What Happened When We Sent a Novice Deep-water Solo Climbing

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Photo credit: Gianfranco Tripodo
Photo credit: Gianfranco Tripodo

I’ve tried a fair few sports over the years, but none have left me unable to wipe my own bottom. After endurance events, squatting has been an issue on occasion – as have the trots, more often than I care to divulge. But being physically unable to move my forearms?This is new territory for me.

So, if you’re thinking about getting into climbing, or specifically, deep-water soloing, I figure it’s my public duty to impart such confidentialities. However, no one thought to mention this to me when I signed up to give Red Bull Creepers in Spain a red hot go.

For anyone not au fait with this event – my erstwhile self included – the fact that it’s a Red Bull creation might give you an inkling that it’s extreme and a bit on the bonkers side. Google will inform you that Creepers is what’s referred to as deep-water soloing. Another Google search will tell you that this discipline, also known as psicobloc, involves high-difficulty rock climbing and relies upon the presence of water at the base of a climb to protect against injury (or death) from falls. And for Creepers, Red Bull turns it into a race to the top of, you guessed it, a bridge.

On showing my wife a YouTube clip of the professionals doing it, her response says it all: ‘What? There’s absolutely no way you can do that.’ To assess the accuracy of my wife’s predictions, I go to the basketball hoop at our local play area where I decide hanging tough is a useful indicator of my abilities. I last all of 11 seconds. At north of 90kg, I self-diagnose myself as at least 20kg too heavy to be a decent climber. This event is for pros and semi-pros, so it’s a task I’m setting myself up to fail. The question is: with six weeks to prepare, how well can I fail?

As I arrive at my first session at the local climbing centre, I’m nervously excited about how things are going to go. On informing the instructors of my goal, their reactions range from smirks to more polite versions of what my wife had said. This is confounded by the fact that, for reasons I can’t explain, I say that I’m an experienced climber on the waiver form. Minutes later, I’m left embarrassed when I fail to belay and draw blanks on simple climbing-related questions. By ‘experienced climber’, I meant I once went on a climbing date in the early noughties, and prior to that I did a bit of climbing on a few prep school trips in the Ardèche. I’m quickly forced to face up to the fact that, not only am I no good at climbing, I also know little about the sport. The only way I’ll get at least passably good is to listen, learn and climb as much as possible.

Photo credit: Gianfranco Tripodo
Photo credit: Gianfranco Tripodo

It’s not long before I’m heaving my way up the wall, reaching my first summit courtesy of long limbs, brute strength and little-to-no technique. I can feel the inefficiencies of my approach as blood and lactic acid pulse through my forearms. Put simply, I’m making extremely hard work for myself. The more I climb, though, the more I enjoy it. The buzz I get from the baby steps of progress I’m making is unlike anything I’ve experienced in a while, and, soon enough, the climbing glossary becomes part of my vernacular, too. My familiarity with what dead hangs, dynos, laybacks and heel hooks are helps to improve my technique exponentially. Indeed, in a matter of weeks, I’ve caught the climbing bug and bought the T-shirt as I start to follow the likes of Shauna Coxsey and Chris Sharma to feed my new-found climbing appetite. And while I’m still not very proficient, the nerves around my attempt at Creepers have changed into a belief that I won’t disgrace myself in front of the world’s best climbers.

I should mention, though, just how physically exhausted I am after every 90-minute climbing session. Going into this, I was misguided in thinking climbing is largely about upper-body strength, but it’s a full-body workout – head, shoulders, arms, fingers, back, legs, feet and toes. The biggest strides I made were purely technical, learning how to better manoeuvre my body, and working with the wall rather than against it. It sounds daft, but my aim became almost to be an extension of whatever I was climbing, so mastering how to pivot from one foot to the other, shifting my balance and keeping my centre of gravity was paramount, not least for someone of my stature. In essence, climbing is as much a psychological challenge as it is physical. It’s a thinking person’s sport.

Rocks and a Hard Race

A few days prior to the challenge, I have the privilege of training with the British Olympian and former world champion Shauna Coxsey up in Sheffield on the new replica Olympics wall. Spurred on by Coxsey’s words of advice as well as seeing how pumped people in the climbing community are to hear about my progress, it gives me the impetus I need to give this course my best shot.

