Cliff Jumping Can Be Tall Order

By Matt McFarland
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 22, 2007

Courtland May grabbed his 100-foot clothesline because he needed to know just how far he had jumped.

So the 29-year-old painter and handyman tiptoed onto a bridge that carries commuter trains outside Cleveland, stepped to the edge and dangled his clothesline.

For the first time in his cliff-jumping career, the clothesline did not dip into the water below. It was proof that a few days before, May had jumped about 110 feet, or nearly the height of an office building in downtown Washington.

The discovery explained May's painful landing. "I felt like a rat that got kicked by someone wearing a boot," said May, a resident of Camarillo, Calif.

Before the jump, he stood on the bridge for 20 minutes, telling himself the jump wouldn't kill him. To hurl one's self off a cliff or bridge requires convincing your subconscious that what you're doing is a good idea, according to May. With 1,000 jumps under his belt, May has developed a pre-jump routine. He tells himself he can do it safely, again and again. Once he believes it, he takes three deep breaths and jumps.

May and other cliff jumpers claim that no sport delivers as big an adrenaline rush.

"It's like popping pills without popping pills. If you bottle that feeling up and sell it, you'd be a millionaire. I'd be drinking that stuff up all day," said Joe Sellars, who runs the Web site, which lists almost 250 cliff-jumping locations, complete with directions, pictures and videos.

He acknowledged the sport sometimes has been associated with drunken or drugged individuals injuring themselves. Sellars wants to eliminate that stigma and make cliff jumping a nationwide phenomenon. At Jumpfest, a yearly cliff-jumping festival he holds on Oregon's Hood River, Sellars passes out T-shirts urging jumpers to get high from jumping, not drugs.

But the adrenaline rush comes with a price -- injuries.

May has cracked ribs and knocked himself unconscious twice. A bad landing once left a friend with a bruise that went from his knee to neck. Even on a good jump May has sprained both ankles, which is the reality when hitting water at the speed of Interstate 95 traffic.

The worst injury May has seen came at Red Rocks in the Southern Los Padres National Forest, about two hours northwest of Los Angeles. It all started at the beach, where May met a vacationing backpacker. A few phone calls later, May and the backpacker were hiking to a 90-foot cliff. "You don't have to do this," May said.

"Stop trying to psych me out," answered the backpacker.

Once they reached the ledge, May expected common sense to prevail. A safe splashdown at Red Rocks requires jumping past rocks and into a small patch of water, all while adjusting one's trajectory for winds.

May jumped and landed safely from the difficult location. The backpacker cleared the rocks but landed his body parallel to the water, breaking his back.

Later, doctors removed part of his hip to fuse his spine. Recovery time was six months, and May hasn't jumped at Red Rocks since.

"This is the most extreme sport. I'd like to see some of these skateboarders come up on some of these cliffs. You look down, and your heart is beating 100 miles per hour," Sellars said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company