Airing out wet blankets, a defense of deep water soloing

by We didn't write this

Last August, we shared the incredible Summersville Lake with a group of pro athletes.  To me this place is special, both sentimentally because I have been climbing here since being a young boy, but also objectively because I have traveled around enough to know that its truly world class.  Its the best deep water soloing crag in the country and probably one of the best in the world.

For one gorgeous, somehow not too hot and not too humid summer day, this group of athletes were given a chance to go deep water soloing in a place where its normally illegal to do so, a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Even better, the event was a way to begin a conversation to open deep water solo access to the general public. Even better still, the event was a fundraiser to help with flood relief for the local communities.

Everyone loved it and unicorns on Waverunners lived happily ever after.  Right?

Not quiet.  Sadly, I recently read a draft of a magazine article about the event which implied it as a redneck, booze fueled spectacle which put athletes in danger.   Another article from a competitor implies that fun was had at the expense of the athletes.  Both articles also mention the consumption of alcohol by the athletes, with one going as far as to say that the organizers of the event encouraged alcohol consumption by the athletes to fuel the chaos.

I would like to debunk some common misconceptions about this event and deep water soloing in general.


Deep water soloing is dangerous.

Yes, it is; so is sport climbing, bouldering, taking your cat for a walk and even eating too many marshmallows.  The question is, where does deep water solo climbing rank in terms of danger in comparison to other climbing disciplines?

drawing-1All climbing activities pose risk, with some likely to cause an injury and others possibly causing death.  I think its easiest to get injured bouldering because of the constant ground falls but it would be hard to die bouldering.  Sport climbing is the opposite.

Where does deep water soloing fit in?  I think its a lot harder to die deep water soloing than trad or sport climbing because you can never deck.  Sure, its possible that you will backflop, break your back and drown, but thats a freak accident, much like your belayer dropping you while sport climbing.

What is much more likely is an injury like a collapsed lung, a broken rib or a sprained wrist.  Compared to trad climbing, deep water soloing seems straight up safer; its a backflop into the water vs a ground fall due to gear ripping out.

_dsc9381The problem with deep water soloing is that it feels scary, so people assume its dangerous.  But something scary isn’t necessarily dangerous, in fact, a healthy amount of fear makes us safe.  Some of the most intense fear I have felt rock climbing has been rapelling of the top of El Capitan.  I would tie my rope to a tree that could hold an elephant, back it up to a second tree, check the knot 10 times, and then still almost pass out from fear while going over the edge.  On the other hand, going sport climbing I have so little fear that I often skip clips and don’t double check my knots.

The athletes were forced to do unsafe things

Would it be safe for me to enter an ice climbing competition?  Would it be safe for Paul Robinson to enter a trad climbing competition? No, because both of these activities require specialized knowledge that Paul and I do not possess.  Is it safe for Tommy Caldwell to enter a trad climbing competition?  Yes.  Is it safe for Chris Sharma to enter a deep water soloing competition? Also a yes…

To make deep water soloing safe you have to have a certain level of experience falling into the water, knowing when to back off, and techniques for correcting yourself while mid fall, just like to make trad climbing safe you need to know how to place cams and nuts.

The fact that some athletes felt in danger doesn’t make the event or discipline dangerous, it makes the athletes not prepared.  If you have never deep water soloed, or perhaps have only done it a few times on an artificial wall, you probably should not enter a deep water solo competition, just like I should not enter an ice climbing event because I would probably just stab myself in the eye with a crampon.

In other words, if Chris Sharma had competed, would he have complained about the event’s danger? Probably not…


The athletes had access to alcohol

I think this doesn’t really need much discussion.  Professional climbers should not drink while they are on the job just like other professionals don’t drink in the office.  If you wanted to sneak a drink, thats fine I guess, but please don’t publicize that because it makes everyone look bad.  If you felt like you had to drink because deep water soloing is too scary otherwise, you have no business being in the event.  You aren’t 10 years old and should be able to refrain from doing something even if others are doing it around you.

The climbs at the Psicoroc were 70 feet tall

The only route in the event that pushed the envelope in terms of height was the last one, Woofer Arete, at about 55 feet tall, with the crux at 50 feet.  The rest of the climbs were 40 feet tall, meaning that falls from the middle of the climb were only 20 feet.

So where do we go from here?

Deep water soloing competition is clearly an amazing type of event that audiences love; a packed house at the Salt Lake City Psicocomp event pretty much proves that point.

But its not just about the crowd.  Deep water soloing is also an incredibly fun, addicting way to climb.  Its my favorite climbing discipline and one I can practice safely and enjoyably.

Having just spent a few weeks in Mallorca, I met a lot of people who love deep water soloing as much as I do.

You might not be one of those people.

If you aren’t, please don’t enter a deep water soloing competition.  And if you do, don’t be such a wet blanket afterwards.