Do you remember the feeling when you walk barefoot in the warm sand on a sunny beach? Multiply this by 1,000 and you get the intensity that you feel when you do deep water soloing (DWS). DWS is rock climbing on cliffs without any equipment (well, except climbing shoes). If you fall, you "just" fall into the water. DWS is also referred to as the purest form of climbing. It's scary, fun, and thrilling.
In this article, I will go over what exactly deep water soloing is and its history, what you need for it, and what you get out of it. I also cover five super useful climbing techniques and the seven practical tips for having a great DWS experience. So, let's get started.
What Is Deep Water Soloing (DWS)?
Deep water soloing is basically free soloing — there’s no extra security equipment like bolts, ropes or harnesses. The only difference is you are climbing next to water on a sea cliff. Your "security" is a lot of water underneath. If you fall, you fall into the water (there’s a way to do this safely — more on this later in my seven tips).
The first time the term "deep water soloing" was used was in the late 1970s on the island of Mallorca, Spain. I am convinced though that this type of activity has been practiced for many years before. Initially, the Spanish term "psicobloc" (literally translated as "psycho bouldering") was used. That is why psicobloc is still often used internationally as a synonym for DWS.
One milestone that increased the popularity of DWS was the first DWS festival in the UK in 2000. The festival moved around between the top UK DWS locations like Pembroke, Devon, Cornwall, Portland, and Dorset. Dorset is home to one of the most iconic deep water solo climbs: Freeborn Man (in Conner Cove, a limestone sea cliff at Swanage on the UK's south coast). These festivals were a meeting point for like-minded people to share ideas and experiences and to grow the community and diversity around DWS.
Another milestone was achieved when world-renowned climber Chris Sharma managed his first ascent of the Es Pontas arch on Mallorca. It's a route called the King Line and is still today the hardest known DWS route with a grade assumed to be around 9a/9a+. The grading goes from 1 (beginner route) to 9c (can only be climbed by aliens).
Today, DWS has worldwide popularity with its epicenter still in Europe and currently more and more beautiful new routes are discovered, especially in Thailand. There are now also DWS competitions. If you want to find out more, check out the excellent DWS guidebook "Deep Water: Rockfax Guidebook to Deep Water Soloing" by Mike Robertson. You can also check out dwsworld.com, a site dedicated to the art of deep water soloing.
What Do You Need for DWS?
The most important thing that you need for a deep water solo climb is preparation, especially when it's your first time.
Preparation includes understanding if the chosen location is actually feasible for DWS. What's the condition of the rock on the cliff? What's the difficulty level? How do you get there? Do you need certain equipment? Do you need to belay down first, can you access from below, do you need a boat or floater? What's the weather and water situation (temperature, depth, currents, water levels)? When is low or high tide? Water temperatures already below 15°C can lead to cold water shock, which can lead to death.
To collect all this info I recommend talking to experienced local climbers or even go with a group or take a guide. You can also search the internet but do make sure that you prepare well.
The equipment you need depends on the location. But DWS is very minimalistic, which is why it's the purest form of climbing, and the only things you really need are your climbing shoes and your ability. Chalk will be handy too, which I will cover in my seven DWS tips below. But that's really the only mandatory stuff. All the rest are nice-to-haves.
Speaking of ability, your climbing skills should match the difficulty of the route. If you consult a guidebook or websites you will most likely find the DWS specific S grades (S0 to S3) which mostly describe the safety of a location. This is then typically paired with sport climbing grades to understand the difficulty.
Apart from your specific climbing skills, a very good general level of fitness is absolutely recommended, if not necessary. If you do drop into the water you'll need to be able to swim to land.
Regarding climbing skills, let's take a look at some of the basic techniques next.
Top 5 Basic Climbing Principles for DWS
I have not seen any better or more concise explanation of the five most important principles (not only for DWS but for climbing in general) than in Siawn Ou's video on his Movement for Climbers channel.
Principle 1: Use Opposite Hand and Foot
This is also referred to as contralateral movement. It describes that you have the most stability when you use your opposite limbs. For example, while climbing make sure that you have a solid position in the wall with your right hand and left foot. Only then search for a new hold with your left hand to advance.
Principle 2: Apply Counter-Pressure
For a good climbing position that costs you the least amount of energy you should always try to apply opposing forces on at least two points of contact with the rock. Related to principle 1, you can pull with your right hand and at the same time push with your left leg. This will give you a stable but effortless body position.
Principle 3: The 90 Degree Rule
Image: Siawn Ou
The 90 degree rule helps you to maximize every hand hold. Basically you try to put your body into a position that is a 90 degree angle to the hand hold. This exerts the most force against the hand hold and is least tiring.
Principle 4: Have Your Center of Gravity Inside Base of Support
Image: Siawn Ou
This principle is helpful to optimize your balance. The better your body is balanced throughout the climb, the less energy you need, the longer or harder you can climb.
Your center of gravity (COG) is the point in your body where your weight is evenly balanced. Typically this is around the abdomen area. The base of support (BOS) refers to your points of contact with the wall (typically your hands and feet).
Every time you move you are changing your COG and hence impacting your balance. To have as optimal balance as possible, try to have your COG always as central as possible in your BOS. Also, whenever possible, your BOS should be wide after you completed a move.
