At 45 years old, James Fell thought cliff-jumping was a young man’s game… But now he’s back with his son, and he won’t be daunted by a fifty foot fall.
If you’re a young man, chances are you aren’t thinking about what things will be like when you’re an old man. I’m 45, and if you’re in your 20s, that is way old.
I remember when I started my fitness journey at 25. I wanted to be muscular and to lose weight. That was about it. I didn’t think about longevity or having a high performing body as I aged. But at 45, I think about that a lot now. (I still think about looking good too, though.)
This story doesn’t have a lot to do with fitness, except to perhaps motivate you to work hard while you’re young so you can still do stupid, fun stuff while you’re old. You know, stupid guy stuff. It was Ernest Hemingway who said, “Once you stop doing stuff for fun, you might as well be dead.”
Yesterday, I had fun.
When I was 16 my then-girlfriend told me of a place called Seebe for jumping off cliffs. The small hamlet (wouldn’t call it a town) was an internment camp for POWs during WW2, and later became a town run by TransAlta Utilities. Even though my relationship with that girl didn’t last, my love of cliff jumping at Seebe did, and I travelled there many times over subsequent summers with a variety of friends.
On a hot weekend day I’ve seen as many as a hundred people there. There was always booze, bikinis, and pot smoke. Also, there was death. People died there. If you go there today you will see a cross honoring one of the fallen, although it wasn’t a fall that killed him.
People always die the same way: Swimming for the big one, and not making it.
Allow me to explain. The water is glacier runoff. It melted earlier that morning. It’s like jumping into liquid nitrogen. It’s [expletive] cold!
On the near side, there are cliffs ranging from about 10 feet up to 35 feet (we measured the 35-footer once). On the other side, there is “The Big One.” If I had to guess, comparing it to the 35-footer, it’s about 50% higher. So somewhere between 50 and 55 feet. That may not sound like much, but when you’re up there peering over the edge, it looks like your doom.
I remember doing the big one for the first time when I was 18. The day was a scorcher, there were a lot of hot women around, and I’d had a couple of barley pops and was at just the right level of courage to give it a go. Seeing people swim over to do the big one is a fairly rare event, and everyone pays attention. And yes, there was an attractive woman I wanted to impress.
I went over with three other guys, all in their mid 20s. One of them had done it before and the other two were newbies like me. The swim was unreal. It’s not that far, but imagine what those people who jumped from the Titanic felt like. The cold sucks the life out of your muscles in no time.
And that’s how people die. It’s a river, and the current is taking you. They make it half way, decide they can’t do it because of the cold, and try to swim back, and then the current takes them away. They drown.
But I made it across and we climbed out downstream and then walked up to look over the edge. I just about crapped myself. I had no idea it was so high.
We took some time to catch our breath, then the guy who had done it before went. And he survived. Then another guy went. Then it was just me and this other dude, and I said, “I don’t know man. This is too gnarly. I don’t think I can do it.”
“Me neither,” he said. “Let’s bail.”
So we started to walk back down to swim back across, but we only got a few feet before he said, “Oh, screw it!” And he ran off the edge of the cliff.
And there I was, all alone.
I couldn’t be the only one to chicken out, so I went back and stood at the edge of the cliff again. Then I walked away. Then I walked back again.
Then the chant started. You know the chant.
“Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!”
So I did, and I did not die. I later realized that there is no bailing out. Because of the nature of the swim and the current, it is simply not safe to attempt to swim back from anywhere except jumping off that big-ass cliff. Once you decide to swim over, you’re committed.
Over the years I have jumped off that cliff over 30 times. It’s worth noting this isn’t just “stupid guy stuff.” Plenty of women jump too. I’ve seen a couple of women do the big one. I even saw a guy go headfirst off the big one once.
That’s a story worth sharing, actually. He showed up pissed to the gills. All I remember is that he was around late 20s, really fit looking, and sporting a porn-stache. He swam to the other side – not anything I advise for someone that wasted, especially by himself – and went up and barely caught his breath, then jumped off the cliff. Feet first.
After he broke the surface he yelled out, “I’m going again!” and swam down to the area to climb out again, walked back up, looked over the edge of the cliff, and blew his groceries.
The massive volume of puke made an awfully loud smack as it hit the water.
He waited for the current to move it downstream a bit then did the most uncoordinated, spastic dive I’ve ever seen. But he did enter headfirst. More or less. The highest one I’ve ever gone headfirst off is the (almost) 30-footer. I am far more graceful.
I had some old wetsuits in the basement and took to wearing those for jumping at Seebe. Some poked fun; others said, “Wish I’d thought of that.” If you’d like to see what the big one looks like, here I am on the left with my friend Stephan on the right:
I kept going regularly until I was 34 when TransAlta shut down the Hamlet and put up a big fence with “No Trespassing” signs all over. I figured I’d had my fun, and that was that.
My son just turned 15. We were doing some cleaning in the basement and came across some old photos and I showed him pictures of us cliff jumping at Seebe, and he begged me to take him. I told him I didn’t think we could gain access anymore, but was willing to give it a try. I recruited my friend Craig to join us (who I’d been with at Seebe many times in years past), and much to my wife’s chagrin we went off in search of adventure.
[insert comment from wife here about bringing son back home alive]
We had to walk over half an hour to get access to the cliffs, and we figured we’d be the only ones there. But shortly after we showed up so did lots of other people. They told me of a way to park much closer, so that it was only a ten-minute walk. Before long there were at least 30 people there with coolers full of beer and of course women in bikinis too. It was just like the old days.
The first one my son tackled was close to 15 feet. Here he is:
And here is Craig going off a 20-footer.
And here is a video of my son doing the (almost) 30-footer.
Pretty damn brave for a kid that just turned 15. I’m proud of him. And the deal was that if he did that one, I had to do the 35-footer. So I did.
And it was no big deal.
I know a lot of 45-year old guys who can’t do stuff like that simply because hitting the water will cause them to wrench their neck or their back or their shoulder. After the last time I did the big one on the far side 11 years ago it got me thinking it was something for young men, but now I’m thinking different.
Now that I have taken my son there, he wants to go back. So we will be going back, and he’ll work his way up to doing the 35-footer. And when he gets good enough at that, he’ll want to go to the other side. I could see it in his eyes yesterday. He wants that big one. He wants to be able to say he’s done it.
And when he is ready to go, his old dad will go with him
Originally appeared at Six Pack Abs