The climber’s fingers slip on the small ledge. She desperately searches for the next hold, but the rock is blank, her arms quiveringly tired. No rope secures her to the wall – besides a chalk bag and climbing shoes, she has no gear at all. But there’s no fear of falling. Her body peels away from the wall, sending her hurtling down as fast as the pull of gravity.
Splash! She safely lands into a body of water 50 feet below. Welcome to the sport of Deep Water Soloing (DWS), where there are no ropes, but the dangers of falling are mitigated by the the water below.
DWS is pure climbing. Without ropes, climbers don’t have to stop every ten feet and secure the rope to the wall. And there’s no extraneous gear, like a harness and a rack full of cams to weigh you down – it’s just you and the rock. And unlike normal free-solo climbing, you don’t have to worry about falling and killing yourself.
DWS conjures images of island paradise: Climbing on a hot day with little clothing, falling into cool, blue waters. But the sport is dangerous – in some ways, more dangerous than conventional, roped climbing. To give you a sense of DWS’s dangers, it’s known in Spanish as “psicobloc” – psychotic bouldering.
Among the dangers:
- Landing in too shallow water.
- Getting swept away by aggressive currents.
- Improper landing in water. (See below.)
- Hypothermia, from low water temperature.
For this reason, DWS uses a slightly different rating scale on established climbs. In addition to the grade of difficulty, a DWS route will include a rating between S0-S4, used to indicate the safety of the route. S0 indicates that the route is safe to fall on at most tides. An S4 rating means if you fall, you’ll probably die.
An important skill you need to learn before DWSing: properly falling in water. Before you climb, check to see if the water is deep enough for a safe landing. The depth of the water depends on how high you plan on climbing up the wall. (And make sure you know exactly where the route goes. If it wanders, make sure it stays above deep water the whole way.)
The key is to stay absolutely straight when you land. Keep your arms at your sides – otherwise, you can dislocate your shoulder. And keep your mouth closed and your legs together. Hitting the water otherwise will not only be uncomfortable; it could seriously injure you.
Here are five of the best DWS areas in the world:
FWS began in Dorset, which is located in the south of England. In fact, that part of the country continues to be one of the main hubs of the DWS world. Places like Dulworth Cove, Connor Cove and Cave Hole are classic crags.
England has an embarrassment of DWS riches. Just 200 miles northwest of Dorset, Pembroke is another classic DWS area. In recent years, many top climbers have developed difficult routes in the area. Check out this video of Neil Gresham on the first ascent of Olympiad (8b).
Majorca (Mallorca), Spain
Where the colorful term “psicobloc” originated. There’s some confusion as to whether DWS began in Dorset or Majorca. Either way, It’s one of the premier DWS spots in the world. The warm Mediterranean are welcome relief to climbers who are used to cold English waters.
Railay Peninsula, Thailand
Thailand is becoming a popular destination for climbers, and its Railay Peninsula is one of the best places to DWS. Many boatmen specialize is ferrying climbers to and from the established climbs in the area.
Summersville Lake, USA
Located in West Virginia, near Charleston, Summersville Lake is regarded as the best DWS spot in the US. Unfortunately, it’s currently illegal to climb at the lake. Maybe once the legal issues are settled, climbers will be welcome there once more.