Cliff-jumping safety tips

Cliff-jumping expert Jeff Edwards has some tips for first-time cliff jumpers.

For any jump taller than 15 feet, water must be at least 8-feet deep. For every additional 5 feet, add an extra foot of water. A 20-foot jump will require 9 feet; a 25-footer, 10, Edwards said.

Before you jump, scope your landing area. Edwards recommends swimming the area where you will land. Wear goggles and peer under water to check for logs, rocks or other submerged debris. River depth can change depending on the season and the previous winter’s snow melt. Know how you will climb out of the water before you jump. Avoid really cold water (below 40 degrees) as it may shock your body and cause involuntary inhalation.

Travis Fuller stripped to his swim trunks and situated himself on a 25-foot rock wall overlooking the churning, deep green water of the Deschutes River.

After spotting his landing and taking a few deep breaths, the long-time Bend resident flung himself into the water in completion of a perfect back flip.

“Whoa! This water is cold!” Fuller said once he surfaced. It was his first cliff jump this year. A wide grin spread across his face as he swam to the adjacent rocks so he could flip through the air again. Before he finished his cliff-jumping session, Fuller made several back flips — his go-to trick — and also dove head-first from several rock perches surrounding the base of Steelhead Falls. If not for a few early-afternoon appointments, Fuller, who owns and operates Ponderosa Paws Dog Walking Service, would have spent more time at the waterfall.

“Oh man, that was awesome,” he said while toweling off, his hair spiked from the water. “In the summertime, cliff jumping is just something fun and exciting to do when I’m not fishing or kayaking or swimming,” he said. “It’s just a cheap thrill, I guess.”

Fuller is one of countless Central Oregonians who loves to spend the summer splashing into sufficiently deep pools of water. Good cliff-jumping spots are no longer secret, Fuller said. Popular spots include those at Lake Billy Chinook, the Prineville and Haystack reservoirs, a couple places along the Deschutes River Trail and, of course, Steelhead Falls near Crooked River Ranch.

At Steelhead Falls, which is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, “cliff jumping is not prohibited, nor is it promoted,” said Lisa Clark, the agency’s public affairs officer. Clark didn’t immediately recall any cliff-jumping accidents at Steelhead Falls resulting in serious injuries or deaths. She said Steelhead Falls is one of the most popular sites of the BLM’s 1.65 million acres scattered throughout Central Oregon. She wasn’t aware until recently that Steelhead Falls was popular among cliff jumpers. She’d give it a shot herself, she said, if she weren’t past the risk-taking phase in her life. “I’m a little bit of a chicken,” Clark said with a laugh.

A subculture on the rise

The world record for the highest cliff jump was set in 2015 by Laslo Schaller in his native Switzerland, where he jumped from a 192.9-foot platform — nearly 20 stories — into a 26-foot-deep pool. The force of hitting the water after a nearly 4 second free fall momentarily dislocated his hip, but Schaller was otherwise unscathed. Red Bull sponsored Schaller’s jump. The company also hosts the Cliff Diving World Series, during which divers take turns flipping from platforms nearly 86 feet in the air.

In Central Oregon, while noticeably smaller in scale, Steelhead Falls is nonetheless well-known in the cliff-jumping world.

Jeff Edwards, a cliff- jumping guru based in Los Angeles, was immediately familiar with Steelhead Falls.

“I’ve been there. It’s nice,” said Edwards, who co-founded LA Swimmin, a cliff- jumping collective, in 2006. Edwards rekindled his childhood love for cliff jumping when he and a friend, who had grown up jumping into rock quarries, went looking for cliff-jumping spots in Southern California. A lifelong skateboarder, Edwards took to cliff jumping immediately — it scratched an itch he hadn’t been able to reach since a foot injury tempered his skateboarding.

“I’ve always had this extreme mindset, like, ‘Go do crazy s--t and document it in a regimented (fashion). I needed to still be doing something dangerous,” he said. LA Swimmin has racked up around 1 million views on its YouTube channel, where Edwards has documented his friends’ cliff-jumping sessions. The videos often involve flips off 60-foot cliffs. Such online attention has allowed him to parlay this lifestyle into a viable career. Edwards produces “Top Secret Swimming Holes” for the Travel Channel, which just wrapped production on its third season. He’s also the creator of an MTV show called “Cliff Jumpers,” which is in development and will feature a handful of the 40 hardcore cliff jumpers who make up his LA Swimmin crew. Cliff-jumping sessions are similar to those enjoyed by skateboarders in empty backyard pools, he said. He meshes this casual abandon with a mind toward land stewardship, which involves removing trash and buffing graffiti at swimming holes. Edwards appreciates the accessible nature of cliff jumping, which attracts people of all persuasions. During summer months, Edwards heads to cliff- jumping spots every weekend with his friends. He sees the sport growing in coming years.

“The cliff jumpers I know, they would definitely be considered a growing subculture. Is there room for sponsorship or fame? Maybe. Has anyone made a career of it (as a professional cliff jumper)? Not yet,” Edwards said.

Not far from the tree

Fuller, who’s 28 and already admits to being less daring than he used to be, caught a buzz from jumping off something tall into water at an early age. When he was 6, he followed his father onto a train trestle above Lake Shasta. When his dad jumped into the water, Travis didn’t know what to do.

“I didn’t quite understand what he was doing, so I just followed him” in the water, Fuller said.

Wearing a life jacket, Fuller plummeted 35 feet.

“It was really exhilarating. I remember wanting to do that more,” he added. “I was always looking for tall things to jump off of into water. I remember sinking in the water farther than I’d ever gone and looking up at all the bubbles. I remember thinking, ‘Holy cow. What just happened?’” he said with a laugh.

When he surfaced, everyone was shouting at him. Although Fuller was fine, his father wouldn’t let him jump again.

Fuller’s highest jump was more than 100 feet from a train trestle above Lake Shasta. He wore shoes to absorb the impact. Fuller has made a few other dangerous jumps, but he has never seriously injured himself. He knows some people who have, however.

“Looking back I would probably never do it again. It’s uncomfortably high,” said Fuller, who has no formal swimming training. “It was one of those jumps where you have a lot time to think about it as you’re falling down.” You are spotting the landing, making sure your feet are straight before hitting the water and your arms are by your side, he said.

At Steelhead Falls, the stakes are a bit lower. Fuller has over and under rotated his front and back flips countless times, which results in stinging flops.

“There’s nothing worse than slapping the water with your arms or any other body part,” Fuller added with a laugh.

Inherent risk notwithstanding, Edwards marvels at cliff jumping’s universal accessibility.

“We take it down to the most base action of sports. We’re literally jumping off a cliff. There is no skateboard, snowboard or hang glider. We’re just throwing our bodies off a cliff. That’s it. There’s something special, really democratizing about cliff jumping. You don’t need to spend (money) on a snowboard, bindings, boots and a season pass. You just have to drive to a swimming hole, and the only money you’re spending is on gas.”

Edwards credits cliff jumping’s popularity with its generous learning curve.

“Someone can get good over a summer,” he said. “Somebody could be a nobody, and by the end of summer, they’re hucking double gainers (double flips propelled by a running start). Anyone can do it, and that’s what I think is so great about it.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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