Deep Water Soloing in Mallorca
Mallorca and the Climbing Renaissance of a Generation
Photos by Boone Speed
Part 1: Nothing will stop us, everything we do is right
Deep-water soloing didn’t always exist. Once, there was darkness on the face of the deep, and spirit was on the water. Climbing’s collective glaucoma obscured Mallorca’s seaside walls, making them colorless, gray. Around 2003, a climbing film showed Klem Loskot dynoing like crazy above the Mediterranean to the most wrapper jug you’ve ever seen. Waves everywhere, spirit in everything. God knows how many people saw the footage of Loskot and Two Smoking Barrels and felt like I did. A moment when deep-water soloing became as pellucid as the sea.
That was around 2001, a time when climbers were physically ready, but most were mentally too broke to buy a ticket to a ride like this. One exception was Chris Sharma, who saw the video, took the ride, changed everything. Still, for most of us deep-water soloing was too different, too abstract. Too wild a high.
Four years later, the book Deep Water arrived on my editorial desk, out of the blue so to speak. I flipped through Mike Robertson’s guide. A chapter on Mallorca, a theoretical place off the coast of Spain. I want to go deep-water soloing came to me. An alacritous, occult idea and therefore lacking any reason to bother understanding it. Who cares? By September, I was sparking and on the loose, strapped to an airplane traveling 550 miles per hour toward this far-flung island in that old sea.
“Are they climbers? Hey, I think those guys are climbers,” Mason said, taking a sip of espresso more or less ruined by the milk the Spanish use in cheap coffee.
Deep-water soloing didn’t always exist. Once, there was darkness on the face of the deep, and spirit was on the water.
Some blurry hours ago, I had met my friends in the Palma airport. Sam Elias, Jen Vennon and Mason Baker stumbled out of customs, bleary from a night of light international-flight sleep. Sam, Jen and Mason were special, the only ones who had taken seriously the e-mail I’d written to about 15 friends inviting them on a climbing trip not involving beta and bolts.
We’d just rented a car from a bird-woman who wore a manacle of keys around her wrist and tweeped on about having the lowest prices on the island. No insurance, no receipts, no questions—just instinct and money, and now a sweet diesel van to get us through these 10 days, also, very much so, without guarantees.
Overwhelmed by the initial shock of driving on foreign roads, we stopped at a neon-lit café embedded in the stained architecture of old-world Europe. We ordered bare-bones sandwiches called boccadillos, observed the local drunks who were getting after it, and sat quietly and tiredly until four bros came in. I don’t know what it was about them, their scruffy visages, torn threads or what, but Mason was right; they were English climbers, here in our café.
“There’s climbing everywhere here,” Sam whispered to us. “I’m not surprised.”
“What’s surprising is that we don’t already know them,” I said. It occurred to me that climbers are still a small tribe. We can seemingly walk into any bar or coffee shop near some random crag anywhere in the world and more often than not see someone we know. Yet we insist on fragmenting ourselves by discipline—in fact, perhaps you are doing it right now, wondering why you are reading about something as impenetrable as deep-water soloing in Mallorca. In my experience, everything is connected and those who understand that enjoy this sport the most.
“I wonder if they’re deep-water soloing or just sport climbing,” Jen said. We didn’t exactly know who these abseil-talking Brits were, but they were here, like us, to partake in Mallorca’s emerging climbing renaissance.
In the 1990s, Mallorca was an “It” sport-climbing paradise destination for Americans. Images of perfect limestone adjacent to unfathomable waters had an effect on the 1980s sport climbers, weary from a decade of having their bolts and fun chopped. An irresistible craving to go to Mallorca arose, to be accepted just because you clip bolts and have money. To drink good cheap wine and fuck off.
Now it’s 2008, and we’ve all heard about DWS & Mallorca. That the island has over 1,000 incredible sport routes has been forgotten by most, scrupulously replaced by the Dosages of Sharma and Loskot doing the outrageous deed above the roiling sea. We’ve seen the waves, heard the spray. Something about deep-water soloing embodying the “purity” of moving on rock without gear or ropes for a full pitch. The total freedom to do and go and climb wherever you want with the crazy acceptance that the ocean might just be the best damn crashpad ever made. Or that’s the line I was fed.
The guidebook that had arrived on my desk, however, described a place only as wild as you want. It revealed a majority of moderate climbs on cliffs not so tall. Jugs everywhere, 30-foot walls and enough 5.10s to keep anyone happy. Mallorca appeared to offer a deep-water soloing experience for the average climber who, if nothing else, could always screw off, drink lots of good cheap wine and go sport climbing by the sea.
“What’s the plan?” Mason said. “I’m beat. Maybe go climbing tomorrow?”
“Sounds good,” I said, then settled the tab with our barista while one of the local winos showed Jen the scavenged remains of his bicep, wolfed by some sort of muscular disease—a grateful omen that life isn’t always a vacation.
There was luck and guilt about, a sensation of being here at the height of our physical powers, secretly hoping for routes like Loskot and wanting desperately to be good at something as selfish as climbing. We exited onto the gray cobbled streets, a light rain blowing on shore.
“Hey, you made it!” Mike Call said, pulling the giant cedar door away from the frame of the villa. He was wearing shorts: no shoes, no shirt, no need. Sam, Jen, Mason and I crept inside. A main room was furnished with rococo wood tables and ornate tabernacles. A steel-plated kitchen; bedrooms in every corner.
“Mike, this place is sick!” Mason said.
