It sounds like a climber’s fantasy, pure wishful thinking: climbing high on a wall without the encumbrances of harnesses, ropes, or other gear. And doing it without the risk of certain death should you fall. But it’s no fantasy … that’s exactly what deep water soloing is about.
It’s what drew pro climber Tim Emmett to the sport more than 15 years ago and why, among the many climbing disciplines at which he excels, it’s his favorite. As he succinctly puts it, “It’s freedom, without the savage consequences.”
What is deep water soloing? Break it down, and it’s exactly as it sounds: free soloing—climbing without a rope—over deep water. To do it, you need a climbable cliff with at least 12 feet of obstacle-free water below it. According to Tim, “It’s climbing in its purest form. It’s all on-sight, from the bottom up. You have to work out your route on the fly.”
The discipline was officially born on the limestone cliffs lining the shores of the island of Mallorca in the late ‘70s; through the ‘80s and ‘90s, a handful of British climbers were concurrently exploring the possibilities off the southern coast of England. Tim, who at the time was best known as a rock and ice climber, helped put it on the map when he traveled to Mallorca in 2001. He immediately seized upon the appeal of this new style (also known as psicobloc, which translates as “crazy bouldering”), and he and his climbing partners both developed a number of routes and starred in some of the earliest deep water soloing films.
Since his first visit, Tim has gone on to set routes not only in Mallorca but all around the world, wherever rock meets the sea. He’s charted well over 100 routes in both Thailand and Vietnam, to name a few locations. Psicobloc is also popular on the cliffs of the southern sealine of England, Ireland, and other Mediterranean locations like Sardinia, Spain, Croatia, and Greece.
But long, expensive trips to exotic locations are not necessarily required if you want to give deep water soloing a try. There are several US locations that pop up again and again in articles and forums, but it’s likely that there are locations near you that qualify. Backcountry Gearhead Emily Jenson has done a bit “around Zion” and in “Idaho” but when pressed details, she gets a little cagey. She does highly recommend Virgin Gorda in the BVI, a paradisiacal location that’s at least on our side of the ocean.
If you do have a location in mind, there are several things you need to do and know before climbing:
Alternatively, you could make the trek to Park City, Utah, to check out the psicobloc wall that’s erected every summer over the splash pool at the Utah Olympic Park. The annual Psicobloc Masters competition just concluded last week, and our climbing Gearheads were invited out by Mountain Hardwear, the title sponsor, to give the wall a try.
Gearheads get a few tips on how to tackle the wall from Kyra Condie, left, winner of the women’s competition.
Climbers could choose to utilize the extra holds placed alongside the competition routes, or give the harder ones a try. For Dan Goodman, one of the most dedicated climbers on the Gearhead team, it was a revelation. “I’m super excited to try this,” he commented. “It’s so nice to climb without ropes and a harness.” Nobody in the group made it past the first few handholds on the overhang, but we were treated to the sight of Tim showing us how it’s done and taking a run up to the top of the wall.
The activities in the afternoon were a prelude to the finals of the Masters competition, which pitted top climbers head-to-head as they raced to the top of the 50-foot overhang wall. It’s a spectator-friendly event, with the large audience cheering as climbers neared the top—particularly if the race was tight—or oohing if a competitor lost a grip and plunged into the pool. Tim, who emceed the event with panache, feels that this particular competition is the premier psicobloc event thanks to the head-to-head element, the speed factor, the fact that the routes are set by leading international experts, and the availability of a deep pool built specifically for aerial athletes (it’s the training facility for the US freestyle ski team, enabling them to train year-round).
Best of all, even though the competition is over, the wall remains in place at the Utah Olympic Park until mid-September, giving the general public the chance to give deep water soloing a try. If you’re intrigued, it’s an easy way to get a taste of the sport. But be warned, it just might be addictive.