If you’re reading this article, I’m pretty sure you are probably wondering what Deep-Water Soloing is, like I was when I first heard of it. It is not scuba-diving, which was where my mind went first, nor does it mean going at something alone.
Deep-Water Soloing, (a.k.a. “Psicobloc”), or DWS, is rock climbing, without any Belay equipment (the solo part) above a body of water that you can ‘safely’ land in from up to 70 ft in the air (the Deep-Water part).
This is the “Purest” stuff – for Crazy People!
Within the rock-climbing community, solo climbing is known and revered as the purest form of climbing because you are climbing without any safety equipment, so if you fall you are dead. To me, this is utterly crazy, but people have done it and love it. This idea of solo climbing excited enough people who didn’t want to die, but still wanted to experience climbing without any aid, that Deep-Water Soloing came into existence. Now instead of plunging to your death due to a misstep, you can plunge into the water – that might still kill you, but at least if you’re a good swimmer and you hit the water with no hungry sharks around, you’ll have a fighting chance!
While all of this was happening, and even before free solo climbing became popular, people had been climbing the cliffs of Mallorca, or Majorca (pronounced may-or-cah) for many years. In the late 1970’s some climbers decided to go bouldering around the shores of Mallorca when one of them got the bright idea that they should climb over the ocean. This is how DWS got the name psicobloc, which translates from Spanish to literally mean, ‘psycho bouldering.’ Now this tiny island, located off of the Western coast of Spain and Catalan, is an epicenter for DWS and they often offer many opportunities to try DWS on their famed cliffs.
Why So Popular?
That basically brings us to today, where DWS is just starting to get a footing in the rock-climbing community. Oddly, one of the biggest reasons for the increasing popularity of DWS is that it can be done competitively and be ‘action-packed’ because you can have two climbers race each other, and if they fall, they can actually fall all the way into the water. Falling into the water adds a type of suspense and final punishment to rock climbing competitions that is absent in sport climbing competitions. This apparently draws in more people, and thus money, and therefore more competitions. The other big draw is that more people can experience free solo climbing and not risk their lives in such a blatant way. A 30-foot drop into water is dangerous but not nearly as dangerous as a 30-foot drop onto the ground.
If after reading all of this you’re thinking, ‘Wow! that sounds awesome!’ then you might be crazy enough to LOVE the sport of psicobloc. Then again, traditional rock-climbers put their faith in rope and another person all the time, so this can’t be too far out there…right? Well either way, here are some ways to prep for DWS and what to do when you actually get out there and climb those cliffs.
Preparing to Deep Water Solo
Half of the prep for DWS is really general and the other half is extremely specific, so I am going to cover the general stuff first. Also realize that because DWS is still rather new, there aren’t a lot of general practices and companies have yet to create products specifically for DWS. (If you have heard of specific climbing equipment for DWS, please add a link in the comments section below!)
Equipment you’ll need:
○ Most people are encouraged to bring a couple pairs of shoes, so when one pair gets wet, you can switch pairs. Others say to stick it out in a pair of wet shoes. I think it comes down to how your shoes hold up to getting wet and how you feel while wearing them. Make sure after you are done climbing, that you rinse them in clean water, especially if you’re falling into salt water, as the salt in the water could damage the material used to make the shoes.
○ Again, some people bring multiple bags of chalk, others put their chalk into a Ziploc bag and put that into their chalk bag, and others still put a line of liquid chalk on their arm and reapply from there. I think the liquid chalk would work best but have not had the opportunity to try out how water resistant that stuff actually is.
● Harness, Rope, Belay Equipment
○ None of this is necessary since you will be free solo climbing.
○ Most men and women seem to climb in their bathing suits, preferably something durable that allows for a lot of movement. It is also highly encouraged that climbers also wear neoprene undershorts so that you don’t get a ‘seawater enema.’ Sorry for that lovely mental picture…Whatever you choose, you want to make sure that your clothes won’t drag you down or be cumbersome as you try to swim and stay afloat.
- It would be wise to practice jumping off of small cliffs. Get used to hitting the water from different heights and at different angles. The goal is to enter the water like a pencil, with your knees slightly bent. Obviously, if you slip off a grip and spiral out of control this might not happen, so it is best to get a feel for how your body falls through the air and how you can right yourself mid fall, without overcompensating.
