I've just seen the future of climbing.
It's not on Everest, or a wind-lashed Patagonian spire, nor is it on some gargantuan wall in Yosemite Valley. It's on the Spanish island of Majorca, on a limestone cliff above the Mediterranean.
I insinuated myself into a clan of cragrats, practitioners of a new mode of climbing called "deepwater soloing." I was bobbing in a swell at the mouth of a gaping sea cavern, watching the 23-year-old American phenomenon Chris Sharma perform on an as yet unclimbed route he was calling the Big Momma.
From the back of the cave – a cathedral-like chamber big enough to stack a dozen school buses – Sharma came swinging through a forest of stalactites dangling from the dome's ceiling. Moving with the poise of a gibbon, he lunged between tentacle-like cave formations and fingertip-deep punctures in the rock. It was like no other display of climbing gymnastics I had ever seen. Every move placed him in a contorted, upside-down position, and he was doing it all without a rope or other equipment, with only the Mediterranean to break his fall.
Floating around me, Sharma's friends shouted words of climber-lingo support in English, Spanish, and German – Go for it! Venga! Geil! – urging him to battle the lactic acid bloating his arms and climb out of the cave and up a final 80-foot cliff. If he held on long enough, his route would likely stand as the most difficult solo first ascent ever done; to climb unencumbered by the ropes, harnesses, and fiddly gadgetry that give rock climbing its safety net is a risky enterprise. It's called free soloing, and while it may be the purest expression of climbing, and its most intense mind trip, it is also utterly unforgiving: If you fall, you're dead or maimed. That winner-take-all, loser-gets-creamed mentality reserves free soloing for the skilled, the brave, and the reckless few.
Spirited efforts, and occasional disasters, punctuate the history of free soloing in America. One of its finest hours was in 1973, when a New Englander named "Hot" Henry Barber walked up to a 1,500-foot plinth of granite in Yosemite called the Sentinel and blitzed a 5.10 route named the Steck-Salathe (after its founders). Alone and armed only with high-friction shoes and a bag of gymnast's chalk to dry his sweaty fingertips, Hot Henry redefined free soloing.
His successors during the '80s, like the hyperfit John Bachar and Peter Croft, pushed the envelope further, psyching themselves up even harder Yosemite routes. Then in the '90s, a wild-haired British climber named Derek Hersey moved to Boulder, Colorado, and blew local minds with startling solos of the long, tricky routes of Eldorado Canyon. But in May 1993 Hersey was midway up the Steck-Salathe route when a Sierra thunderstorm unleashed a deluge of rain. Hersey's body was found the next day at the foot of the wall.
"So much to lose, so little to gain," Jim Bridwell, the guru of Yosemite climbing, once said to me of free soloing.
The advent of deepwater soloing (DWS), then, seems a saner sister to a subsport with a death wish embedded in its circuitry. Deepwater soloists have a forgiving crash pad in the sea on routes of up to 40 feet. Higher than that and water can feel like cement when you hit it – though it's still better than hitting jagged boulders. Years before the name was coined, climbers were dabbling in it on Britain's sea cliffs and on the precipitous fringes of the Mediterranean. By 2003 DWS had gained such a following that an informal jamboree, organized over the Internet, brought roughly 50 climbers to a 60-foot wave of flawless limestone called Diablo, near the Majorcan fishing village of Porto Cristo. That gathering put deepwater soloing on the map, and it made Majorca the center of the new sport.