Beating the heat doesn’t have to mean joining the jams to the beach. Stephen Bleach takes the plunge from on high into a Scottish stream
It’s not difficult to find the perfect antidote to the summer heat. In fact, it takes about one and a half seconds. That’s the interval between your foot leaving the rock and your body entering the water. But, with that curious distortion of time that often accompanies a particularly intense experience, a lot will go through your head during that period. Things like this:
0.1 seconds: What the hell am I doing?
You’re cliff-jumping. It’s the latest adrenaline sport, and a simple enough pursuit: just find a sufficiently intimidating sheer drop, with enough cool, clear water at the bottom of it to cushion your fall, then step out and enjoy the ride.
In this instance, you’re at Calvine Canyon, near Dunkeld, Perthshire. Fifty feet beneath you, a waterfall has obligingly dug a deep pool, overlooked by sheer ledges, one of which you have just left.
And the beauty of it is this: for most adrenaline sports, you’ve got to be strong, or nimble, or fit, or something. But for cliff-jumping, you’ve simply got to obey the laws of gravity. Which is what you’re doing right now.
0.3 seconds: Help!
Ah, now you’re panicking. That’s natural. You’ve spent a long time cajoling yourself into doing this, and a moment after you step out into the void, the fear you’ve been subduing bubbles up with full force. This is fine: if you’re going to panic, midair is a good place to do it, because you can’t do yourself much damage up there.
0.5 seconds: Am I going to die?
Almost certainly not. It’s true that cliff-jumping can be lethal if you don’t know what you’re doing, which is why it’s worth making your first leap into the unknown with somebody who does — in this case, Dave Russell and Danny Vicary of local adventure company Nae Limits.
Dave and Danny are committed adrenaline freaks but, like most of that breed who still have the regulation number of limbs, they temper their thirst for danger with a high level of caution. They know this pool well, they’ve checked for obstacles and assessed the water level, so if they tell you that you can cope with it, you can.
0.6 seconds: I can’t believe I’m doing this!
That’s the idea. The trickiest aspect of cliff-jumping is to get yourself to jump off a cliff at all: when you’re perched at the top of an unhealthy-looking drop, however many times your conscious mind tells you it’s perfectly safe, a primitive but sensible instinct located somewhere deep in your brain stem prevents you from stepping over the edge. “I don’t like the look of that,” it says. “It’s an awfully long way down. What do you say we climb back and get in some place more sensible, a bit closer to the water?” What’s required here is a little self- deception. You can’t beat the inner voice head on. It’s too strong. But it’s also primeval and a little slow, so you can sneak up on the blind side and take it unawares. Take the example of a fellow jumper. Having climbed the slippery trail from the bank to an intimidating 50- footer, he froze. “I breathed hard, psyched myself up, counted one, two, three, looked down, and just couldn’t do it,” he says. “Something had locked my legs up. So I went through it all again, started counting … then jumped when I got to two.” Ego 1, Id 0.
0.8 seconds: Is it going to hurt when I hit the water?
Maybe. It depends on how your jump’s going, and on the water you’re heading for.
Danny has given a seminar on the right way to jump. It’s very simple, he says. Put your left foot on the edge of the rock, pick your target spot on the water’s surface, swing your right foot forward, and leap. Even though you’re jumping, not diving, don’t try to lead with your feet — you’ll rotate in midair and land on your back, which will hurt a lot. Instead, keep your head forward and, in theory, your body will come into line. In theory.
Naturally, you forgot all this the moment you left solid ground (well, you’ve got a lot of things on your mind) and, in reality, at this point you find yourself shooting bum-first towards the surface a few feet below.
1.0 seconds: It is going to hurt, then, isn’t it?
Not necessarily. Just a couple of feet down from the falls, the plunging stream creates a natural Jacuzzi; the water seethes and boils with a million air bubbles. If you have chosen this as your landing spot, you are heading for the aquatic equivalent of a feather bed. You could belly-flop into it and you’d hardly feel a thing. So, relax.
Around the corner, though, the water is much calmer. This is not good. It means it has regained a degree of surface tension. Surface tension may not seem like much when you dip your hand into a still pond, but slam into it bum-first at 50mph and you’re going to feel it. So, yes, it might hurt. A bit. Stop being a wimp.
1.2 seconds: I suddenly feel strangely calm. Beautiful here, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. Funny to think the space you’re currently plummeting through was once solid rock. Over a couple of million years (or about 42,000,000,000,000 times the period you’ve been suspended over it), the flow of the water has eroded the solid schist away, and moulded what’s left into fantastical shapes: weird pillars and gulleys, perfectly circular wells, voluptuously contoured waving walls of rock. The whole river as though like it’s been sculpted by Henry Moore. Fill with tumbling water, overhang with silver birch, scots pine and highland bracken, and you’ve got something like Eden.
1.4 seconds: The water’s getting awfully close now …
It is, isn’t it?
1.5 seconds: Christ!
You knew it would be cold — on a sweaty day like today, you were looking forward to it — but not this cold. It’s shocking, but sensuous, too, like having an all-over massage with frozen silk. You’re transformed: a surge of energy courses through enervated limbs.
Hold back for a moment. Don’t strike out for the surface. Let the buoyancy of your breath take you up slowly. This is a moment to savour the chill caress of the water. If you drowned in champagne, it would be like this. Drink it in.
Then you break the surface, spluttering back to the real world. And now there’s just one thought in your head. Again.
NEED TO KNOW
Nae Limits (www.naelimits.co.uk), in Dunkeld, Perthshire, runs half-day cliff-jumping courses from May to October; from £35pp. Or try The Outdoor Trust (www.outdoortrust.co.uk) or Freespirits (www.freespirits-online.co.uk).