Principle 5: Move Away to Move Toward
This is the progression from static climbing to more dynamic climbing and something beginners may struggle with. It's a bit scary and something I am working on at the moment as well. But it will elevate your climbing skills to the next level.
The principle says that sometimes certain holds are just too difficult or strenuous to reach if you try to reach them by statically moving there. Instead, the principle suggests to actually first move away from that hold and then dynamically move towards that hold. This will increase your kinetic energy and make it possible or easier to reach that hold.
7 Practical Tips for Deep Water Soloing
The entry barrier to go deep water soloing is really very low. Anybody with a reasonable level of fitness can do it. It's also great fun to do it as a group and hang around the coast the whole day long, go swimming, snorkeling, and just generally having a great time. To make sure to get the most out of your DWS experience I put together seven practical tips.
1. Never Go Alone
This is actually the golden rule for almost any climbing- or mountain-related activity. Always have at least one more person with you. You never know. Anything can happen and then you better have someone who can help or call for help. This tip is not only for safety but it is simply also more fun with more people.
2. Check the Water Depth
This is in line with what I discussed earlier about the importance of good preparation. Check that the water is deep enough and try routes that other climbers have climbed before.
3. Bring Goggles
Goggles are a useful piece of equipment that you can carry with you easily while climbing. When you fall or jump you can use them to explore the sea, which will add some extra to your experience. Also, it can be useful to watch out for jellyfish.
4. Just Jump First
This may be a bit scary but in fact it will help you to reduce the fear of falling later. This may not always be possible but if so, just jump from the top of the cliff first thing when you arrive and before you actually start climbing.
5. Liquid Chalk
If you can go without, just don't use any chalk at all. But I understand chalk does make a difference in climbing especially on a sunny cliff with sweaty hands. The best thing to do is to bring a tube of liquid chalk which you can just keep in your shorts or bikini. If you do want to use a chalk bag, make sure you only fill it with a little chalk (once it's wet you have to throw it all away) and if your bag gets wet, you'd have to clean it very carefully because the remaining chalk will stay slimy forever.
6. Clean Your Shoes
The saltwater and sun will definitely do damage to your climbing shoes. Mine shrank and became very rough. When you are done with climbing make sure to clean and rinse your shoes carefully with fresh water.
7. Learn to Fall
You will fall and it can hurt. So you better be aware of it and practice falling. Ideally keep your body loose during the fall. Only on entry to the water, tighten up and enter the water like a candle. Keep your arms close to your body, close your legs and keep your head upright. It also helps to be a strong swimmer.
What Do You Get From DWS?
There are plenty of areas that will benefit from engaging in deep water soloing.
A Solid Fitness Foundation
On my 4legsfitness.com platform and in the work with my clients I always use and promote the principles of generality and specificity. The principle of generality is related to creating a solid foundation for general health and fitness and is based on the four pillars: strength, endurance, nutrition, and recovery. The principle of specificity then addresses any sport-specific skills and abilities. Previously, I wrote about how this can be applied to Thai boxing, pole fitness, or ice climbing.
Better Performance in Specific Sports
Deep water soloing is no exception. The better your general foundation is, the better you will be at the specific sport of DWS. And on top of that, you need to train DWS skills like I outlined above to improve your DWS performance, if that's your goal.
You may pursue DWS as your main sport and your goal is to become better at it. Or you may use deep water soloing to improve transferable skills for other sports that may be very closely related like other forms of climbing (sport climbing or trad climbing), or less closely related like acrobatics or pole fitness. Getting better at DWS will have a positive effect on those other sports, too, and vice versa.
DWS is also a pretty good way of psycho training and to understand and leverage the power of the mind. Of course, you'll be scared and this will limit your ability and progress. But it's mostly in your head. DWS can help you get over this fear by convincing your head that it's all gonna be fine. And if you fall, you fall. It's just water. Jocko Willink once said: "To be tougher, just be tougher!" That is something that I am telling myself too when I am in the wall. It works most of the time. And it's a valuable lesson not only for DWS but life in general.
Finally, most people (including myself) pursue DWS as a fun and social event. Getting out of the city for a weekend, having a great time with people, camping, BBQ, and connecting to nature is awesome. It's something that considerably contributes to my happiness. I am sure these simple kind of things are neglected too much nowadays, but I am convinced that these have a significant impact on health and well-being of individuals as well as communities.
Try This Incredible Experience: Deep Water Soloing
Embarking on your first deep water solo trip will be a very intense and unforgettable experience in many different aspects. Chances are very high that you get hooked.
Make sure you prepare carefully for the event, and follow the climbing principles and practical tips that I summarized for you in this article. If you are an athlete of any other sport, DWS will round out your profile and help you get better in your sport too. After all, for our own personal growth it's crucial to keep challenging ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. Deep water soloing as the purest form of climbing is a perfect way to do that.
I partnered up with the excellent team at Crag Rats Barcelona who organize DWS trips where all logistics and safety are covered. Together we are organizing the multi-day Complete Climber Camps. In these camps we take a very holistic approach and help you become a rock climbing warrior on all levels. We'll help you set and achieve goals, optimize your nutrition, leverage the power of the brain, cover advanced climbing techniques, and go over effective strength and flexibility training and recovery.
You can find all the details in our introduction to the Complete Climber Camp.
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