A pair of climbing shoes, a chalk bag and some swim briefs – that’s about all you need to climb a wall. At least, that’s all Alex Honnold needs. Unfortunately, the kind of climbing (free soloing) Honnold wows us with on a regular basis is very dangerous, forcing the less audacious among us to leave it to the professionals. If you want to give it a crack anyway, we recommend deep water soloing.
Those who have tried it before refer to it as climbing in its purest form. Why? Well, there’s no protection, you can choose to follow routes or not and you won’t be risking your life as you would with each and every free solo climb.
Deep water soloing (DWS), also known as psicobloc, is becoming more and more popular. If you have yet to figure what it’s all about and where you can do it, you’ve come to the right place! Let’s start with a definition: Simply put, deep water soloing (DWS) is climbing without protection above deep water. So, does that mean it’s a less dangerous version of free solo climbing? Let’s put it this way: it depends on how you go about it. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the basics:
You can just climb. You don’t have to think about protection, routes, belay stations, etc. In other words, you can leave most of your gear at home, which will come in really useful if you plan on flying somewhere. Simply pack your shoes, chalk and swimshorts and get ready to crush some gnarly DWS routes! If you’re planning on rappelling into routes then you’ll need straightforward kit like harness, belay device and rappel rope plus ascenders/prusiks to get back out if necessary.
Since you don’t need a belayer, you can climb by yourself (though we recommend climbing with others or letting them know your plans at the very least), saving yourself from the embarrassment of trying get over the crux for the umpteenth time. In other words, you can just focus on climbing, the movement, the route and your goal. Many people are surprised by how much easier it is to climb at your limit whilst on a DWS, at least once you’ve got over the fear of falling into the water.
This kind of climbing could be perfect for those of you who want something somewhere between free soloing and bouldering. Especially if you enjoy the heady sensation of highball bouldering above pads and spotters, DWS is for you.
Things to consider
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as you might think. In order for it to be fun and truly safe, there are a few things you need to consider.
How to get there
I know of three different ways. Climb there, rappel to your spot or take a boat! Many popular DWS locations have easy rental access to kayaks, canoes or other small boats, meaning you’ve instantly got a way to access the wall and a place to scramble onto after taking a dive. It also means your buddies are going to be in right place in the event of a bad fall or just to take the necessary action shots!
When rappelling into a DWS destination, bear in mind how you’re going to get back out. If the route proves too hard or you need to get out because of the tide coming in, or maybe you just stayed out until dark – you’ll need another way out of the crag. Take a jumar/prusik and know how to use them. Trust me, it’s better than getting stuck at the bottom of a sea cliff with the waves lapping at your feet! If climbing down, consider carefully whether you are confident on the approach. If in doubt, use a rope and be aware of potential loose rock.
This should obviously be in water and positioned in such a way so that you don’t fall on underwater rocks, logs, reefs or other obstacles. A lot of DWS cliff faces are vertical (like in the video from Löbejün below) or slightly to majorly overhanging. If inexperienced, don’t just commit to a ‘DWS’ without knowledge of the wall and water below. It could be that the route you think is safe is actually just as dangerous as soloing it above ground.
The landing zone – the water
The water at the base of the climb should be deep enough so that a long fall does not lead to impact under water. The wall should thus extend vertically downward below the surface of the water for several metres. Many DWS walls are over 15m high. There should be several metres of water below you.
The water should be calm as well. As many DWS are seas cliffs, you will have to familiarise yourself with subject matters such as surfs, swells and currents. And, in some regions, you may even have to think about whacky stuff like jellyfish, sharks, crabs, submarines, fish, pelicans, etc.
If you prefer to stay away from stuff like that and like it a bit more relaxed, look for DWS cliffs in lakes. However, make sure to spot your landing zone and have a boat at the ready – don’t get complacent just because you’re not in the sea.
The good thing is, you really only need shoes and chalk (and swim briefs/bikini). However, you can only use them for a single route, because after your dive/jump – which is an integral part of every fall – your shoes and chalk bag will need time to dry, unless you have backups. When deep water soloing in warm countries, most people take 2-3 pairs of shoes and have the others drying out in the sun whilst they are climbing.
