Cliff Hangers: Deepwater Solo Climbing in Majorca

Mj 618_348_cliff hanger
Corey Rich / Getty Images

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.“All you’ll need are shorts, a towel, lots of rock shoes, and plenty of chalk bags,” Sharma’s predeparture e-mail read. 

The need for multiple chalk bags is obvious; after every “splashdown” the wet chalk turns to white paste. Extra dry shoes help too. Otherwise, when we meet up at Majorca’s airport, in the city of Palma, our duffels carry just camping gear and a few T-shirts. Sharma is traveling with his frequent climbing pal, Nate Gold, a dreadlocked 22-year-old of lumberjack proportions, and photographer Michael Clark.

Loading our bags into a rental car outside the airport, I see that Sharma’s backpack is pocked with holes and held together with string and crudely sewn repairs. 

“You’d think a guy with as many sponsors as you would have a decent backpack, Chris,” I comment.

“This backpack is a metaphor for my life,” he replies.

Indeed, Chris Sharma flits around the world like a vagabond, toting his threadbare backpack from cliff to cliff. I first met him in 1997, when he was 16, at a French cliff called Ceuse. He’d just taken fourth place in the elite Rock Master’s sport climbing competition in Arco, Italy; two months later, he won the even tougher World Cup competition in Kranj, Slovenia. Sharma was already known as a prodigy by then, and his meteoric rise as a cutting-edge climber – which started at age 14 – dominated the pages of climbing magazines. At Ceuse, he was trying to be the first to complete a 140-foot-long bolt-protected climb that stood at the threshold of impossibility. He failed, but the climb launched him on a career as the best, most heavily sponsored professional rock climber in the world. (Four years later, he returned to conquer the climb and dubbed it Realization – the world’s first 5.15-rated route.)

As we drive out of Palma, heading east toward Porto Cristo, Sharma and Gold talk of their exotic climbing travels, from the monkey-covered boulders of Hampi, India, to a recent DWS sojourn by yacht along the Croatian coast. We pass estancias with dilapidated, Quixote-esque windmills that in centuries past drew water from underground aquifers. An hour down the highway, Sharma tells me to turn right onto an obscure lane lined by crumbling stone walls. Passing olive trees and massive hogs, we park at a dead end, squeeze through a padlocked steel gate, and enter a forest. Ten minutes later we stand before the lapis-blue sea, on a white sandy beach flanked by cliffs the color of blue velvet. 

We walk over to a campsite of German and Spanish DWS addicts – friends of Sharma’s who are expecting us – and shake hands and trade names. Among the Germans is Toni Lamprecht, a 31-year-old powerhouse who has done some of Germany’s most difficult sport climbs. Schoolteacher by day, lead “screamer” in the Munich punk band Anal Steel by night, his six-foot, 180-pound frame makes him someone to avoid in the mosh pit. The sole Spaniard in the crew is a wiry DWS pioneer named Miguel Riera. When I ask what he does for work he tells me he writes a “sex column for climbers” in Spain’s biggest rock magazine, ‘Desnivel.’ 

Sharma’s arrival has infected the group with an enthusiasm to get on the rock. Everyone grabs towels and gear, and we head to the cliffs. And thus I enter the cult of deepwater soloing.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.Sharma, Gold, and Miguel Riera hit the bars that night. When they return, Riera is carrying a roadkill rabbit he’s salvaged.

“I skin it later and make a paella,” he announces in a Latin baritone before stumbling into his tent.

Sharma and Gold wake me as they return to the garage-size beachside cave we’ve bivouacked in. While Gold has brought a thick inflatable pad and a pillow to go along with his sleeping bag, Sharma, the minimalist, lays his bedroll right on “mother earth” and makes a pillow from his rolled-up sweater. Tucked in, they take up makeshift didgeridoos – chunks of black PVC pipe they found washed up on the beach – and play a tribal chant. A throaty warble echoes around the cave.

