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Taking a Leap in Las Vegas

Why Gamble With Just Your Money?

By John F. "case" kim

In most cities, they build enough hotel rooms to handle guests who come for business or to see attractions like Disneyland. But in Las Vegas, the hotels are the attractions, and "The Strip" is one huge theme park. They keep adding more rooms, and more guests keep coming to fill them. It's like a perverse twist on Kevin Costner's line inField of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come." Vegas built it, and the people are still coming.

Hotels are cheap, buffets are cheap, and if you're gambling, drinks are on the house. But even with all its charms, Vegas is not really my kind of place. I'm neither rich nor lucky enough to be a gambling regular, and I don't get into expensive glitzy shows. So last summer, when I had to go to Vegas on business, I found something else to do.

Vegas has several thrill rides. There's the roller-coaster at the top of Stratosphere, the human slingshot at the MGM Grand Hotel, the skydiving just outside of town and the small plane trips into the Grand Canyon. Just outside town are the only legalized brothels in the nation, which count as a thrill ride of sorts.

And then there is the bungy jump.

It's the A.J. Hackett Bungy Jumping Center, to be exact. An enterprising thrillseeker from New Zealand decided to make money off his favorite hobby, and his towers, bridges and platforms can now be found in six sites around the world. The Vegas location features a 175-foot tower, an extensive selection of bungy-related clothing and souvenirs and a juice bar to quench your post-jump thirst.

I'd wanted to try bungy jumping ever since my old roommate tried it in Washington state one summer while working for Microsoft. It was my firm belief that eons of human evolution and 27 years or life experience had firmly seated some basic rules in the primitive parts of my brain: eat, sleep, breathe and don't jump off tall objects.

If I could defy my instincts, learned behavior and common sense and jump off that tower while sober, it would be a supreme act of free will, proving once and for all that I was my own person. If I could do this, I truly could do anything.

The friendly woman behind the counter assured me bungy jumping was very safe. The cords were much stronger than necessary and they retired them hundreds of jumps before their rated life. The sign boasted about how many safe and successful jumps had been made at A.J. Hackett sites around the world. Noticeably absent, of course, were statistics on how many accidents, injuries or fatalities had occurred.

One jump cost about $65, plus $20 for a videotape of the experience. "Why so expensive?" I asked. "Because of high insurance premiums," the woman answered. No added comfort there. The required waiver wasn't very reassuring either. I was accepting full responsibility for anything that might happen, and indemnifying A.J. Hackett against any liability, even if the company proved negligent. Essentially, the employees could hit me over the head and toss me off the tower without a bungy and my family would be powerless to sue.

This required more thought. I went outside and sat on a chair by a swimming pool to watch the jumpers. A bunch of kids were up top, and a woman who appeared to be their mother was on the ground cheering them on. "Jump!" she shouted at them. I doubt they could hear, but still, I wasn't sure I would want one of my parents encouraging me to leap from a 16-story tower.

I went back to the counter. "What if I change my mind at the top?" I asked the nice woman.

"We won't push you, but no refunds," she said, pointing to a sign on the wall.

I decided to go ahead with it. I paid and weighed myself. They wrote my weight on the back of my hand and snapped a blue band around my wrist, indicating I was in the heaviest allowable weight class and should have the strongest and shortest cord. I joined two instructors, two jumpers and two observers. They placed us in seat harnesses, weighed us again and took us to the elevator.

"It's too windy to jump from the platform above the pool, so we're jumping on the other side," an instructor announced. The other platform was further from the tower and used shorter cords to minimize the possibility of the wind banging us into the tower. On this side, the bungy would be tied to our waists instead of our ankles, and we would be hauled back up after the jump, not lowered to the ground.

Now, instead of jumping above a pool, we would be jumping directly above the building. The bungy would stretch to just 80 feet instead of 155, so there was no chance of hitting the roof--unless, of course, the bungy was to break.

On the way up, the instructors assured us how safe the operation was while simultaneously cracking jokes about how irresponsible and high on drugs they were. Maybe they didn't care if their fun and games scared me into not jumping; no refunds, after all. They did double-check our seat harnesses, however, and helped us don chest harnesses, to serve as an emergency back-up should the seat harness fail.

At the top, the other two jumpers volunteered to go first, since each had jumped once before. Each guy jumped, bounced around and was hauled back up to the platform to high fives and cheers. The first jumper accidentally let the bungy pull through his legs and hit his crotch when it was flipping him over, but apparently didn't suffer any serious damage.

Now it was my turn. I clipped in and the second instructor put my videotape into the camera. I looked down and suddenly I really, really didn't want to jump anymore. What if my harness failed? What if the bungy broke? What if I lost my nerve, refused to jump and then had to face the jeers of my friends and co-workers after wasting $80?

No, I had to jump, had to be able to impress my friends, had to carry out this ultimate exercise of will over instinct.

I asked to speak to the camera. What would I want my last words to be, playing over and over on CNN if I died this night and they got the videotape? I tried to say in Spanish, "If a man can leap into the air, he can do anything," only to realize Spanish was one instructor's native language. He made fun of my garbled Spanish by speaking rapid Spanglish nonsense to the camera.

I stepped to the edge, gripped the rail fiercely and looked down again. I still felt queasy. Was it too late to turn back?

"Let go of the railing," said a very serious voice in my ear. "I can't let you jump while gripping the railing; it's not safe." Perhaps the fear was that I would jump with my feet while neglecting to let go with my hands.

The instructor noticed I still was hesitating and told me to look at the horizon. Night had fallen and the panoply of lights on The Strip glittered below me. From the Las Vegas Hilton, green lasers arced into the sky. The instructor had me close my eyes and intone a meditative "Omm" to quiet my mind. He then gave me a final pep talk. "Don't look down any-more, or you won't jump," he said. "I'm going to count backwards from five to one, and say `Go,' and then you go, okay?"

"Sure," I said. "Give me just a moment." Still gripping the rail, feeling a warm breeze tickle my hair, I wondered, if the bungy broke, should I aim for the air conditioning unit directly below? Finally, I let go of the rail, fixed my eyes on the Hilton, and said I was ready.

The countdown focused my mind and prevented me from contemplating little distractions like great heights, the possibility of death and the fact that the tower was in perfectly good shape (not on fire or about to collapse, say). I had told the instructor I would jump when he said "Go," and he began the countdown. "Five, four, three-two-one go!"

I went. Leaping was the single scariest moment of my entire life.

I saw the logo on the air conditioning unit rushing up at me, and just as I realized I was terrified, the tension on the bungy flipped me over so that I was no longer looking straight down. Before I realized it, I was slowly yo-yoing up and down 75 feet above the roof, swinging back and forth under the platform. They yelled a few cheers, waited for me to stop bouncing and lowered the retrieval rope.

So, I survived an 80-foot fall in Vegas, and for my $80 and leap of faith received a T-shirt, an official certificate of jumping (or of my insanity, claim some of my friends) and a videotape.

The tape included 25 minutes of breathtaking jumps at Bungy company towers around the world, followed by five minutes of footage of my jump.

The video has proven a big hit among my friends, perhaps because most of them have not jumped, or possibly because it just confirms for them how crazy I must be. Of my five minutes on camera, four minutes and 30 seconds show the instructors hamming it up while I hesitated, a death grip on the railing. Only the final 30 seconds show me leaping, falling and then bouncing around on a big rubber band. At least my swan dive looked pretty good.

John F. "Case" Kim '92-'98, a Crimson editor, is an economics concentrator in Cabot House.

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