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Diving into dangerous waters

Aug. 23, 2004

Students illegally take the plunge


Some run full-force and propel their bodies off the towering cliff. Others hesitantly take a leap of faith few; never muster up the courage to jump.

Such is the world of cliff jumping.

Cliff jumping at Lake Whitney, 35 miles northwest of Waco, has attracted Baylor students along with others seeking the latest thrill. Despite its popularity, cliff jumping is illegal and has resulted in "about four deaths a year over the last six years," at Lake Whitney, according to Brady Dempsey, park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Despite the dangers, most Baylor students who go cliff jumping favor Soldier's Bluff or Walling Bend parks at Lake Whitney. Most fans of cliff jumping say the adrenaline rush and the thrill of the free fall are reasons for taking the plunge.

Stephanie Lanham of San Antonio, who graduated in August, loves the rush she gets before she jumps.

"That adrenaline builds up," she said.

Many Baylor students said they knew that cliff jumping was illegal, but their friends influenced them to jump.

"I have to see somebody from my surroundings jump -- like some of my friends -- and then I would jump," Zuzana Krchnakova, a junior from Slovakia, said.

Josh Henry, a Sherwood, Ark., senior, agreed with Krchnakova.

"It would depend on who I was with," he said. "Certain people have a way of convincing me to do things I wouldn't necessarily do."

Violating the law against cliff jumping may result in fines ranging from $75 to $200. In some cases, law enforcement has booked a mandatory appearance to see a judge for endangering rescue officials.

Dempsey estimates that during the summer months, there are three to five minor injuries a week and two serious injuries a month due to the activity.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stationed at Lake Whitney, there was one cliff jumping death this summer.

Also, the corps said there are records of injuries from past years, but they haven't been compiled into a master list.

"In almost every case of fatalities, alcohol and drug use have been documented," Dempsey said.

He also said "alcohol and drug use are huge factors" in accidents leading to serious injury or death.

"We have so many remote cliffs that it's hard to patrol the area," Dempsey. "Tracking all of the areas is physically impossible. We try to concentrate on more of the unsafe areas that are frequented by a lot of people."

Five rangers from the corps, which oversees most of the cliffs off Lake Whitney, patrol 19,000 acres of water and 21,000 acres of land.

The highest cliff used for cliff jumping is 65 feet, but the most popular cliffs range from 12 to 20 feet.

The corps actively work to discourage cliff jumping along with the Bosque and Hill County sheriff's offices and the Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden.

"We would try to catch them before the jump," Dempsey said.

He noted that park rangers have posted signs and often use public address speakers in front of large crowds to remind them that cliff jumping is illegal.

Some cliff jumpers are willing to risk the legal penalties and injury for the thrill.

Mick Murray, a Tulsa, Okla., senior, said he cliff jumps for the thrill of feeling like he's in flight.

"You become one with the sky. For a brief moment, time stands still."