By Clint Frakes
Standing atop a huge concrete structure the mist skirting the gorge below, rain faintly rippling the water, the majestic green Oregon horizon before you, you call out the first awkward number, "FIVE. . . " Now everyone is counting with you, "FOUR, THREE, TWO. . . " A strange, titillating place to be, but you climbed up this platform - that was the real test of faith - and the fact that you've just seen five others survive doesn't make much difference . . . "ONE!" A lean forward and spring of the legs - it's all over - every cell in your body screams from its nucleus, "We're not supposed to do this!"
Three-an-a-half million years of evolution screech past your face at 70 mph, a tug on your harness and you're on your way back up, only a little faster. Down again. Up. Down. Etcetera. You can hear your leap-mates shouting praise and some jokes, but you don't need to answer. This is your time; you glow. A tow line of friends hoists you back to where you started, but something has changed.
After the jump there is a tingling lucidity and sense of ease. The water is lapping more cleanly, the air smells sweeter - a sense of victory in faith-versus-gravity. For me it's a symbolic death and re-emergence that doesn't lose intensity with the second jump.
Wayne Bumgarner and Casey Dale of Oregon Bungee Masters see it as a form of personal empowerment. "It's recreational therapy that brings out self-esteem and expands the envelope of what we are comfortable with - our limitations are questioned further," says Bumgarner.
It takes no particular skill or training to enjoy the sport; the preparation is totally psychological. You just strap into a harness attached either to the ankles or to the seat and shoulders. The cords are nylon-cased rubber lines obtained through U.S. Army surplus. These are the same cords used to drop tanks from C-140 cargo planes. Each cord has a load capacity of 1,500 lbs., and four are used for a jump, making a 6,000 lb. capacity. A human being falling 100 feet produces about 2,5 Gs of force (two-and-a-half times the body weight). The cords are retired after 400 jumps.
No fatalities in the sport have been reported in the U.S. in tens of thousands of jumps. Two French jumpers were killed in 1989 doing reverse jumps - using a stressed cord to leap from the ground up, the cords being fastened to a crane. They collided with the crane. A couple of heart-attacks while jumping also have been reported. A helmet is worn to protect the jumper from "bungee-slap," the only real injury threat. This is when the cords smack the jumper in the face, causing burns.
Jumping forms include the swan-dive, the "Elevator to Hell," and the "Lipton Plunge." In the swan dive you leap forward with arms extended in front and head pointed up toward the horizon. Although the "Elevator" is more intimidating - it is a backward vault with arms extended - it provides a safer smoother landing. The "Plunge" is a straight, standing backwards drop. All have the beauty, though I preferred the "Elevator" for equal horror and comfort. Whichever the chosen form, it's a cathartic, primordial rush.
Bungee-jumping began as a male rite of passage with the Pentecost Islanders of the South Pacific, east of Australia. Bamboo towers from 90 to 150 feet high are built, and liana vines are tied to them. Unlike bungee cords, the liana vines are static, non-dynamic material that makes for a violent halt instead of a smooth, bouncy action. The islanders attempt to break the fall as close to the earth as possible; preferably the diver slightly brushes the dust. There are frequent deaths and usually some injury. Though this is an initiation ceremony for younger men, it is said a woman performed the original leap.
The Kockelman brothers of Palo Alto started the first American commercial bungee-jumping operation in 1987. Oregon Bungee Masters emerged from the "Dangerous Sports Club," a group of black belt kick-boxers interested in high adrenaline sports such as kayaking, skydiving and parasailing. They've conducted over a thousand successful jumps.
It is standard practice for jumpers to sign a release form before taking the plunge, despite the sport's minimal risk. Nevertheless, California has recently made jumping off bridges illegal, and Oregon is expected to do the same. As a counter move, people began to leap from hot air balloons, but the FAA made that illegal as well. If you're interest in bungee-jumping, now's the time.
Oregon Bungee Masters charges $75 for one jump and $99 for two, with a T-shirt thrown in; they also have special group rates. You can get a video of your jump for an additional $22. Contact the Bungee Masters at (503)520-0303 or write to P. O. Box 121 Fairview, Oregon 97024