Climb skills: how to go deep-water soloing

Posted by Alex Messenger on 22/02/2017
Adrian Baxter at Lulworth Cove. Photo: Keith Sharples

It's winter, so deep water soloing is off the cards for a while. But, due to an unfortunate incident in 2016, we've updated our safety guidance. Have you heard about cold water shock? If not, read on to protect yourself from this deadly danger.

What is DWS?

It’s easy to think that since deep-water soloing it just the same as the other wild sports like base jumping? In a word: no. Like most climbing, deep-water soloing is as exciting as you want it to be. At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got ‘pretty spicy’ climbing: so high above the water that it might as well be concrete.

But on the other hand you’ve got a fun activity that’s just a small hop up from coasteering (scrambling around on rocks just above the sea, much-loved by stag-dos and scouts). In fact, my first DWS experience was on The Magical Mystery Tour at Berry Head – this route rarely goes ten feet above the water, with any falls bruising the ego far more than arse or limb.

Whichever you’re up for, I’d advise any climber, climbing at any grade, to give it a shot. It’s a beautiful way to climb: there’s no rack and no ropes, just sun and heaps of scantily-clad people.

Where?

Where seems to be pretty obvious: the only crucial elements being cliffs and deep water – and luckily we live on a small island. The southwest coastline of England and Wales offers a huge stomping ground for the budding DWS-er with the main hotspots being Swanage, Lulworth, Portland, Devon, Cornwall and Pembroke.

When?

When can be more tricksome. We might live on an island but it’s one with 150 wet days a year and lots of cold weather. And, I don’t know about you, but I’m not too keen on jumping in the sea when it’s freezing cold. Spring might be warm but the sea won’t be, you need to wait for the sea to warm up. In September it can be as high as 19°C. There’s always Mallorca too: the  ‘in’ place for DWS-ing, providing perfectly warm sea and air temperatures.

Safety is paramount

Since an unfortunate incident in 2016, the BMC has updated its safety guidelines; particularly to include information about Cold Water Shock. Please read the information below carefully before attempting any DWS.

There is one golden rule with DWS: never go alone. And before you head out, tell others of your plans, where you're going, expected return times, and contact details. 

Be wary of the phenomenon known as Cold Water Shock, which is a real danger in water below 15°C. Remember, the sea around the UK can often stay at dangerously low temperatures for much of the year. Even if the surrounding air temperature is relatively warm, say in Spring, the sea stays cold up until late August.

Sudden exposure of your head and body to cold water can be lethal in minutes, meaning it occurs well before the effects of hypothermia so is far deadlier. Cold Water Shock causes a number of instant, powerful, involuntary respiratory refleces, such as sudden increase in heart and blood pressure that may result in cardiac arrest, even to strong swimmers and people in good health. 

Make sure you know the easiest exit well before heading up the route. It’s a great idea to drop a few ab lines around to assist exits or for potential rescues. For high routes, people often take a little boat (usually a rubber dingy) for pulling people out if it all goes wrong – at the very least it makes a brilliant vantage point for heckling.

Signs of Cold Water Shock:

  1. Initial cold shock response (0–3mins)
    Immediately after immersion in cold water, rapid cooling of the skin causes a number of instinctive and reactions including gasping, hyperventilation, restriction of blood flows, and panic.
     
  2. Short term responses – Loss of performance (3–30mins)
    Following the cold shock response, the hands, feet, arms and legs start to cool and blood flow continues to be restricted. This causes a decrease in muscle strength and endurance leading to muscle fatigue and reduced control over body movements. If the casualty is unable to get out of the water or use a buoyancy aid, this will ultimately result in drowning.
     
  3. Long term responses – Hypothermia (30mins+)
    Over time, significant heat lost causes the core body temperature to drop leading to hypothermia.

FIND OUT MORE: About Cold Water Shock on the RNLI website

Gear

Since water is always wet, a good DWS-er will always have replacement boots, chalk bag, chalk and clothes. An abseil rope might be helpful if you can’t climb to the start of routes. The trick is to make a harness out of slings, which is easy to get out of and then leave on the rope before going for it. Towels are also winners. Apart from that, the nice thing about DWS-ing is the lack of gear you actually need.

Is today a good day?

Assessing conditions might be more complicated than you think. Although you might just be in it for the sun and bikinis, DWS-ing can actually be pretty dangerous – especially if you can’t swim too well. It’s not rocket science though: learn to swim confidently, don’t go when the sea’s too rough or the tide too low and always check what you’re falling into. Getting washed into the rocks by powerful waves is a big danger – even if you’re a strong swimmer, you won’t be with concussion.

