Deep-water soloing

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Deep-water soloing (DWS), also known as psicobloc (from "psycho-bouldering"), is a form of free solo climbing where any fall should result in the climber landing safely into deep water below the route. DWS is therefore considered safer than normal free solo climbing, however, DWS brings several unique additional risks including trauma from uncontrolled high-speed water entry, injury from hitting hazards above and below the water while falling, and drowning in rough or tidal seas, and is thus considered riskier than normal bouldering.


Deep-water soloing was largely started in Mallorca in 1978 by Miquel Riera and his discovery of Cova Del Diablo, and was further popularised and developed by British climbers Tim Emmett, Mike Robertson, and Neil Gresham, and Austrian climber Klem Loskot. DWS came to worldwide attention with Chris Sharma's 2006 ascent of the sea arch of Es Pontàs , which at 5.15a  (9a+) was one of the hardest climbing routes in the world.

DWS uses the sport climbing grading systems (mostly French sport climbing grades) with an additional S-grading system to reflect the unique risks of DWS on any route; DWS routes can vary from less than 5 metres (16 ft) to over 40 metres (130 ft) in height at the extreme end. Competition deep-water soloing has become popular, particularly in head-to-head "dueling" formats, and the "Psicobloc Masters Series" (2011, 2012–2018), which later evolved into the "Psicobloc Open Series" is one of the most notable DWS competitions.


Deep-water soloing, or DWS, is free solo climbing where any fall should land the climber in deep water below the route. It is thus considered a safer version of free solo climbing. It is not considered as safe as bouldering as the DWS climber encounters hazards that are unique to DWS, including injury or trauma on impact with the water or hitting hazards in the water (particularly from higher falls or uncontrolled falls), risk of drowning in rough seas and hitting the rock face before entering the water. Changing tides is a serious risk in DWS, as routes that might be very safe at high tide can become dangerous at lower tide, bringing underwater hazards into play. [2] [3]

DWS routes can vary from safe "bouldering-type" overhanging routes that are only a few metres in height above calm clear deep water, where any fall is almost guaranteed to result in clean low-speed entry into the water; which are graded S0-S1 DWS routes. At the other of the scale are DWS routes that are high (e.g. over 15 metres (49 ft), and going up to even 40–45 metres (131–148 ft) in height at the most extreme end), and where the climber needs to push themselves off the rock face to ensure that they enter the water cleanly, and control their surface impact as it will be at high speed; which are graded S2-S3 DWS routes. [2] [3]

Types of routes and locations

While DWS can be done on any rock face over or beside the water, it is particularly suited to certain areas that have at least slightly overhanging rock faces (i.e. ensuring the DWS climber lands in the water), has clear and deep water (i.e. so that any underwater hazards can be identified and/or avoided), and are in warmer climates (so the DWS climber does not have to wear a wetsuit, and the water is generally calmer).

Several locations that meet most of the above criteria have become particularly attractive for DWS: [2]


Climber on Smash it in! 8a (5.13b), Cala Varques, Mallorca. DWS Cala Varques Mallorca.jpg
Climber on Smash it in! 8a  (5.13b), Cala Varques, Mallorca.

Deep-water soloing has its roots in Mallorca when in 1978, Miquel Riera became frustrated with the aid climbing routes in his local area so he went to Porto Pi, Palma with his friends Jaume Payeras, Eduardo Moreno, and Pau Bover to find routes they could free climb. [11] This became Mallorca's first bouldering venue, and as time progressed, Riera moved onto the nearby sea cliffs where they established DWS routes. Riera and his companions named it "psicobloc" (translated into English, means "Psycho Bouldering"), [12] [11] and published articles and photographs in climbing magazines on their activities. Towards the end of the 1980s, Miquel, aided by Pepino Lopez, Xisco Meca, Pepe Link, and Miki Palmer, had discovered the short sea cliffs of Cala Varques, Cala Serena, and the impressive cliff in Porto Cristo, which was to become known as Cova del Diablo. [11] Three notable routes were established at Cova del Diablo: Surfing in the Bar, Surfer Dead, and Surfing Bird. [11]

Climber on Metrosexual 7a+ (5.12a), Cala Varques, Mallorca. Psicobloc Calo Blanc 04.jpg
Climber on Metrosexual 7a+  (5.12a), Cala Varques, Mallorca.

