes a lot of soul searching."

The fall itself is almost as terror-filled as the stand on the platform, although much more exhilarating in the speed of acceleration. "It's almost anti-climatic, it goes so fast," Scott Wells, a UO junior, said after his first jump.

The benefit of all the trials and tribulations of jumping off bridges is a brighter outlook on life, jumpers say. "A lot of people say it's thrill seeking, but it's really life enhancement," Jones said. "Once you get back on top of the bridge everything is better. The sky is a little bluer, flowers smell that much better, life seems better. And all without drugs."

   
 
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