HE REACHED UP for a hold and thought he had it. But he didn't. Steve McClure, one of Britain's top climbers, felt himself falling from a height of about 40 feet, with no ropes or harnesses to catch him. But that was O.K. This was the beauty, after all, of scaling a seaside cliff. You fall, you don't get hurt--provided you enter the water properly. But McClure, who really thought he had that hold, didn't see this drop coming; as he fell, he was out of control, flailing. His legs scissored apart as he neared the water, and the Adriatic rose up to hit him in a place no one likes to be hit. Yo, Adriatic! "I got myself a bit of an enema there," says
This is an article from the Nov. 15, 2004 issue
McClure, who can laugh about it now. At the time Britain's reigning indoor climbing champ was in such pain that he needed to be pulled from the water and feared he had suffered permanent damage to the all-important nether regions. After a couple of hours on the boat the pain subsided; in that time McClure and his climbing mates came up with a name for the difficult route he had been attempting, one taken from a classic Johnny Cash song. They dubbed the route Ring of Fire.
And it burns burns burns, the Ring of Fire.
The most high-risk form of rock-climbing is soloing, which is climbing without any safety equipment; no ropes, no crash pads. Its adherents say that it leaves them feeling free and unencumbered, and that they experience an intense focus that comes from truly having their lives in their hands. But soloing over land limits how high a climber can ascend without assuming more danger than most people find reasonable, so some soloers have found a middle ground. It's called deep-water soloing, which is done on rocks or cliff faces that rise out of the water. Here climbers are free to go higher, explore new routes, knowing that if they should fall, they're likely in for only a jolt and a hard soaking. Sounds much more fun, right?
Of course, a climber still has to manage his fall correctly, and there are limits on how high he can prudently go. "You feel safe up to 40 feet," says British climber Mike Weeks. "You start feeling a bit twitchy at 50 feet. At 60 you start pulling harder than you normally would. Above 70 you know you're going to be in trouble." Weeks himself spent a few days in the hospital three years ago after his lungs burst, as he describes it, from a difficult fall. (Weeks landed on his side and was knocked unconscious, sustaining a two-inch perforation in his left lung.) But if you get your arms and legs in tight, you've got a good chance to emerge intact. "If you land on your back, then you're really buggered," Weeks says. "Touch wood, I've got my landings really good these days." In fact many climbs intentionally end with the climbers hurling themselves into the drink. The first time you do deep-water solo, the plunge is almost a tradition.
The sport had its beginnings in England, where about eight years ago Crispin Waddy, a climber renowned for tackling routes no one else would try, scaled the cliffs rising from Conner Cove, near Dorset. Deep-water soloing has not really caught on in the U.S. because the country doesn't have a ready supply of suitable sea cliffs with clean drops. But in England the sport has developed a following among experienced rock climbers. Each August several hundred deep-water soloers descend on the country's southern coast for an annual weekend climbing festival with deejays and barbecue, celebrating this rising but still below-the-radar sport. "In the U.K. it's the sexiest kind of climbing," says Weeks, who organizes the festival. "We can't get enough of it."
Weeks intends to take the sport above ground with a 50-minute DVD called Depth Charge ("It's packed with explosive action," he says) that his company, X1 Sports, will release in January. The video will chronicle a deep-water soloing expedition he led to Croatia this fall. Weeks organized a crew of a dozen climbers that included McClure, noted British climber Tim Emmett and the sport's best-known athlete, Chris Sharma of California. Also along for the ride was noted nonathlete Jack Osbourne, the doughy Ozzy offspring and a friend of Weeks's.
Weeks had chosen the Croatian setting after coming to the European mainland earlier in the year for a rock-climbing expedition and noticing that the islands that dotted the coastline were practically built for deep-water soloing. He chose the most spectacular setting Croatia's coast had to offer, the pristine Kornati Islands, of which George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "On the last day of the Creation, God desired to crown His work, and thus created the Kornati Islands out of tears, stars and breath." Perhaps Shaw was being a bit dramatic--it wouldn't have been the first time--but to the eyes of a deep-water soloer those cliffs have the added beauty of having never been ascended. The climbers would have the thrill of discovery and the challenge of making up routes as they went. "It was a real adventure," says McClure. "The other times I've gone deep-water soloing, I was on cliffs where the routes were set and established. This was total exploration."
The climbers had the run of these rocks for 12 glorious days. They would head out on their boats in the morning and spend all their daylight hours dancing up and down the cliff faces, creating a stir among the European boating set that annually turns Croatia's Adriatic coast into its sun-splashed playground. "There were a lot of people cruising around in their yachts, and they would stop and say, 'What is this madness?'" McClure says.
The most difficult step in deep-water soloing is often the first one, a hop from a boat that may be bouncing in the chop onto the face of a cliff. This was especially a problem for Weeks's crew on the days when the wind picked up. "Fortunately, we had expert boat drivers," says Weeks. "But we still damaged three propellers and the side of one of the boats. Got a bit expensive." Most of the faces the group climbed were about 40 to 50 feet high. The trip started out with an almost holiday atmosphere for some of the participants, but before long the draw of climbing new faces spurred their competitive fire. As soon as they came down, they'd catch their breath and hop back onto the rock. Even Osbourne, who met Weeks while taping a British TV show on which Weeks taught him how to climb, was inspired to give it a go. "He did very well for a sort of overweight, unathletic lad," Weeks says. "He got a few blisters, got wet a bit, but he enjoyed every minute of it."
The climax of Depth Charge will be built around Ring of Fire. Cameras were on hand to document Sharma's conquering the monster that laid McClure low. "That route is rated an 8b-plus climb," Weeks says. "That makes it the hardest deep-water solo ever done." McClure had actually already made the climb, but the cameras had been elsewhere when he did it. His painful fall happened when he was trying to re-create the achievement for the DVD and was just a few feet from the top. McClure did come back for another day of climbing, but he took it easy and did not try the Ring of Fire again. Deep-water soloing, he learned, can hurt after all. "It's not total, complete fun," McClure says. "Well, actually, it is total, complete fun. But there is risk to be had."