Deepwater Solo Climbing in Majorca with Chris Sharma
Credit: Corey Rich / Getty Images
To look at Chris Sharma, or his buddy Nate Gold, shambling across the beach in their comfortably ill-fitting clothes, carrying their gear in white plastic supermarket shopping bags, you'd never guess they were the Michael Jordans of their sport. But when they strip off their floppy streetwear and slip on shorts and rock shoes, they morph into uberathletes. 

I put on my own rock shoes and follow them down an "easy" route to the base of an 80-foot cliff known to climbers as the Tarantino Wall, where route names like Kill Bill I and II and Dusk Till Dawn form a compendium of Quentin Tarantino films. We assemble on a narrow ledge 10 feet above the gently lapping sea. The water is a comfortable 75 degrees. A cormorant paddles by, eyeing the silvery baitfish that dart about like handfuls of tossed coins.

"Don't be fooled; it's not always so friendly here," Lamprecht tells me as Gold sets off on the rock of Kill Bill I, a 5.12c. "The first time I came here I pissed my pants," he adds. 

"Literally?" I ask.

He nods, describing the crashing waves that greeted him here a year ago. He and his friends climbed a few easy routes, but the fear of being swallowed by the sea sent them scampering. The mood of the Mediterranean, he explains, directly affects the mood of the climb; if you're scared of falling into the water, you won't be able to give your all to the climb. And that is the whole idea of DWS: Give it everything you have, and be willing to take the plunge.

There is a dark side to that philosophy, however, and it reared its head in April 2003, at the 60-foot wall of Diablo, a 15-minute drive north of where we are climbing. While Majorca's water runs in the 70s between June and October, cold currents and angry swells can chill it to a hypothermia-inducing 55 degrees the rest of the year. The wintry conditions didn't deter British climber Damian Cook from trying to seize the moment that April day, and while his wife watched from the clifftop, he set out on a route . . . and fell in. Rising to the surface, he waved that he was okay, but when he tried to pull himself up a hank of rope tied to the base of the wall, the swell pummeled him against the cliff. Pushing away from the rock, he tried swimming a quarter-mile to a cove, but he never made it. Army divers recovered his body the following day.

Back on Kill Bill I, Gold's first encounter culminates in a loud grunt when he lunges at a small grip, high above a bulge of rock. His fingers miss the target, and he freefalls backward 30 feet, splashing down like a depth charge. Had he been trying such a climb over dry land, we'd be pulling out cell phones and dialing up a medevac, but a broad grin on his face tells us he's fine. When he swims over and pulls himself onto the ledge, however, I notice that he's waddling.

"You okay?" I ask.

"Not really," Gold says. He informs us that he's suffered an occupational hazard of DWS: a saltwater enema caused by his open-legged impact.

After a quick recovery, during which Sharma strolls effortlessly up Kill Bill I, Gold gets back on. It takes him two more falls, and as many more sea-soaked chalk bags, before he catches that elusive hold and finishes the route. 

I can't just sit all day. Deepwater soloing is like skydiving, or seeing the speedometer of your car hit a hundred – you have to do it at least once. I haul my middle-aged spread across the traverse, pass the point of no return, and paw upward, eyeing the hold that Gold has repeatedly failed to snatch, a little dent in the rock five feet above me. The water seems very far away. Everything in my three decades of climbing has taught me to avoid falling at all costs. I'm genuinely scared.

My ears fill with the white noise of the waves below, while the lads on the ledge beneath me sound like a colony of squawking seabirds as they shout encouragement. My arms are melting fast, so I grope for the hold and – I'm falling, feet first, my arms rotating like propellers. I have a moment to study the approaching sea and to register the primal, tingling fear, and then bubbles and silence surround me and I stare into a seemingly bottomless blue. When I float to the surface the guys give me thumbs-up signs. I think I just got initiated. And no enema! 

Seeing Sharma floating a few yards away, I swim over. He's staring up, studying the roof of a massive cavern beside the Tarantino Wall. 

"This can't be a climb," I say.

"Not yet," he answers, "but I think it's possible."

It looks like a route strictly for spiders or geckos, but I know that before this trip is through, he'll give it a try.