Outside Magazine (July 1991)

The Fabulous, BOUNCING, Kockelman brothers
What happens when two men
with a 500-foot bungee cord set
out to do something deeply stupid

By Craig Vetter

If the Kockelman brothers didn't exactly break the California drought last winter, at least they should get credit for putting a pretty good dent in it, because not an hour after John made his world-record bungee jump from the hot-air balloon piloted by his brother, Peter, the skies over the San Joaquin Valley opened up and poured like nobody had seen around there in five years. It wasn't enough to fill the bone-dry reservoirs to the top. To drum up a storm like that would have probably required an act of outright human sacrifice, and even the Kockelmans aren't ready for anything as wanton as that. But they're working on it.

Picture this: a panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge, then a close-up of John perched calmly in the iron understory 275 feet above the cold waters of San Francisco Bay, attaching two giant rubber bands to the bridge and then to one of his ankles. Peter waits on shore next to a getaway motorcycle, while friends shoot a video that the brothers will use to promote their company, Bungee Adventures, the first commercial bungee-jumping outfit in the world.

When John has lashed himself to the cords, he hangs by his feet from a girder, lets go, and falls like a suicide till the bungee runs out of slack, stretches, and slows him down just enough to take death out of the trick. Then he hits the water -- hard. The tape has been edited at this point, so you don't see him being sucked back up like a toilet plunger, or hanging there, or cutting the cord. The next shot shows John swimming to the rocky shore, then scrambling onto the back seat of Peter's motorcycle, waving both fists high over his head as the two of them flee the scene.

Or picture this, also from the Kockelmans' promotional video: the two of them on the 100-foot-high bridge at Wards Ferry in the Sierra foothills moments before a stunt they call the Human Sandbag. The idea here is to carry a little extra weight to the bottom of the jump, then drop it in the river in order to load the bungee with extra zang on the rebound. John has tried it with one 50-pound sandbag (not bad), then two (even better), and now has the ultimate inspiration: Wouldn't it be a kick if he held his 150-pound, three-sandbag brother in a bear hug and dropped him in the river on the downstroke?

The camera catches profound fear on Peter's face as he climbs over the railing into his brother's arms. Peter holds the railing; John grips him from behind. They count down from five, and as Peter lets go, he stiffens and goes wide-eyed, and the two of them fall for three long seconds to a violent splash. Peter disappears, and John rides the wild rebound back up to within about ten feet of the bridge. (Peter, off-tape, hits the river bottom with his back, pops up, and swims to shore.) The video picks up with the two brothers back on the bridge, wearing big, wide, we-dodged-a-bullet smiles.

The third and most famous Kockelman video snippet is a full-on, king-hell bungee nightmare: a 1990 television commercial for the Reebok shoe company, which ran for just three weeks before it was pulled off the air following protests from the more humorless members of the audience.

(Voice-over): "Warning. This is a dramatization. Serious injury or death may result without proper supervision."

(Long-shot): The 187-foot-high bridge at Deception Pass, near Seattle.


(Medium shot): The Kockelman brothers ready to dive.

(Close-up): John's pensive face.

(Long shot): The river below.

(Close-up): Peter's pensive face.

(Close-up): John presses the little rubber hump on the tongue of his shoes to pump them up.

(Slow-motion close-up): The brothers roll forward.

(Close-up): Shoe heels -- John is wearing Reeboks; Peter, the shoes of a certain competing manufacturer.

(Medium shot): The brothers spring from the bridge and fly side by side for 15 slo-mo seconds through the sound of the wind.

(Close-up): Their bodies jerk as the cords kick in.

(Medium shot): John bounces gently to a stop as Peter's shoes swing into the frame -- with no one in them.

(Voice-over): "The Pump from Reebok. Fits a little better than your ordinary athletic shoe."

I met the Kockelman brothers in the summer of 1989 when I took my first-ever bungee jumps with Bungee Adventures. These days their customers jump from a crane, but back then they were offering the brave and the stupid a chance to hook themselves to 50-foot bungee cords and dive off a 110-foot-high bridge over the Stanislaus River near Sacramento. Bungee cords, which were originally designed to attach tanks and jeeps to parachutes for airdrops from military cargo planes, are 5/8 inch in diameter and made of 365 strands of rubber wrapped in a sheath that makes them look like climbing rope. When you hook them to yourself and jump from a height, the cords stretch to about twice their length, then turn you around and sling your helpless, breathless, flailing body back up 80 percent of the distance you've fallen...then you fall again and bounce again, and again, until finally the laws of gravity and inertia have had their vicious fun and you swing to a stop and hang there twitching like Pinocchio at the woodpecker's ball.

