A Beginner’s Guide to Deep-Water Soloing

Justin Ridgley climbing one of the many gems along Hawai’i’s varied coastline. Photo: Ryan Moss

In the climbing film King Lines, Chris Sharma showed us a vivid (and altogether stirring) portrait of the world of deep-water soloing. His picturesque scaling of the arch in the Balearic Sea known as “Es Pontas,” was a significant benchmark for free solo climbing over a body of water. It also might be one of the unconscious reasons you love jumping off of cliffs and bluffs that line seas, lakes and rivers.

Deep-water soloing (DWS) or psicobloc (literally translated as “Psycho Bouldering”) as it is also known, is free soloing over bodies of water.

DWS has been around since the ’70s and has major roots in Majorca. Like most new ideas, DWS was borne out of necessity. After being crowded out of popular bouldering and aid climbing spots on the island of Majorca, climber Miguel Riera and a few like-minded friends, found solace solo rock climbing over the sea. Nowadays, DWS has expanded from the cliffs of Majorca, to the rivers of British Columbia, the coast of Dorset, the lakes of Austin, Texas – and most recently to the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah which just hosted the Psicobloc Masters 2018.

Now, after putting in your reps indoors at the gym and going on many a climbing trip, you’re finally ready to turn that dream into a reality. To help you take the leap into the deep-end of the climbing spectrum, we got the best tips from of one of the heavy hitters of the DWS world in Hawaii and owner of Volcanic Rock Gym on Oahu, Justin Ridgley.

Start in a Place That Is Accessible

Playtime at South Point. Photo: Ryan Moss

One of the spots that Justin and his crew frequents is South Point (also known as Ka Lae), on Hawaii’s Big Island.

“For me, it’s such a fun place to do a day-mission from Oahu. We’ll take a good crew and it’s a whole day of laughs,” Ridgley tells ASN. “The rock down there is pretty sticky, so it’s an easy, fun and accessible zone to climb; it’s basically play-time.”

Along with offering stunning views and being the southernmost point in the United States, this location is a popular cliff jumping site that has cliffside ladders for easy access to get in and out of the water. The dark, igneous lava rock cliffs delve into the deep blue waters of the pacific and offer an ideal stage to explore DWS, in a comfortable setting. Olympos in Turkey, the sandstone cliffs lining Lake Powell in Utah, and of course the bountiful coast of Majorca in Spain all offer an abundance of options to start deep-water soloing.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

A static moment above the motion. Photo: Ryan Moss

This concept may sound obvious, but when bringing in another element like the ocean or any body of water into your climbing experience, the scope of factors and variables widens. Take into account the tide and high-surf (and wind) advisories for ocean locations.

For lakes and rivers, it is essential to be up to date on water levels to know if a spot is safe to climb. Also, this is more of a concern in the ocean than rivers and lakes, but as Justin learned on a trip to the pristine frontier of the Nāpali coast on Kauai, you have to be aware of what lives underneath the surface of that beautiful blue water.

“My last trip out to the Nāpali coast, I fell off my project and was immediately swept up by one of my friends on his jet ski because there was a Tiger shark in the water,” says Ridgley. “Factoring in the possibility of something like encountering a shark is such a heavy thing when you’re climbing; it almost doesn’t make sense.”

But the “men in grey suits” aren’t the only consideration on a deep-water solo: Jellyfish, sea turtles, seals, underwater boulders and reef can always be present depending on the location you’re exploring.

Don’t Go Alone

This is the golden rule for just about all of the outdoor world and adventure sports. When you’re exploring new locations that are less frequented by people, it’s not advisable (in the very least degree) to go alone.

“When you go to areas like the Nāpali coast, there’s nobody around for miles and you’re the only one in the water, it’s so eerie,” Ridgley tells ASN. “There is no way to go to spots like that alone.” 

For deep-water soloing, spotting is even more crucial to having a safe and fun experience. The communication between the spotter and climber is essential when the possibility of waves and swimmers (as well as animals and watercraft) can come into play when kicking off or falling off of a climb.

Also, another set of eyes to spot deep and shallow spots underneath a chosen route is always helpful. Conditions in the ocean can change at any moment and having a solid team with you is crucial everyone’s well-being. Along with safety, having a good crew to amp you up on a deep-water solo mission is essential to helping you push your climbing to new heights.

Haul the Right Gear

Justin Ridgley in a moment of solitude on Kauai’s Nāpali coast. Or is it? Photo: Ryan Moss

“Depending on the location, we’ll have pretty big haul bags full of gear, or not much more than boardshorts, shoes, food and beer,” says Ridgley.

The right gear is paramount to any climb. Deep-water soloing is unique in that it doesn’t require the crash pads of traditional bouldering, or the ropes, clips, helmets and carabiners of sport climbing. You could almost call it minimalist. 

In order to access certain locations, it may require special gear, like kayaks or personal watercrafts and boats. As well, getting to remote spots via boat or kayak will certainly require you to bring sun protection, food, rock climbing shoes that you wont mind getting wet, a dry bag to keep everything from soaking, as well as waterproof camera gear to capture the remarkable sights your bound to see.

Falling With Style

For those that have seen the Instagram account @get.sendy, you already know that cliff jumping can go all sorts of bad. Backflops and bellyflops are just a few of the wrong ways to hit the water on your splashdown, and can cut your deep-water solo session short very abruptly.

Perforated lungs, the dreaded water-enema, and a back-sized bruise are just a few of the results of improper splashdowns. Similar to bouldering, it is key to take into account how to fall properly – but instead of crash-pads and spotters, you have the more forgiving and welcoming embrace of the ocean, lake or river beneath you.

Think of the situation as one of those dunk-tanks you see at carnivals. Instead of not knowing when someone will hit the lever to plunge you into the water, you have sole control and can hit eject at any time. Take a couple of practice jumps near the area you are going to be climbing to ensure it’s deep enough and clear of underwater hazards. Just like jumping in the water to cure seasickness, a few cliff jumps go a long way of clearing your head before a good send.

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