How to hit the water

This is more important than you might think. Once I was soloing in Thailand and I witnessed a friend fall wrong. He let go, twisted in the air and fell onto his back. He rose to the surface coughing and spluttering a mixture of blood and seawater. As the next one in line, I was sure to listen to Tim Emmett’s advice: “kick  and move in the air until you hit the water, at which point become a pencil”. Sounds weird, but it worked. My friend’s problem was that he was too rigid in the air, so as  he fell he span and landed on his back. In order to prevent this rigidity, keep upright, moving your arms and legs in the air as you fall, then become streamlined as you enter the water.

How to look like Chris Sharma

Well most of us can’t, but in other words, how do you get good enough to pull off the hard moves high up? Like anything, you need to put the time in. Go to Mallorca, or somewhere with guaranteed action, and ‘get amongst it’. At first, you might not want to go high, then you might go high but not fall, next, you might fall but not mid-move.

Falling mid-move, at your limit, is the main goal for any DWS-er, whatever the grade. Learning how to fall properly and then having the mental capacity to fall mid-move whilst at your limit means you’ll be able to really push your grade. Unburdened from rope and rack you may even find that your DWS grade shoots past your trad or sport grade.

Every time I’ve gone deep-water Soloing, I’ve had really memorable times. It’s got something for everyone: hard, fluid movement for the boulders, height for the super-fit sport climbers and a bit of spice for trad climbers. And for those who can’t really be bothered, there's sun, sea, bikinis and a fun day out with a group of mates.
See you at the beach.

Hazel Findlay is one of the world’s best trad climbers. Hazel is a BMC ambassador. In 2012 she made the second ascent of Pre-Muir on El Capitan, Yosemite, with James McHaffie and Neil Dyer. This world-class ascent features 33(ish) very sustained pitches and weighs in at 5.13c/d. In 2013, Hazel went on to free climb El Cap for a staggering third time with an ascent of FreeriderIn April 2014 she was the first British woman to crack F8c with her ascent of Fish Eye at Oliana.

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Find out more:

Check out Chris Sharma's King Lines DVD featuring the "hardest deep water solo in the world", available in the BMC shop.

Deep Water by Mike Robertson, Rockfax. The definitive guide to exotic, watery fun around the world. 

Expert Q & A

Tim Emmett is a climber and professional extreme sports athlete. He’s been deep-water soloing since before it had a name and there’s nothing he doesn’t know about going for it high above the water. Find out more at www.timemmett.com

Q. How high is too high?

A. There’s no simple answer: too high for one person may be well within someone else’s comfort zone. Once you get to 30-40ft you need to make sure you can land well to prevent injury. When you’ve mastered landing then it’s up to you. 60-70ft is the highest that I would go.

Q. But it all feels scary to me – any tips for being brave up high?

A. Get in the zone…you need to ‘have it’. DWS is like anything – you need to practice the basics before you can push yourself. Put the mileage in on easier routes with low cruxes. Fall  off a lot low down, experiment with some cliff jumps. Then, when you can consistently land well, go a little higher.

Q. What’s this saltwater enema thing I’ve heard about?

A. Ah. I guess the name speaks for itself. If there’s the potential for some big splashdowns then best wear some neoprene shorts.

Q. How do I know how deep the water is?

A. You could ask other climbers but if in any doubt then get in the water and have a look (use goggles). You need to understand how rapidly water depth can change with the tides – water levels drop rapidly after an hour or so around high tide. Your route could go from totally safe to a complete no-go in the time it takes to swim out and grab dry kit.

Q. Where’s a great beginners’ DWS destination?

A. Check out Lulworth or Connor Cove in Dorset. But remember the basics: always go with another person and check the water depth and temperature before you start (wear a thin wetsuit if the water is less than 15°C). And always have a plan for getting out of the water.
 

WATCH: Hazel Findlay talk about how she's making a comeback from injury, exlusive to BMC TV

WATCH: James Pearson deep-water soloing in the Phillipines on BMC TV


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LINKS

Deep Water - the Rockfax guide to DWS
King Lines DVD - featuring Chris Sharma's first ascent of Es Pontas, a spectacular free-standing arch in the Mediterranean, and the hardest deep water solo in the world

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1) Anonymous User
15/07/2013
I tried dws for the fist time this wekeend, it was amazing!! thanks for a great artical.

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