A screen capture from a Green Mountain Reservoir cliff-diving video shot on July 26, less than a week before a fatal accident at the location.
A screen capture from a Green Mountain Reservoir cliff-diving video shot on July 26, less than a week before a fatal accident at the location.

How a Tragedy Shut Down Colorado's Most Famous Cliff-Jumping Spot

The death of James Cummings, a 27-year-old from Denver, who drowned after leaping from a cliff-jumping spot at Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County, was at least the fifteenth fatality at a Colorado water attraction in 2017. Now, federal and local authorities have jointly decided to temporarily restrict access to the site, in part because of its spreading reputation online among adventurers in Colorado and beyond.

"The widespread promotion of this area for cliff jumping on the Internet and social media has really exploded," notes Bill Jackson, district ranger for the Dillon Ranger District of the White River National Forest. "I'm told a lot of people are coming just because they've seen cliff-jumping videos on YouTube and say, 'We need to try that.'"

He's not exaggerating. Search YouTube for "Green Mountain Reservoir" and "Cliff Jumping" and you'll quickly have access to dozens of clips, with each seemingly more spectacular than the last thanks to plunges of up to eighty feet. Links to three examples can be found as credits attached to the images that illustrate this post.

But this collection also includes the CBS4 clip "Body Of Cliff Diver Found In Green Mountain Reservoir," which lays out the basics of the latest tragedy.

At 4:43 p.m. on August 1, the Summit County Sheriff's Office was informed about a possible drowning at the cliff-jumping site, which Jackson describes as "a rock outcrop located on the western shoreline of Green Mountain Reservoir, just east of the Green Mountain dam along County Road 30." Deputies arrived at the scene around fourteen minutes later and were told by witnesses that a man, now ID'd as Cummings, had dived off the rock but didn't surface after entering the water. Others on the scene immediately began searching for him, without success, and sheriff's office personnel didn't have much luck that day, either. The recovery effort stretched into the next day. Finally, at around 12:30 p.m. on August 2, Cummings's body was located via the use of sonar equipment at a depth of approximately seventy feet.

This image from a video showing a child cliff-jumping dates back to 2012.
This image from a video showing a child cliff-jumping dates back to 2012.

The incident was "really unfortunate, very sad," says Jackson, who adds that "on the 2nd, in light of the fatality, the managing entities for the shoreline area — the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management — got together with the Summit County sheriff, and everyone agreed that the rock should be closed to the public."

The reasons for this move go beyond the fatality, Jackson maintains. "There's been an increase in emergency responses to the area in recent years and an overall increase in the use of Green Mountain Reservoirs; there are a half a dozen campgrounds, public boating and a lot of other things that attract visitors. And we've also had concerns about traffic and parking along County Road 30. There's no parking on county roads, but it's gotten to the point where traffic was blocking the entire road," often in the vicinity of the cliff-jumping site.

There's no mystery about what's drawing the crowds. "One of the YouTube videos even promoted a cliff-jumping event," Jackson recalls. "It said something like, 'Come to the Rock' and had a date and promised that further details were coming — and it was totally unauthorized. There was no permit to do anything like that."

In an effort to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, Summit County authorities have placed signage about the closure along the road itself. In addition, Jackson goes on, "there are signs on the rock outcrop on the county road side, and we've also faced a few signs on the water side of the rock outcrop, so if you're approaching on a boat or other water craft, you can see them as well."

The order will be enforced by a coalition of agencies. "The Summit County Sheriff's Office has an agreement with the BLM and the Forest Service to patrol the area, because it's sort of isolated. In addition, the Forest Service will be keeping an eye out to make sure the signs are still up, and we'll be talking to folks on the rock — educating the public about the recent closure order."

A cliff-jumping video from 2015.
A cliff-jumping video from 2015.

The shutdown of the Green Mountain Reservoir cliff-jumping site doesn't mean there's a campaign under way against any place on federal land where people have been known to leap into water. "There's no set policy on managing jumping," Jackson says. "It's really site-specific, and location-specific. Every situation is unique — and that's generally how we approach these activities."

For the most part, he goes on, "the forest is wide open. You use it at your discretion, and obviously, there are some potential dangers just doing ordinary activities, whether it's hiking a fourteener, backpacking, backcountry skiing. It's wild, rugged territory, and you have to be prepared for potential hazards and really do your homework before taking these activities on. It's not one size fits all."

With that in mind, the assorted parties charged with monitoring Green Mountain Reservoir are already thinking about what's next.

"I just want to reiterate that this is a temporary closure order," Jackson says, "and the partners are working to come up with options for the future. Do we do something more than signs? What else can we do to keep people safe? We're still discussing what the long term looks like."

In the meantime, his message is simple: Imitating those amazing YouTube videos is currently against the law.

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