- Once you get to the climb, you should practice climbing a little way and ‘falling’ off, much like trust falls when you first start belaying. During these trail runs, you should test the rock and see how well it holds you up, if it crumbles easily, etc.
- You need to be a competent, comfortable swimmer to DWS. No exceptions. As a former swimmer, I would suggest you at least be able to tread water for a couple of minutes and swim anywhere from 200-300 yards, in open water, without being tired from the exercise. Remember that you will likely be swimming back to a raft of some sort after climbing, with no support, and possibly hitting the water in a painful way. You want to be able to swim in pain and when really tired.
- Water depth also needs to be taken into account, most of the cliffs you will be climbing are also used for cliffs jumping, so ask around the beach area, other locals, or DWS climbers for how deep the water is and if there are any submerged rocks. Tides, undercurrent, and riptide are just a couple of things to take into consideration when looking at an area to DWS. All of this information can be found online.
- Figuring out how to get out to the cliffs will also be something to tackle, along with having an emergency plan if someone gets seriously injured. You will also need to have a dry starting point and someplace to store your stuff nearby. The best configuration I’ve heard about was using a person on a paddle board as the first responder, a kayak for storage and photo-taking, and then a canoe as a starting point. This is just one possible configuration, other possibilities will depend heavily on where you are climbing and over what type of water you will be climbing.
- Depending on where you are climbing, cold water shock might be something you need to worry about. If you are potentially falling into water that is below 15C/60F, you will need to have a plan to avoid, recover from, or be rescued out of cold water.
**Note well that DWS is going to take a lot more research than your average climbing trip. You will need to know water depth, tide schedules, how to get out to the cliffs, what the waves and currents are like in this area, and average water temperature. That’s just for starters!
Finding a Spot
To me, this task seems the most daunting. As someone who lives halfway between the Pacific Ocean and Joshua Tree, it feels odd to just go to the beach and pick a cliff to climb because I am so used to climbing established runs and boulders in Joshua Tree. Due to DWS being so new, it is actually quite hard to find established runs or problems outside of Mallorca. I would suggest googling your area and ‘deep water soloing’ or cruising around your local body of water, looking for an outcropping, and then doing research after surveying the landscape.
When you are researching, you will need to figure out how deep the water below your cliff is. I have heard it said that no matter how high you fall from, you can’t physically go farther down than 16 ft, but I am not a physicist, nor an expert on that topic so please do your own research and figure out how deep the water needs to be, before jumping feet first into the water, or heaven forbid, head first.
Although there are not a lot of established DWS spots, they do have a two-fold grading system, technicality and ‘safety.’ The technical side of the climb is usually graded on the French system, while the S grade is used to grade the height and consequences of the fall from the climb. As with your first time outdoor climbing, start easy and work your way up to more difficult climbing, there is no belay to catch you when you fall, nor is water that soft of a landing surface.
● S0 = Safe and relatively non-committing. Usually with the crux move low down.
● S1 = A caution rating which may mean the routes are higher, making falls a little more serious.
● S2 = All elements of S1 with a possibility of protruding ledges and shallow water in places.
● S4 = Heady to on- sight, usually with a high crux, shallow water, dangerous.”
Here is a good starting place to look for places to climb in America. Here is a place to read more about DWS in Mallorca.
Other Tips and Tricks
● Always go DWS in a group! While all rock climbing should be done in a group, this should especially be done with others around, who are specifically looking out for your safety and well-being.
● Most established climbers suggest never going above 70 ft when Deep Water Soloing. The general consensus is that once you get over 70 feet up from the water, the danger factor from hard falls (especially with uncontrolled body position) into the water, increases substantially. I personally can’t imagine falling or hitting the water from that height, but that’s just me.
● If you are climbing in cold water, you can try climbing in a thin wetsuit to help prevent cold water shock and hypothermia.
● Depending on where you are, this type of climbing might be only possible in the late summer and early fall. Remember that air temperature does not correlate to water temperature, so just because the air is warm, that does not mean the water will be warm.
● Make sure you wear sunscreen!
● Towels! Towels! and more Towels! These will be necessary to get dry enough to climb again. I would also bring a couple of blankets if you are going to be climbing where it’s cold so that your muscles stay warm.
● Much like entering into a knife fight, be prepared to fall and get hurt, maybe even injured. Water can feel like concrete if you’re not careful or are surprised by an awkward fall.
If you have any other tips for Deep Water Soloing, or places to go Deep Water Soloing, please comment below!