Off The Hill: A snow junkie goes cliff diving at Radium Hot Springs
Summit Daily correspondent
After more than a decade in Summit, I have almost entirely forgotten how to swim.
For me, close to 150 days a year spent snowboarding equals a very short summer. There have been years when I did not own shorts. I once left Mammoth for the Fourth of July in San Diego and had to purchase boardshorts on the way to the beach, much like visitors who come here without gloves or a hat and have to buy them on the way to the mountain.
That being said, I love summertime, and cliff jumping is one of my favorite things to do. We have a few world-class cliff jumping spots close to home, and, each year, I make a point to test my mettle by taking the plunge.
These jumps have names like the Devil’s Punchbowl, the Acworth Deep Hole and the Crown and the Knife, and these titles only add to their mythic status as opponents to be toppled.
Near Radium Hot Springs is another formidable foe, Big Kahuna. But, of course, like all great epics where the hero faces off against a great rival, the real fight is with oneself.
Facing off with Big Kahuna
Big Kahuna is a 50-foot cliff jump into the Colorado River, found next to the hot springs and two miles south of Radium, a small town that is a little over an hour north of Silverthorne.
It should be noted that there is a road construction project between the Heeney and Radium exits, where traffic can only travel one way on a single road. Once you make it through the construction, though, it is only a 30-minute drive to the cliff diving pull-off.
We gather our things and start a short hike up a steep hill that will bring us to the cliff jump and hot springs. The sun is high in the sky when we arrive. It is noticeably hotter here at lower elevation, and the water will be a welcome cool down.
At the hot springs, there is a full group of people who just arrived via raft. They are having a grand old time. We ask if they have jumped or seen anyone jump today, to which they reply, “Yes.” But, they want to see some more action.
The pressure mounts as they shout for us to jump. My heart beats, and I am nervous when I ease up to the edge and look over. I have jumped off here before, but that doesn’t necessarily calm me down.
My friend, JP, is visiting Summit, and this is his first look at the leap. Calmly sizing it up, he decides to go first, then takes two steps back and jumps, much to the excitement of the crowd below.
It’s my turn next. I take a few steps back for a running start, clap my hands (3… 2… 1…) and go. I hit the cold water, pop to the surface and then in leaps my girlfriend after me with a splash. We have survived, and, with adrenaline pumping, we make it back to land and hike up top to jump again.
Conquering the cliff
Where I grew up in New Hampshire, there are lakes, ponds, quarries, reservoirs and even 12 miles of coastline. When we became old enough to drive, we would visit a different spot every chance we had.
Cliff jumping was one of the first big-time adrenaline spikes I received as a kid. There is nothing quite like it: So simple, when literally all you need to do is jump — but so difficult when you first have to break through the barrier of self-preservation.
Pushing yourself over the edge is rewarded with a glimpse at weightlessness, a shot of pure adrenaline — free fall. A cliff jump is a call to action, and, much like Don Quixote’s windmill, a 50-foot cliff can start to look very big. It is unnerving, and, once unnerved, it’s hard to get nerves back. It is dealing with a universal feeling called fear, something we all deal with on so many levels.
When I first went to Radium, I was recovering from a blown knee and could not jump. It took me over a year before I returned and was able to step up to the edge. When I approached it for the first time, I was nervous, even though it was not the biggest cliff I’d ever jumped. I had made it more than it was. I had attached this meaning to the jump, something about getting back to my “extreme self” and, therefore, living up to that reputation. In the back of my head, I also fought with the fear of hurting myself again.
I was confronted by my own identity, ego and insecurities. I thought this was just a simple jump, right? I eventually “mustered up the courage,” as they say, and jumped. It was a miraculous feeling. I came out of the water elated — a phoenix.
Conquering the fear
The thing is, jumping for me is still scary. It is something of my ode to fear: I run and jump before the fear takes hold of me, in a “get it before it gets me” mentality. Fear is a survival mechanism, so, by overcoming fear, we are doing more than just surviving — we are actually living.
Now, that being said, I have been accused of being an adrenaline junkie, which to me always sounded a bit dramatic. But, there is some truth to it. Does this mean I am afraid of “normalcy?” Do I desperately seek the next thrill to avoid confronting other fears I might not be able to topple?
Sometimes, I wish I were the rock instead of the jumper, without fear. But, that’s just it — we are not the rock. We are free to move about. We are free to jump or not jump. We are free to be aware or question our existence however we see fit. Fear is an emotion. Feeling it means you are alive. It’s the same reason people watch scary movies, which, incidentally, I am terrified of.
After you jump, while midair, you confront and consider gravity in real time. For a brief second, you are entirely in the moment, only to be pulled back to reality with a cold and sobering splash. Now, after surviving to tell about it, you are humbled, like you have been baptized by the universe itself — you are born anew.
Fear and its consideration allows for the fleeting feeling we call living. Fear can be fuel as much as a barrier. Fear demands your attention. Fear deserves your respect. One should not live in fear, and, yet, one should acknowledge its existence, for it is serious business. Proceed with caution. We are tempting fate, after all.
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