Photo credit: Gianfranco Tripodo
Photo credit: Gianfranco Tripodo

I’ve never been overly concerned about heights, but as I arrive in Ávila for the event and see the course for the first time, I really don’t fancy it. The stage fright is real and no six weeks of prep is getting me even close to the top of that. Thirteen metres doesn’t sound very high but, when seeing it in the flesh, it seems so much worse than I anticipated. Something about the curvature of the bridge spooks me: the stark concave overhang so severe and imposing that it’s steeped in a dark shadow amid the Spanish sun. Approaching on a little boat, the closer I get, the steeper it gets. What have I signed up for?

I’m reliably informed the route has a difficulty level of at least a ‘7c’; the best I mastered in training was a ‘6a’. All I can think of is the friendly advice Coxsey gave me a few days ago: ‘There’s going to be the element of fighting the lactic acid, the burning in your forearms; then the psychological element of not getting scared,’ she said. ‘Not to put you off, but the higher you get, the further you fall!’

I’m taking my opportunity to climb the course before the pros compete tomorrow, so there’s a healthy buzz about the place, albeit among Covid protocols. That said, there’s an audience to witness my attempt, which unnerves me. Normally, a crowd would gee me up, but I’m not feeling confident. As I approach the platform I’ll start from, there’s a stretcher laid out with a couple of neck braces and perversely it amuses me. Faced with the dangers of what I’m about to take on, seeing the stretcher goes some way to settling my nerves.

Shoes on, hands chalked up, deep breaths, I’m ready to go. Suddenly, there are cheers. Turning round, who should be on the opposite side of the bridge practising but Chris Sharma, one of the world’s best-ever climbers. To be in the vicinity of climbing royalty is cool, but what if, after six weeks of training, all I have to show for it is a one-metre ‘ascent’ followed by a splash in a river, while Sharma dances up the other side? Suddenly, I feel pressure to perform, not for myself but for all the people who’ve helped with my training. So, take this, Sharma, I’ll show you what I’ve got.

A Very Tall Task

I’m off. Hold by hold, I make my way up, slow and steady – finding my feet and getting a feel for the grips. I quickly forget I don’t have the security of a rope should I fall and actually quite enjoy the freedom it evokes. Deep-water soloing, here I am. Then I pause and my arms become very tense. I’m not maximising my legs, so I lean back and, one by one, shake out my arms. Regardless of the lactic acid pumping through my forearms, I make steady progress. With every hold I reach, the gradient increases and the gravitational pull starts to weigh me down. Then I do the one thing I was told not to do. I look down. ‘Fuck!’

Photo credit: (c)GIANFRANCO TRIPODO
Photo credit: (c)GIANFRANCO TRIPODO

Clinging to the underside of Salamanca Bridge in Ávila an hour outside Madrid, I find myself faced with two choices: pivot my body, contort it around whatever I can grip it to and try a dyno for the next grip above me. This, I know, would be a pretty flair thing to do (on the off-chance Sharma is watching). Or I relieve the tension my fingers, hands, arms, core, back, legs, feet and toes are under and plummet 30-odd feet into the Adaja River. The longer I ponder the options, the more I can feel lactic acid creeping into my forearms. Mentally, I’m ready to take the leap of faith and, physically, I back myself to at least try it, but I can’t relax enough to make the move. And just like that, my arms fail me and I let go. For a split-second, while I’m falling through the air, it feels freeing. Essentially, I’m flying. Then splash, I hit the water and that’s that. My attempt is over. As I swim to the side, I look up again at the course and the fear has dissipated. I’m left with a feeling of exhilaration: that is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and all I want to do is try it again. And again.

Physically, I’m not spent after it – I was only on the wall for about 90 seconds – but it’s this explosive exercise that has made bouldering unexpectedly addictive to me. The satisfaction of navigating yourself from A to B is what I’m hooked on. It’s not like a run or a cycle or a swim where the only obstacle preventing you from finishing is fatigue. With bouldering and deep-water soloing, you have to work out the pieces to the puzzle. It teaches you to think ahead and visualise your way up to solve the problem. And remember, the better the technique, the more likely you’ll be able to wipe your own bottom afterwards.

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