Sharma’s easygoing demeanor, a mix of funhog and self-described slacker, belies a serious spiritual side that may be the key (even more than his legendary strength) to his current standing as the world’s best rock climber. Growing up in laid-back Santa Cruz, California, he inherited a mystical bent from his parents, Gita and Bob, who were students of Baba Hari Das, a yogi who took a vow of silence in 1952 and who still communicates by writing on a chalkboard that hangs on a string around his neck. The yogi married Sharma’s parents in a Hindu ceremony, and he gave them their last name. 

It’s understandable, then, that rather than talk about training his body, he talks about training his spirit, like the pilgrimage in Japan in 2001 when he spent weeks walking from temple to temple on the island of Shikoku, or his months in a California Zen center in 2003, when he sat in silent meditation for up to 11 hours a day.

“Those retreats were an effort to understand who I am, and to make sense of life,” he tells me inside the cave that night.

“Chris probably isn’t much stronger than me or Toni,” Gold says the next day, while we climb down to the sea cave beside the Tarantino Wall, “but while we have to expend 80 percent of our energy on a move, he only needs to give it 20 percent. He can do that because mentally he’s completely in control of the moment.” 

It’s another day of smooth seas and blue sky as we solo, splash down, and swim around in the cavern containing Sharma’s “project,” the Big Momma. To complete it he’ll have to find a way across a horizontal ceiling for 60 feet. Then he’ll have to climb as far again up a severely overhanging wall. 

While we tread water, he tiptoes barefoot along a kelp-covered gangway into the depths of the cave, and then balances on a patch of dry rock to slip on his shoes. With barely a pause he begins lunging between holds with precise movements. After 10 minutes, he is at the elliptical mouth of the cave, his legs wrapped around a stalactite the size and form of a chandelier.

“Resting” there, he lingers, shaking out one arm, then the other, while his eyes map out the remaining holds. Only a sheen of sweat on his bare back hints that he’s working hard. Sharma is high above the water, in the zone where splashdowns can end in broken ribs or concussions. We cheer him on, up the last of the hard moves, till he grabs the rim of the summit. 

Climbing is a personal, individualistic experience rather than a spectator sport, but that day on the Mediterranean, watching Sharma waltz and struggle, we are drawn together. It’s one of those sporting moments you go on to play over and over in your mind, the way a baseball fan mentally retraces the trajectory of a ball slammed over the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

Sitting on top of the cliff that afternoon, still buzzing from his accomplishment, Sharma is raving about the way DWS has revolutionized climbing. Of his experience on the Big Momma he says, “It doesn’t get any better than that.” At 5.13d, 120 feet long, she’s probably the hardest, longest DWS ever done.

“But you know what the coolest thing is about that climb?” he asks. “I did it without bolts or a rope, and my chalk will wash off with the next big wave. No one will ever be able to tell I was there.”

And that’s the Zen of climbing.

Rock Festival
Deepwater soloing at Porto Cristo is for experts, but Majorca has a total of 15 crags with a whopping 500 routes for climbers of all abilities. Sa Gubia, nine miles north of Palma, has the most varied terrain, with 10 separate climbing areas.

Deepwater Soloing for Mere Mortals
You don’t have to be Chris Sharma to attempt rock climbing’s newest offshoot. West Virginia’s Summersville Lake, located 20 miles north of Fayetteville, and Dover, Great Britain (one of the sport’s birthplaces), are beginner- and intermediate-friendly deepwater soloing spots. 

The diamond-hard sandstone cliffs fringeing Summersville Lake dam are prime for deepwater soloists when water levels are highest, from May to September. The waters here are tranquil, but the usual DWS safety checks still apply: Know how to swim, and inspect your water landings for submerged, hidden rocks. Difficulty levels vary, from modest 5.4 cracks to walls littered with enormous hand grips to searingly difficult 5.13 routes. Rent boats at Summersville Lake Retreat.

Just down the coast from the famed cliffs of Dover, looming above the English Channel, the limestone cliffs of Swanage and Portland are riddled with vertical, overhanging, and horizontal routes. The local climbers here are old hands at DWS, but that doesn’t mean you need to be: The easiest solo is Temporary Lifestyle, and the routes at Cave Hole and Stair Hole are novice-friendly. Just be sure to avoid low tide, especially in Portland.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!