The 1990s saw an explosion in Britain for what was called "Deep Water Soloing" (DWS), starting with Nick Buckley's ascent of The Conger (1983). [11] Britain's southern coast saw new DWS routes from the Cook brothers, Mike Robertson, Steve Taylor, and Pete Oxley. [11] In 1996, the British Climbers' Club, published Into the Blue: A guide to Deep Water Soloing in Dorset, the first-ever DWS guidebook in the world, and proposed an evolved S-grading system and climbing style to Britain. [11] In 2001, British climber Tim Emmett received an email from Miquel showing Cova Del Diablo and led to a trip by Emmett with other leading climbers such as Mike Robertson, Neil Gresham, and Austrian Klem Loskot. [11] In February 2002, Robertson published an article titled 'Sympathy for the Devil' in Climber magazine describing Cova Del Diablo and the twenty-six new routes (from 4+ to 8a) that Emmett's party had added to the existing three routes. [11]

The publication of Robertson's article led to more international teams coming to Cova Del Diablo to create additional routes and explore new Mallorcan cliffs such as Cala Sa Nau, Cala Barques, Cala Mitjana, and Porto Cristo Novo. [11] These teams also introduced Dutch climber Toni Lamprecht to Mallorcan DWS, which resulted in a vast number of new lines being established, chiefly at Cala Barques. [11] DWS became more mainstream and globally recognized amongst climbers when a couple of short films were made by climbing filmmakers such as Udo Neumann in 2001, and Josh and Brett Lowell in 2003. [11] The films featured some of the sport's pioneers: Emmett, Lamprecht, Klem Loskot, and a newcomer to the style, Chris Sharma. [11] [13]

In September 2006, DWS came to international attention when Sharma completed the right-hand finish to a line that climbed the underside of the dramatic 20-metre (66 ft) Es Pontàs arch in Mallorca and carried a grade of 9a+  (5.15a), the hardest-ever DWS grade. Sharma had been looking for a DWS-equivalent to his 2001 sport climb, Realization , also 9a+  (5.15a), and his first free ascent was featured in the iconic 2007 film King Lines. [11]

Competition DWS

Psicobloc Masters, Olympic Park. Psicobloc Utah Olympic Park.jpg
Psicobloc Masters, Olympic Park.

There have been numerous competitions held in DWS, the most notable of which is the "Psicobloc Masters Series" that began in 2011 in Bilbao, Spain organized by Spanish climber Finuco Martinez. From 2013 to 2018, the "Psicobloc Masters" was held in Utah Olympic Park and organized by a consortium that included Chris Sharma. [14] In 2019, the series moved to Montreal, and was later rebranded as the "Psicobloc Open Series".

The general format is a circa 50-foot (15 m) outdoor artificial climbing wall that severely overhangs a circa 12-foot (3.7 m) swimming pool. Climbers "duel" in head-to-head races on the wall in a series of knock-out rounds until the ultimate winner is decided. Climbers compete in men's, women's, and youth's formats. [14]


DWS presents a number of specific risks not normally encountered in rock climbing. [15] [3]

Sequence of a DWS climber making an "Armchair Landing". Deep Water Solo Spot, Algarve Portugal .png
Sequence of a DWS climber making an "Armchair Landing".


Climbers launching a dingy at Cova del Diablo, Mallorca. Cova Del Diablo Mallorca.jpg
Climbers launching a dingy at Cova del Diablo, Mallorca.

Like free solo climbing DWS needs very little climbing equipment outside of the chalk bag and rock climbing shoes. A number of additional items of equipment have become common amongst DWS climbers, including: [17]


French sport grades

DWS climber on White Rhino Tea (f7a S1), Devon, England. White Rhino Tea Deep Water Solo.jpg
DWS climber on White Rhino Tea (f7a S1), Devon, England.

The main DWS grade is "technical grade" which reflects the difficulty of the hardest movements or sequences on the route. The French sport climbing grades (e.g., 6a, 6b, 6c, ... 8b, 8b+, 8c, etc.) are generally the most popular technical grades in European DWS. In England, the traditional English grading system is sometimes used, although where French sport grades are quoted in England an "f" suffix is often placed before the grade to clarify that it is a French grade and not a British grade (e.g. f6a to distinguish from the British E4 6a). [2]


In circa 1995, British DWS climbers developed the S-grade system to give an additional grade for the objective level of danger that deep water soloing a given route presented to the climber in addition to the "technical difficulty" grade (above). [2] British climbers felt that the English E-grade suffix reflected traditional climbing dangers (e.g. how good is the level of protection available to the traditional climber on the route), and not the dangers specific to the DWS climber (who was not going to be placing traditional climbing protection on the route); it is akin to the "R/X" suffix of American grades. [2] For example, British climber Neil Gresham's 2012 DWS route Olympiad, has a DWS grade of F8b S1, but a traditional climbing English grade of E10 6c. [16]

The four levels of S-grade, as described by Mike Robinson in Deep Water (2007), are as follows: [2]

Notable ascents and milestones

Es Pontas 9a+ (5.15a), Spain Es Pontas Cala Santanyi 02.jpg
Es Pontàs 9a+  (5.15a), Spain

A number of DWS ascents are particularly notable in the sport:

In film

A number of notable films have been made focused on DWS free solo climbing including: [28]

See also

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Further reading