The whole thing whipped a deep fear into me, but then the garroting I took on my third jump, the Kockelmans assured me, was not typical. Somehow, in the weightless moment at the top of my first rebound, fate and physics conspired to yank my neck through a loop in the free-floating slack of the cord, which turned my second drop into something of a lynching. Luckily, my left arm got caught in the loop, too, and since the elasticity of the cords makes the bottom moment a lot gentler than you'd think, I came through with nothing more than a couple of nice bungee burns and a fat lip -- small price to pay for a chance to fall toward death but not die, a cheap but primal thrill that turns out to be older than rubber itself.

The inspiration for bungee jumping has its roots, so to speak, in the South Pacific village of Bunlap on Pentecost Island. Legend has it that a village man named Tamalie abused his wife so badly that she ran away and climbed a banyan tree, then tied liana vines to her ankles. When Tamalie climbed after her, she jumped, and so did he, except that he wasn't attached to any vines. He died, she lived, and the men of Bunlap were evidently impressed enough that they began to practice land diving so that if the situation ever came up again they'd be ready. Eventually, the sport evolved into a ritual (from which women were excluded) meant to ensure a rich harvest of tourists. Just before they launch themselves, the men stand on 80-foot-tall wooden platforms and make complaining speeches against their wives. Then they swan dive onto a softened landing-area where their heads thump the dirt just as the carefully measured vines come taut.

As far as anyone can tell, the high-tech evolution of the leash-diving concept was realized on April Fools' Day 1979 by the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club, a group of British dementos who clipped themselves to bungee cords and stepped off the 245-foot Clifton Bridge in Bristol, England, not for yams and not in memory of a fallen comrade, but for the pure dumb hell of it. The same men later bungeed off the Golden Gate Bridge and then, in 1980, jumped from the bridge over Colorado's Royal Gorge, one of them falling 800 feet on a 415-foot bungee cord and setting the record the Kockelmans were out to break.

None of this is as deadly as it sounds. In all the years that they've been at it, not one of the land divers of Pentecost Island has ever been killed (probably because women are strictly forbidden in the area where the vines are measured). Bungee jumping can't claim quite the same spotless record, but if you do it with the right people it, too, is a lot safe than it looks. Since 1989 the Kockelmans have dropped more than 16,000 customers -- from bridges, hot-air balloons, and construction cranes -- without seriously injuring anyone. The world's largest bungee-jumping company, A.J. Hackett in New Zealand, has run more than 80,000 people off a bridge near Queenstown, with the same safety record.

Of course, if you hook up with idiots you can dies, as did three people in France in 1989, which prompted the French government to ban the sport for a few months. Australia, too, outlawed bungee jumping for a while after a beauty queen broke her collarbone in a tandem jump. And though there's never been a bungee-jumping death in the United States, there are candidates out there, like the man who broke his back early this year diving from an 80-foot-high billboard in Reno on a cord that had a little more stretch to it than he figured.

Peter Kockelman was shaking his head over that one hen I met up with him in a restaurant in Palo Alto last February, two days before the big jump. "Mistakes like that are just so asinine, " he said. "Goes to show a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing when it comes to bungee jumping. John and I did a lot of R & D before we started our company. We figured out the spring constant of the cords, made the calculations, tested them, built in a safety factor of ten, made all our systems redundant. A lot of people have imitated us, but the trouble with the copycat approach is that you can only copy particular circumstances. If anything changes -- like the height of the jump or the length of the cords or the weight of the jumper -- you have to know how to factor it in, adjust to the new dynamics of the situation. "

Peter talks like an engineer because he is one. He was designing guidance-and-control systems at Litton Industries in Los Angeles in 1987 when brother John Called and suggested that they get together for a little fun and adventure: a bungee jump off the 140-foot-high bridge at Don Pedro Reservoir near Yosemite. Neither had jumped before. Peter was 25 years old, three years younger than John, and this was not the first sigh of intrepid dementia he had seen in his brother. Over the years, he had developed a healthy fear of John's daredevil dreams and the way he had of making them come true.

"John was always fearless, a total hellion," Peter said. "When he got home from the first day of kindergarten, Dad asked him how it went, and John said, "It was great. There was blood all over." I guess some of the older kids at school had corralled the younger kids in a corner and John had battled his way out."

