Deep Water Soloing: Climbing Above Water

Solo Climbing with Minimal Risk and Maximum Fun

A woman practices deep water soloing above the sea. Deep water soloing offers fun climbing with minimal risk. Photograph copyright Imagemore/Getty Images

Solo climbing without a rope or climbing equipment other than rock shoes and a chalk bag is perhaps the purest form of rock climbing—it is also the most dangerous since a fall is usually fatal. Bouldering, solo climbing on small cliffs and boulder that are usually less than 20 feet high, is a lot safer since the boulderer, if he falls, will land on crash pads spread below the route and has spotters who keep him upright and steer him from dangerous landing zones.

But when a climber solos a route higher than 35 feet without a safety rope, it can be deadly. If he falls while soloing, the climber can be severely injured or die.

Climb, Fall, Get Wet!

Deep water soloing is the safer alternative for prospective solo climbers. Deep water soloing, also called DWP and psicobloc (prounounce it CEE-ko block) in Europe, is simply solo climbing, without gear and ropes, on cliffs above water. The water may be the ocean at high tide, lakes and reservoirs, slow-moving deep rivers, and swimming pools below artificial climbing walls. The solo climber, if he falls, plunges into the water, which cushions his fall. He emerges wet from the dunking, none the worse for the fall.

Deep Water Soloing Began on Mallorca

Deep water soloing began in the late 1970s on Mallorca, an island in the Mediterranean Sea east of Spain. Several Spanish climbers, including Miquel Riera, began bouldering on the island’s sea cliffs, doing what they called psicobloc or psycho bouldering.

They pushed their climbing limits without ropes and gear, falling into the drink when it got too hard. Deep water soloing remained a little-known Spanish discipline of the sport for the next 30 years, although climbers tried it at Dover in the United Kingdom and a few other places.

Big Deep Water Soloing Festival in 2003

Psycho deep water bouldering remained a backwater climbing style for a couple decades until American Chris Sharma, one of the best climbers in the world, moved to Spain and discovered the climbing on Mallorca.

It was an informal gathering, promoted on the Internet and attended by Sharma, in 2003 that brought over 50 soloists to Diablo, an overhanging 65-foot-high limestone wall on Mallorca’s coast. After all the fun, climbing, and camaraderie was finished, lots of photographs were sprayed across the web and deep water soloing became the cool climbing to do.

Chris Sharma: Coolest Way to Climb

"For me it's absolutely the coolest way to go climbing," Sharma told redbull.com. "Climbing without ropes is such an amazing feeling, but if you fall you die, so you have to climb below your limit. The beauty of this is that you can have that same freedom, and try things that are at your limit. The freedom you have with no ropes and at your limit – it's such a pure form of climbing."

A Mix of Climbing and Surfing Cultures

Deep water soloing is not only climbing but also a water sport. As Sharma points out, it’s “mixing mountain and surf culture.” Solo climbing and then falling off into the water is a lot of fun, but it is also dangerous. Once the soloist ventures 40 feet or more above the churning ocean, the water landing is hard, a bit like hitting a tub of wet cement. Most soloists don’t climb and fall above 70 feet, again since the landing is harsh.

Deep water soloists say that it helps to have a bit of body mass if you fall, rather than being a skinny sport climber, who is more likely to get injured. Injuries include body bruises, broken bones, and ruptured ear drums. Climbers also need to be strong swimmers. It is important to check the water temperature as well as the swells, especially at places like Mallorca and England’s Dover and Welsh coasts, where the currents run cold and strong. Some climbers have died after plunging into the water, unable to escape tides and currents.

Soloing Requires Minimal Equipment

Deep water soloing, like bouldering, requires just a bare minimum of climbing equipment—towels, shorts, lots of pairs of rock shoes, and lots of chalk bags. Needless to say, if you take the fall, your rock shoes are sodden and the chalk in your bag is a soggy paste.

Many climbers also have a dingy or small boat nearby for rescue.