Jumping for joy: Cliff diving at Tahoe exhilarating, dangerous
Special to the Sierra Sun
At a place on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore where a rock face meets the lapis lazuli water, my friend is standing on the edge of the cliff gazing at the crystalline liquid below.
“Jump!” we yell from our boat that’s a safe distance away, and soon he takes flight for a few seconds, eventually landing feet first into the water, popping back up, and swimming back to us.
Our other friend is climbing the sketchy ladder, preparing himself to jump as well since going back the way he came seems like a riskier option.
People jumping into the lake from the West Shore and swimming back over to their boats is a common sight during the summer at D.L. Bliss where the locals call Rooster Rock. Someone built a makeshift ladder to get up to the famous ledge, and from there the only place to go is down.
A few years ago, Truckee-Tahoe native Brandon Beck and his cliff jumping friends built a 46-foot rope swing near Rooster Rock and practiced doing backflips into Lake Tahoe, swinging out and letting go at 99 feet above the lake. Even though the rope swing isn’t there anymore, it’s still a popular place to jump.
“There are a bunch of rocks that are 15 to 35-40 feet high,” Beck says about the West Shore and D.L. Bliss area. It’s one of Beck’s favorite places to jump because it’s accessible year-round (his friends and he will go out there in wetsuits in the colder months), and he’s been jumping off rocks pretty much his whole life all over the West Coast and beyond. He agrees that the most terrifying part of jumping Rooster Rock is climbing up the sketchy ladder that leads to the launching off point, but once you get over that then it’s just going out to the ledge, picking a safe spot to land, and going for it.
Beck was born in Truckee and started jumping off cliffs with his dad at Emerald Pools located off Highway 20 along the Yuba River when he was a young kid. His dad learned about the spot from one of his fly fishing friends and started taking Brandon out there in the warmer months. When he got older, he kept up with the sport and continued to test his limits with his friends.
“I’m 35-years-old now and have been jumping off big cliffs for over 20 years. I’ve probably done thousands of jumps; my friends and I joke that we may have spent more time in the air than we have in the water,” he laughs. When asked about how much time he thinks he spent in the air, Beck laughs, “Oh, probably days.”
Along with jumping cliffs in Northern California, Lake Tahoe and in Oregon, Beck has hucked himself off rocks in Alabama, Tennessee, and Vermont. However, his favorite rocks are right here at Lake Tahoe.
One of his other favorite spots is Angora Lake.
“It’s really beautiful and a nice hike up there,” he said. “You can only get to it in the summer because snow covers the road in the winter, but it’s a good jumping spot. There are 10-65 foot ledges to jump from, perfect for people jumping off rocks for their first time to seasoned pros.”
Beck always brings tape measures to make sure it’s safe and scouts out the area around him. When asked if it’s true if there’s any cliff that’s “too high” and makes hitting the water feel like concrete, he replies, “I’ve heard that too, but you need to take into consideration what your form is when you land and pay attention to what you’re jumping into. Personally, I’ve jumped from 130 feet and it was a heavy impact. I didn’t break any bones, but I felt like I reached my limit,” he said of a cliff in Burney Falls in Northern California.
Beck explains that what’s nice about jumping in waterfalls is that the gushing water creates air bubbles, breaking the air tension and forming an air pocket that can make landings a little softer. One of his friends did a 160-foot jump at Toketee Falls in Oregon and walked away from it with no problems.
“You want to land like a pencil. The perfect landing is that moment when you enter the water and you’re kicking your feet and swinging your arms … if you kick just right as your feet are extending in the water, you create an air pocket as you go through. If you do it perfectly then you won’t even feel an impact,” Beck says.
Beck’s top three favorite spots are D.L. Bliss, Emerald Pools and Angora Lake because the water is deep, and you don’t have to jump too far out to safely land in the water.
It also helps cliff jumping in the summertime when there’s other people around, although that can be a blessing and a curse.
“With lots of people being there, you have more of a chance to get saved if something goes wrong, but there also tends to be more drinking and instances where people may jump on top of each other,” he said.
At Emerald Pools in the spring of 2020, Beck saw someone lose his footing walking in the cobble of the Yuba River and get swept downstream and over a waterfall. Fortunately, he saw it happen and saved the man from drowning.
“When all the snowmelt starts happening then water starts flowing really hard and it can get dangerous,” he said.
Trained in swift water rescue and CPR, Beck believes that a good rule of thumb is that if a cliff or area looks too dangerous to jump from, then it probably is.
Although he’s never personally broken any bones cliff jumping, he has bruised his tailbone, bruised his lungs, and coughed up blood from hard landings.
“In Europe they do a belly flop contest called Dods Diving competitions and people over here are getting into this more now,” Beck said.
Also called “Death Diving” (it’s Dods in Norwegian), amateur divers fly horizontally through the air and then curl into a fetal position right before they hit the water to avoid injury.
“You basically fly through the air like a flying squirrel, arms and legs completely out and land like a taco before hitting the water with your feet and hands together. I learned how to do it the hard way, but I’ve never gotten seriously injured, just brutal body slaps,” he explains.
However, he says what’s great about cliff jumping is that “no matter if you’re a serious adrenaline junkie or a novice pencil diver, everyone still gets the same rush.”
1) Start small: There are some great rocks to practice off along the East Shore of Lake Tahoe like the famous Bonsai Rock at Sand Harbor or Whale Rock a bit farther down, accessible by boat or hiking to it from a beach trail. When Beck was 13-years-old, his family had a lake house in Fall River Mills in Northern California and he and his friends would spend days on end jumping from the top of their boat dock (about 15-20 feet up) into the water, swimming back in, and doing it repeatedly all day long. He says that was good training for learning how to land off higher rocks and cliffs in the area. There are some fun rocks to jump from on Fannette Island in Emerald Bay, too, that are great for people of all ages. “And Angora is a cool spot to go to because of how accessible everything is around there. It’s a nice one mile hike in and there are visibly easy jumps to ones that get progressively harder.” Angora Lakes Resort cabins and a general store is also close by.
2) Scout your takeoff and landing: “Jump in the water and go swimming first,” Beck says. Pay attention to what’s around the rock and make sure the water is deep enough from wherever you’re jumping. If the water is dark blue, then it’s probably deep and safe, but do what you can to understand what you’re jumping into.
3) Watch where you’re going: “There are a couple of factors that lead to injuries. Younger, more innocent people tend to close their eyes and plug their nose when they jump, and that’s the worst thing you can do. You want to see where you’re landing,” Beck says, admitting that he’s seen people close their eyes and end up landing hard in the water on their face or their back.
4) Know your limits: Many people tend to gravitate to the rocks in the summertime when it’s hot and there’s alcohol around, so it’s best to be conscious of that as well. “Another issue I’ve seen is when people are drinking in the sun all day and impaired, and don’t know their limits,” Beck has observed. “Or they hesitate and slip off the rock…” he adds, which leads us to:
5) Just going for it (or accept that the jump is best saved for another day): “Be confident in yourself, when you jump open your arms like a bird and then get small like a pencil when you land in the water. The more you hesitate, the more unfocused you become and it’s better not to jump; save it for another day. My friends and I have a saying, ‘hesitation leads to devastation’. Don’t get in over your head,” he says.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the 2021 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.
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