As John grew, so did his love for risky sports. He put up a pole-vaulting cross-bar in the backyard and used a two-by-two for a pole. He free-climbed the church across the street from his house. He shattered his ankle skateboarding by lantern light in a drainage pipe. He made a trip to the Bonzai Pipeline in Hawaii to surf the big waves while he was still a novice surfer. And he jumped eight garbage cans on his BMX bike in imitation of his her, Evel Knievel, whose poster image hung on his bedroom wall.

John saw his first bungee jump on a segment of the television show "That's Incredible, " in which the members of the Dangerous Sports Club donned tuxedos and stepped off the bridge over Royal Gorge. Intrigued, he sent away to a West German military supply house for the cords, tested them by leaping from a baseball backstop, then hatched the idea for a jump from the bridge he'd spotted on his way to climb in Yosemite. Because jumping from bridges is illegal in California, John and Peter and the group of friends they'd brought along sneaked onto the bridge at night and slept on the ironwork below the deck.

"I was sweating bullets by the time the sun came up," says Peter. "I was sure we were gonna die. John went first, and I was just hoping he'd get hurt so I wouldn't have to do it. As it turned out, it was the most intense thrill I'd ever had in my life. I felt like a spider dropping into the Grand Canyon on a thread."

Over the next year, the brothers saw each other every few months at family gatherings in Palo Alto. John was working as a computer consultant in the Bay Area, and Peter was in Los Angeles, but the two of them had always thought they'd start a business together someday.

"We were always close," says John, "and the cool thing about our relationship is that we complement each other very well. We were always very competitive, too. We used to get in these vicious wrestling matches in the living room, destroy chairs, lamps. I still remember the first time Pete beat me. I was proud of him. Actually, his athletic skills are probably better than mine. He was captain of the wrestling team, captain of the football team. I'm more the dreamer, the daredevil. He'd the kind of guy who gets things done and does them right."

Things came together after John quit his job and telephoned his brother with a proposal that the two of them start a bungee-jumping business. "I thought it was totally crazy," says Peter. "We'd only been jumping a short time ourselves, and I was sure somebody would get hurt and we'd be sued. I was comfortable, had a good job, and John's telling me, 'Come on, screw security, screw stability and upward mobility. That's not what you're on earth for -- to sit there and be calm, to sit there and die slowly.'"

It was the part about dying slowly that overcame Peter's natural reticence. "The saddest thing I ever saw," he says, "were the engineers at Litton who had stayed 30 years beyond the time when they should have gone out and pursued a dream, so I decided to go for it." That was in February of 1989, and since then Peter has provided a kind of guidance-and-control system for his brother's ballistic vision.

"He comes up with these wild ideas," says Peter, "and I bring him back to where he might be able to do them safely."

Sort of. When John came smiling into the restaurant that night, I had to shake his left hand because his right arm was in a splint. "An unfortunate minor blip," he called it.

Looking at John, what you see is much more the computer whiz than the ambitious daredevil: about five-foot-nine, short dark hair, studious spectacles. And when he talks, there's a low-key thoughtfulness to his manner that somehow understates everything that is nuts about his behavior.

"We decided to make a test jump this afternoon, wanted to go about halfway before we went for the record. So Pete flew the balloon up to about 5,000 feet." John raised his crippled arm above his head. "And I jumped on a 250-foot bungee which stretched to about 500 feet, so I was going about 85 miles an hour when the cord straightened out and kicked in..."

"...like a lightning bolt," said Peter, with the kind of feeling John was leaving out.

"And when that happens," said John, "you have a tendency to put your hands in front of your face -- you don't want to get hit in the face -- so it got me in the arm and sprained it a little, but I'm all right. I'll get a cast put on it tomorrow, so I'll be ready for the big jump."

Or, I thought to myself, you could just go ahead and get the full body-cast while you're there and save us a frenzied trip to the emergency room.

Through the rest of dinner, the brothers talked about the logistics of their world-record attempt. Peter would fly the balloon to 5,000 feet, where John would pitch himself out of the basket attached at the ankles to a single 500-foot bungee, which would stretch to 1,000 feet. Then, if he wasn't unconscious or dead, if he hadn't jerked the balloon out of the air, he would cut himself free of the cord and parachute to the ground. Nothing to it.

"You'll be totally haired out," said Peter, turning to me. "You'll be up there going 'God, why am I doing this?'"

"Huh?" I said.

"We're gonna put you in the balloon with us," said John. "it's where the action is."

