Ankles Aweigh: Notes From A Bungee Jumper

"Do you want to fly?" asks Mike, the bungee-jumping operator. His voice combines the excitement of the moment with the boredom of repeating himself 40 times a night. I am only a little nervous as I stand in the bucket of a crane on a Manhattan pier, 150 feet above the Hudson River. This is, after all, my third jump. My first two, on the South Island of New Zealand, a birthplace of modern bungee jumping, were another matter.

It had taken me a year of thinking about bungee jumping before I took the plunge. Whenever I had imagined throwing myself off a bridge with only a big rubber band attached to my ankles, my palms had begun to sweat. Even though the cords had been tested to withstand more than 3,000 pounds, the thought of putting my life on that thin line was scary.

Bungee jumping got its start as a ritual practiced by "land divers" on Pentecost Island in the South Pacific. The sport became popular in the West in the late 1980s. Now, more than 75 companies in the U.S. arrange jumps off bridges, towers, cranes, and even hot-air balloons. A jump usually costs $50 to $120, depending on the height and location. But at Action Park in Vernon, N.J., you can leap off a 75-foot platform for just $5.

OVER THE EDGE. Before my first jump--and after I signed a release absolving A. J. Hackett Bungy Ltd. from liability--I asked myself: Is the excitement worth the danger, however small, of dying? For me, the answer was yes. But watching people hover on the edge of the platform as they struggle with that question makes bungee jumping a great spectator sport.

My jump that day was 143 feet off the Kawarau Historic Bridge near Queenstown. First, I was weighed, to determine the proper bungee cord. Then, as I sat on the platform near the center of the bridge, my feet were tightly bound together with a towel and tethered to the cord by a nylon strap and carabiner, a common piece of mountaineering equipment.

On the platform, the operator placed my feet on two painted footprints with the toes disappearing off the edge and told me to dive away from the bridge. Then, the countdown began: five . . . four . . . three . . . two. . . . I dove straight out, in my best imitation of Superman. At first, the free-fall was exhilarating. But it was also disorienting, and after a moment I panicked. I wished there were something to grab hold of. The sound of the wind was almost deafening. The river and rocks below rushed toward me, until everything became a blur.

HIGH BOUNCE. Suddenly, the world seemed upside-down. The river was receding, and now I was completely confused. I was 100 feet up in the air again when I realized that the cord had held.

I started to descend once more. This time, there was no fear, just enjoyment. I rebounded up and down about four more times, with each rise becoming smaller. Finally, the bungee cord had no more bounce, and I was lowered into a raft, where my feet were untied.

Is bungee jumping safe? There have been accidents, but they have generally come from the mistakes of careless operators. Today, most use dual carabiners to attach your feet to the cord, so you have a backup. That was the system used by Adrenalin Adventures East and P. T. Bungee Inc. (800 3-BUNGEE) for my New York jump. Many operators also attach a harness to your waist.

Over the Hudson, my palms are dry, and my heart beats calmly as I fly out toward the skyline. One thing about bungee jumping: It gets easier every time.

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