In the UK, things need a little more preparation. Items such as a towel to dry off between attempts, a rash vest to keep warm during longer sessions and a waterproof container for keeping dry essential bits of kit like spare chalk/sandwiches come very much in handy. You should also carry a first aid kit at all times to deal with any small injuries or a genuine first response situation where a friend is injured.
There’s a trick you can use for your chalk bag, though. Take a plastic bag (one that fits perfectly inside your chalk bag) and fill it up with chalk. That way, you can just replace the plastic bag instead of having to use an infinite number of chalk bags. Liquid chalk is also great as that can applied once before a climb and will last well.
You usually won’t be able to see far enough below water to find out what your landing zone looks like, so it’s important to find some background information about the venue beforehand. You can find this kind of information online or in certain climbing guides, such as the Rockfax – Deep Water – Climbing guide. Even better, get in touch with the local climbing scene and see if there are some clued up local climbers who don’t mind showing you around in exchange for beer and high fives.
What does psicobloc mean?
For one, psicobloc is another name for DWS. But, it also happens to be the name of a competition that Chris Sharma launched in 2013.
The competition takes place in Utah where an artificial climbing wall is erected above a swimming pool (usually used for high diving). In 2013, elite climbers met there for the very first time in a trial of mental strength! In August of 2014, they met again for another epic battle. The video is worth watching. Your fingers are guaranteed to sweat.
The crucial question – is it dangerous?
As always, it depends entirely on how you go about it. I mean, you can get injured doing anything, even whilst playing chess! All jokes aside, when compared with free solo climbing, DWS is much more attractive since a fall is not necessarily fatal. Still, your safety depends on a few factors.
The higher the fall, the harder the surface of the water will be when you come crashing down upon it. So, the way you land is crucial. You should try not to fall out of control but instead attempt – as you would when bouldering – a controlled jump, stabilising your body position to your advantage. The height of the fall and how you fall into the water will determine whether your landing is soft, burns, breaks some bones or worse.
Obviously, if the water’s too shallow at the base of your climb, a fall would be fatal. A good example of the importance of water depth is the Hard Moves Boulder League held in Wuppertal, Germany. In 2013, the wall they used for the competition was 7.5 metres high. However, the swimming pool in the Wuppertal’s Schwimmoper was not deep enough, so they improvised and built a trampoline to catch the participants’ falls (see image). If they hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t have gone well.
It’s also very important to make sure you’re not climbing over the foot of a cliff over rocks hidden underwater, as that could be fatal as well. Ledges along the route can also lead to serious injuries. In the worst-case scenario, you could hit a ledge on the way down, land in the water and have to fight your way out, all whilst dealing with a potentially serious injury.
On top of that, you’ll have to deal with all the risks associated with the water itself, such as swells, currents, etc. So, it’s possible that even after a great landing, you’ll still be exposed to certain dangers. Even a small fall can really knock you around so having friends on hand make sure things don’t get epic in the bad way.
In other words, I know we said you COULD go by yourself, but for exactly these reasons, you shouldn’t. Always go with at least one other climber. But, I’m sure you know that from rock climbing already.
In sum, if you’ve found a good rock wall with a good landing zone, use your head when you climb, jump off the rock faces well, don’t climb too high, then DWS should a brilliant and relatively safe activity for you to try.
Popular DWS locations
Popular and documented locations for DWS include places in Mallorca and Malta, Thailand, Croatia, the French Riviera (Cap d’Antibes, Coco Beach, Point de l’Aiguille) and Vietnam.
In Germany, you can go deep water soloing in Löbejun near Halle or in Kochel above Lake Kochel.
As for the UK, the southwest coastline of England and Wales has a lot of great places for DWS-ing. Beginners should look to the popular enclaves of Pembroke and Dorset, for good quality routes with nice holds and good water underneath. Harder challenges can be found in the intimidating sea caves of Berry Head in Devon, with hard link ups such The Wizard of Oz f7b standing out as must-tries for the seasoned soloer. Kato Zawn in Pembroke is another location where harder challenges can be sought out. Beyond that, there are plenty of other destinations for those seeking the thrill and sea spray of a stonking deep water solo – and maybe even a few first ascents to be made for the true advocate!
Have fun getting after it!