"Ah...yeah...well...great," said my mouth, which is what my mouth always says when the rest of me is appalled by an idea but would rather look like a dashing fool than a coward.

"Don't worry," said John. "we're not going out there to get killed. When you get down to the mechanics of it, this looks a lot more dangerous than it really is. Of course, there's lawyers the unknown."

For me -- who has ice climbed, rock climbed, skydived, wing walked, ski jumped, bungee jumped, parasailed, and just generally made my living as a frightened beginner -- the greatest unknown in these things has always come down to whether or not the people I'm doing it with have the proper respect for death, whether they're just a little crazy or suicidally twisted. There's no sure way to make that call. All you can do is watch their eyes, look for nervous tics, listen for nervous laughter in the wrong places when they talk about what they do.

My longest conversations were with John. He's an intense, intelligent, philosophical character who brings all of those thins to the stunts he designs. And like most of the thrill-heads I know, he worries that people will see only the daring and miss the caution with which he approaches his sport.

"I am pushing the edge," he said, "but I'm very careful. For instance, when I decided to do a bungee-skydiving jump, I didn't just take my ten required jumps, get my license, an go do it. I've made 70 sky dives, two base jumps, and I've read my skydiving manual cover-to-cover three times. I take these things extremely seriously. I'm a daredevil, not a raving lunatic. What I like to do is come up with ideas that on the surface look very dangerous, very scary, but in reality I'm not risking my ass to do them. My goal is to live to be 100."

"What about the edit in that Golden Gate Bridge video?" I asked at a point when John was making all of it sound like a day at Great America. There was a pause during which I could see him editing what he was going to tell me.

"We got too many oooohs and ahhhhs out of the viewing audience, so we cut a piece," he said.

"Come on," I said. "What happened?"

"I was underwater so long it looked like I drowned," he said finally. Then he jumped around among several partial explanations of what had gone wrong. "I was up till two in the morning doing the calculations...they were old cords...they over-stretched...we only had one take and I had to make sure I hit the water...normally we'd be a little more judicious about it...hit pretty hard...it hurt...stunned me...I hung in the air for about 20 or 30 seconds before I cut loose...dropped about 50 feet under the water. The video made it look like it wasn't a very pleasant experience."

"It doesn't sound like it was," I said. Then both of us did a little nervous laughing.

By the time we met in the Bungee Adventures office at five o'clock on the morning of the jump, I'd decided. What the hell -- you don't get a story like this standing on the ground sharing binoculars with the insurance people. You have to go where the wackos go, put your eggs in their basket, even if the basket is hanging a mile above the ground.

Peter was at his desk, bent over a map of the Sacramento delta, using pencil and protractor to make a flight plan that would get us up and down ahead of the storms that were moving in on poor, dry California. A dozen crew members milled about over coffee and rolls, then wandered off to gather equipment. Bungee Adventures is a modest setup: three full-time employees occupying three rooms in a dumpy little office mall in Mountain View. But all in all, this unlikely business has been good to the Kockelmans. They started the company on a $5,000 investment and had the field to themselves for the first year, during which the money rolled in. As other bungee jumpers -- including some of their former employees -- started competing outfits, the company income grew skinny enough to give them the sort of scare that tends to settle and focus any enterprise. In order to get themselves on the right side of the law -- Peter had spent a night in jail and their equipment had been confiscated several times for illegal use of California bridges -- they bough a hot-air balloon, Peter earned a license to fly it, and for a while they jumped their customers from the basket over private property. Because it was more efficient and gave them more control over the unexpected, they eventually replaced the balloon with the 240-foot crane they now use.

"It's kind of marginal up there right now," said Peter, after a call to the weather service. Clouds were scattered but gathering, there were already some showers in the area, winds aloft were blowing at 45 miles per hour, and the forecast was predicting three to seven inches of rain over the next 48 hours, with possible thunder and lightning.

We arrived at the municipal airport under a low, smudgy ceiling and met up with Chris Conkright, the photographer who had worked with the Kockelmans on the Reebok commercial. The plan was for him to free-fall from the balloon and document John's jump with a four-camera, duct-taped masterpiece: a 15-pound Nikon-equipped helmet that made him look like an insect whose head had been built in somebody's garage.


Halfhearted drizzle speckled the runway as the Bungee Adventures crew laid out the balloon canopy and rigged it to the basked. Peter called the weather service again and was advised that things were likely to get worse, not better. A helicopter from a Sacrament TV station arrived, and Peter talked with them about the logistics of filming the jump.


