Fringe Elements: Deepwater Soloing Basics
By Fitz Cahall; video still by Byran Smith, for our new video series Fringe Elements. To get more advice from our athletes, see expert tips gallery >>
“There are only two mandatory criteria for deepwater soloing—overhanging rock and deep water. It’s pretty simple really,” says rock climber Matt Maddaloni, who helped bring this subsport into fashion in the early 2000s.
In climbing talk, free soloing is the act of climbing without a rope. Without the safety net of a rope, if a climber is more than 30 feet off the ground, a fall means death. “I was attracted to that kind of climbing, but I realized it has its limitations. You can’t push the difficulty,” says Maddaloni.
Deepwater soloing takes away a good bit of the danger by replacing the ground with water. Typically, climbers use a small boat or canoe to get themselves to a remote sea cliff. Aside from a pair of shoes and bit of climbing chalk, climbers don’t need any gear, ropes, or harnesses. With water below, a climber can execute acrobatic and difficult climbing moves and risk falling. While injury is definitely a possibility, most of the time a fall just means a short swim through warm ocean water to a waiting boat.
While deepwater soloing began in late 1970s on the sun-soaked sea cliffs of Mallorca and along the damper, chillier British coast, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the climbing community began to embrace the sport’s newest trend and started flocking to Vietnam and Thailand’s limestone towers perched above calm bays.
“Typically, limestone is the best rock for deepwater soloing,” says Maddaloni who authored a guidebook to deepwater soloing around Thailand’s Krabi region and established new routes in Vietnam and Malta. “It’s softer than granite, so the sea erodes away at the base and creates overhanging cliffs. That way you’ve got a clean shot into the water.”
Due to the overhanging nature of the rock, deepwater soloing tends to be difficult with the easiest routes checking in at 5.10. In Fringe Elements video “Safety Third,” Maddaloni found a suitable new route on the granite sea cliffs surrounding Squamish, British Columbia. However, the coastal waters of B.C. aren’t quite as warm as the Mediterranean.
“The water was so cold, I had to wear a wet suit,” remembers Maddaloni. “It was super difficult because once the suit was wet, water would run out onto my hands and feet as I was climbing."
- Nat Geo Expeditions