Deep-Wa­ter Soloing 101


Deep-wa­ter soloing (DWS) con­tin­ues to grow in pop­u­lar­ity as climbers iden­tify more ar­eas to en­joy this unique pur­suit. It of­fers the sim­plic­ity of free soloing while sig­nif­i­cantly low­er­ing the po­ten­tial con­se­quences of a fall. Still, the po­ten­tial for in­jury is real, and there have been a num­ber of DWS ac­ci­dents, in­clud­ing a con­cus­sion sus­tained dur­ing an event at Sum­mersville Lake, West Vir­ginia, in­juries at Psi­cobloc Mas­ters, and at least three recorded deaths in Europe.

The fol­low­ing tips will help you iden­tify po­ten­tial in­juries, land­ing-zone dan­gers, and pre­cau­tions to take. The abil­ity to swim con­fi­dently is a must, es­pe­cially as many DWS walls are lo­cated above salt­wa­ter, with as­so­ci­ated changes in tides and cur­rents.

The Haz­ards Drown­ing

The 2002 World Con­gress on Drown­ing in Am­s­ter­dam de­fined drown­ing as “the process of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing res­pi­ra­tory im­pair­ment from air­way sub­mer­sion or im­mer­sion in a liq­uid medium.” This en­com­passes drown­ing with­out in­jury, drown­ing with in­jury (usu­ally brain dam­age), or fa­tal drown­ing. Drown­ing risk may be even higher in DWS due to the sud- den na­ture of im­mer­sion as well as po­ten­tial trauma.

With cold wa­ter (70° F and be­low), there is risk of cold-wa­ter shock, wherein sud­den ex­po­sure to cold wa­ter can cause un­con­trolled gasp­ing, rapid breath­ing, panic, and even lethal heart rhythms. Gasp­ing or panic can cause chok­ing, and the al­tered rhythms can cause un­con­scious­ness, with the mouth and air­way drop­ping be­low the wa­ter­line. If you sur­vive this phase, within the first 15 to 30 min­utes cold-wa­ter shock can re­duce your swim­ming ca­pa­bil­ity due to cool­ing of ex­trem­i­ties, in­creas­ing your risk of drown­ing; af­ter 15–30 min­utes, you risk hy­pother­mia.

Con­trol­ling your breath and keep­ing your air­way out of the wa­ter is crit­i­cal dur­ing ini­tial ex­po­sure. This is a men­tal ex­er­cise as much as any­thing—rec­og­nize that gasp­ing and the shock of the cold wa­ter are nor­mal and not nec­es­sar­ily dan­ger­ous (aside from ir­reg­u­lar heart rhythms). Your best bet is to con­sciously slow your breath­ing and as­sert men­tal con­trol over panic. Once the ini­tial minute of cold-wa­ter ex­po­sure passes, you ac­tu­ally have a long win­dow to prob­lem-solve get­ting out of the wa­ter.


DWS climbers are also at risk for trau­matic in­jury— typ­i­cally blunt trauma. Such in­juries usu­ally oc­cur


due ei­ther to poor en­try or col­li­sion with sub­merged haz­ards. (With sub­merged haz­ards, there’s also the pos­si­bil­ity of be­com­ing en­trapped by a tree, rock, etc., rep­re­sent­ing not only trauma risk but also that of drown­ing.) Of spe­cial con­cern are neck and head in­juries, with par­tic­u­lar drown­ing risk if a head in­jury causes un­con­scious­ness or a spinal-cord in­jury causes paral­y­sis. You can also sus­tain wa­ter dam­age to your eardrums, es­pe­cially with a poorly planned side­ways en­try. Other blunt in­jury pat­terns are sim­i­lar to those of a climber strik­ing the ground, such as frac­tured lower legs (tibia/fibula), an­kles (talus), and feet (cal­ca­neus).

The Pre­cau­tions Land­ing zones and wa­ter ex­its

To be­gin, al­ways check the depth of en­try zones be­fore climb­ing. Wa­ter lev­els can fluc­tu­ate sig­nif­i­cantly due to changes in tide, lake lev­els, and rough seas. Iden­tify sub­merged haz­ards like rocks, reefs, and flot­sam. Re­mem­ber, the sea floor is al­ways mov­ing—even boul­ders can move with the tide. Calm wa­ter has greater sur­face ten­sion and will make for a harder im­pact com­pared to rough or in­ter­rupted wa­ter, which has the ad­van­tage of aer­a­tion but may be more dif­fi­cult to exit. Fi­nally, iden­tify your egress lo­ca­tions. You can place fixed ropes for both emer­gency and rou­tine egress, and/or place spot­ter(s) with throw bags and boat(s) or raft(s) at key points.

Safe en­try tech­niques

The best way to avoid in­jury in DWS is to prac­tice safe en­try tech­niques. The two pri­mary meth­ods are the stan­dard en­try and the arm­chair en­try. Prac­tice at a pool with a high board/plat­form or your fa­vorite swim­ming hole with a known safe depth. Both en­try types be­gin with a con­trolled re­lease from the wall, main­tain­ing a loose pos­ture that lets you “cor­rect” your fall to a more ver­ti­cal po­si­tion, fa­cil­i­tat­ing a feet-first en­try and pre­vent­ing an off-kil­ter land­ing. In the event of an un­con­trolled fall, swing your arms in a cir­cu­lar pat­tern to cor­rect body po­si­tion for­ward or back­ward.

STAN­DARD EN­TRY: Typ­i­cally, you en­ter the wa­ter feet first, with your legs po­si­tioned to­gether and your arms held tightly to the sides of your body. Prior to en­try, fight the urge to glance down, and in­stead look to­ward the hori­zon to main­tain an up­right po­si­tion— look­ing down can re­sult in your tip­ping for­ward, with an in­creased risk of con­cus­sion or dam­age to the face, ears, and eyes. This is the eas­i­est and of­ten safest po­si­tion to as­sume, and is thus the de­fault.

ARM­CHAIR EN­TRY: This is the de­fault po­si­tion for shal­lower wa­ter (<10 feet), to limit deep en­try; it should not be used in long (and faster) falls. With this tech­nique, you pull your legs up to­ward your chest and lean back as if sit­ting in a lounge chair, with your arms ex­tended to your sides. This method is dif­fi­cult to master, but dra­mat­i­cally de­creases im­pact by let­ting you con­tact the land­ing zone with more of your body. Per­formed cor­rectly, an arm­chair en­try can ab­sorb a 30-foot fall in as lit­tle as 5 feet of wa­ter.


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