"Let's do it," said John, whose adrenaline was beginning to show. "Let's get the balloon inflated and ready to fly. We can scrap it at the last minute if we have to, but I suggest we go for it." He looked at Peter, then took the arm that was now encased in a brand-new plaster cast and put it on his younger brother's shoulder. "But you're the pilot," he said. "You make the final call."


The ceiling lifted some, and the rain stopped. Peter wandered off by himself and spent 20 minutes fretting while the crew attached a 500-foot bungee to the bottom of the basket, then used a large fan to inflate the canopy.


"All right, gang, let's go," said Peter as he strode back into the group. "We've got to get this thing up to 5,000 feet and then back down as fast as we can." Then he climbed into the basket, lit the dragon's breath, and fired the burners until the balloon bobbed 60 feet in the air, tugging against the anchor ropes. Six crew members held it down while I climbed in and clipped myself to a safety line.


"To ensure that my body will be found with the wreckage, or what?" I said. It was one of those lines I always try to deliver when I'm terrified, so that if the worst does come true somebody will be able to say, "He kept his sense of humor right up to the end."

"Hang on," said Peter as John and Chris crowded into the little basket with us. "I'm going to heat this thing so we go out of here like a bat out of heaven." Peter shouted, "Now," the ground crew released the ropes, and we shot up off the runway with a lift speed that buckled my knees. "Everybody pray," said Peter as the figures on the ground shrank away, as the 250-foot-long loop of bungee we were trailing cleared the power lines above the airport, as John and Chris scrambled to organize the web of lines at our feet. There wasn't much for me to do except ride the adrenaline tide and wait for something to go wrong. Peter used a radio to give our heading and altitude to the chase truck, which had lost sight of us very soon after we'd flown up and then north through the gray skies on 30-knot gusts of wind.

"What's our temperature?" said John.

"Oh, shit," said Peter when he got a look at the gauge. "Redline -- we're over-heating." From then on, every time he fired the burner, I couldn't help but picture us headed straight for the ground trailing a huge flaming rag overhead.

At about 4,200 feet, the TV helicopter caught up with us and circled. Chris climbed onto the edge of the basket. John had a small attack of nerves over a blue strap that was where it shouldn't have been, then calmed himself, hooked the bungee to his ankle harness, and climbed onto the wicker lip opposite Chris.

Then it was quiet. The fields and ponds and ditches below us were a patchwork.

"4,700 feet," said Peter.

"How you doing, brother?" said John, trying to pump himself the way he'd pumped his sneakers for that commercial.

"I'm good," was the answer.

"I love this stuff," shouted John. "Keep the adrenaline flowing. Ow! Rock and roll! Count us down."

"Three...two...one...you're history, boys," said Peter.

John and Chris rocked once, then dove together in a tight parenthesis and fell away for six, seven excruciating second -- I don't know how long, except that it gave me plenty of time to worry about everything: whether the bungee was going to snap, whether it was going to rip his head off or tear the basket from the balloon. When the cord finally kicked in, the balloon shimmied -- but not as much as I'd thought it would, not enough to justify the death grip I had on the guy lines -- and the dot below us that was John rebounded through a wide arc that was dampened by the wind. He then settled and hung quietly. Chris's chute opened a moment later, and he flew off in search of a landing.

John waved his arms in what we too to mean he was unhurt, but when he was still hanging there five minutes later, we weren't so sure. Peter got on the radio to the helicopter pilot and asked him to circle in and see if John was all right. He worried out loud about trying to drag him to a landing if he wasn't. Then, just as the chopper was about to make its inspection pass, John cut the cord, the balloon shimmied again, and the bungee shot up toward the bottom of the basket like a striking snake, spent itself 50 feet below us, and hung slack.

Peter and I whooped when we saw John's chute open. "Thank you, Jesus," he said as the helicopter swooped down to pick up John and Chris for the ride back to the airport.

We sailed north for another 40 minutes, dropping slowly, drowsing along in the good warm afterglow that always follows big fright. At about 100 feet we dropped the bungee onto a dike alongside a canal. At 50 feet we flushed five red-tailed hawks, then scuffed across a wide field of stubble and crunched in for a landing on the bank of an irrigation-ditch levee where the chase crew was waiting.

When the helicopter caught up with us, John and Peter had their hug and their victory how, took congratulations, and posed for photos.

An hour later, it started to rain and it rained for a month.