Outside, a rouge-colored patio lay between a pool and Mediterranean verdure. The charcoaled remains of some night’s feast etched the innards of a clay stove. Beneath a portico dripping with orchids, the mangy, telling effects of climbers were strewn about: wet slippers, chalk bags drying in the sun, towels, ropes and shorts. The villa was stunning, but it seemed to shudder in edificial discord over its dynamic tenants.
“This place looked a lot better when we first got here,” Mike said. We laughed and turned inside to say hi to the rest of the crew. Mike, or “MC,” was here to make climbing movies for his website www.momentumvm.com, a video bonanza of daily psyche-up feeds, and he had brought a talented contingent of deep-water soloists and friends. Katie Brown, Ethan Pringle, Jay Holowach and Nels Rosaasen were there, as well as Chuck Fryberger, Boone Speed and Jenn Walsh. Though the house was breathing deeply, replete and alive, MC still offered to let the four of us stay there, too.
The 30some-odd hours of transit banished our tired remains to a leather couch. MC and Boone started jabbering about going climbing at Cala Barques that afternoon. Climbing was the last thing any of us wanted to do, even if Cala Barques was the classic beginner soloing area, but MC was not about to stand for indolence, and he deftly extinguished it by feeding us an honest sailor’s amount of beer until we were loopy and keen and climbing suddenly seemed like a great idea.
We arrived at Cala Barques, just south of bustling Porto Cristo, the major eastern town that is centrally located near the island’s best deep-water soloing, which is mostly found along the southeastern coast. All the best sport-climbing areas, however, are in the northwestern mountains, meaning no matter where you find yourself in Mallorca, there is climbing of some sort and grade to be done.
Our bevy squeezed through a funny crack in a giant metal door—a clandestine entrance to Cala Barques—and in our flip flops we bounced down a stone path cutting through a forest until it opened up and became a quiet alcove—a small white beach sparsely festooned with the burnt mounds of naked, stinking flesh that belonged to German tourists.
We heard the familiar flat notes of dirty feet strumming a slackline and saw a cluster of shanty tents just beyond the quiescent sun-bathers.
“This place is called ‘Beach 4’ now,” Boone explained. “It’s the most popular camping option around here, even though it’s a bit under the radar. Dude, you have no idea. When I was here two years ago, there was literally no one. Now, someone has even carved a whole kitchen into the rock over there. It’s sick.”
“Crazy,” Sam said, charging up the rocky hill to where we had been told the climbing was.
Boone and Chuck went off together to work on their own project, but MC and Katie Brown took us four DWS neophytes to the Metrosexual Area, a cove shaped like the arch of a gutted chapel with a masterpiece floor made from marbleized water.
Going from the left, Katie explained, gave us the benefit of starting halfway up the formation and taking a middling 5.11 path up the center of the arching shield. As she spoke, a young Swiss climber took the intended line, and we studied his beta with our hearts in our throats. He was soon shaking riotously, unable to pull on the tiny lip crimp at the top of the wall. He exploded into the air and was sucked into the sea with foreboding speed and force, and we all laughed uneasily.
Now, it was our turn and Katie went first. I’ve known Katie three years, and it has taken her about that long to open up. She’s painfully shy at first, perhaps due to the lingering menace of her teenage stardom, but she’s a sweetheart with an often dark, fatalistic sense of humor that I like, and though she claims that climbing is no longer that big of a deal to her, she climbed in one swift motion, looking both emotionless and elegant and obviously an old hand at this rather new sport.
Jen went next. A simple, caring person who wants nothing more than for life to be “OK,” Jen moves intuitively up rock, but with an unparalleled childish spirit that is perhaps embodied by a single baby tooth still lodged in her broad happy smile. She climbed her first deep-water solo with the ease of cascading rain, topping out and jumping up and down with her hands over her head.
Sam and Mason followed. Sam is dark and reckless, with passionate Syrian blood and tattooed olive skin. He’s one of the few people I know who doesn’t give a fuck about anything except loyalty, strength of will and pushing himself to the god’s honest edge. Mason is a kind giant, 190 pounds of wild and bounding force arrestingly refined by the fact that he’s a Southern gentleman at heart with a deeply philosophical demeanor.
They dispatched with the route easily and suddenly seemed possessed by intense life, beholden to their remarkable position against the infinite vista of the Mediterranean Sea.
I went last. No one except for that weak little Euro bitch had fallen, and I didn’t want to be first. I traversed out to the edge of where the real climbing began and looked down into the undulating water, grasping a whale’s mouth jug and chalking unremittingly.
For some reason, I thought back to many years ago when I won roshambo and had to lead the first pitch of El Cap’s Zodiac, my first time aid climbing. The reminiscence wasn’t sparked by any similarities in the act itself. Rather it was a likeness of sensation: That rare, electric feeling found only in climbing, when you’re on an adventure so new and uncertain, and once again you’re standing at the rim of the rabbit hole, uneasy and scared, until all of life’s gusto catalyzes into a high-powered serum that instantly clears your brain of all anxiety and the only thing that matters is that you jump headlong into the darkness and ride the tunnel to the very end.
I don’t remember much from my first deep-water solo other than that the holds were large and I don’t think I breathed, but when I reached the top, I yelled with all the world’s fire in my belly, fueled by a tumultuous wave-pool of high-octane chemicals that only the body’s best organs could produce. And that was it. I wondered if I’d ever climb on a rope again.
Part 2: More climbing, crazy canadians and the fall from perfection
Chuck Fryberger, MC and I sat the edge of the water, looking from a distant vantage into the grotto of Cave One at Cala Barques. Fifteen or so soloists were crawling around the dangling tufas ornamenting the 30-foot gut, but one climber in particular stood out.
Nels Rosaasen is an incredible specimen built upon the blueprints of classic musculature—basically, he’s a total major beast. His face is skeletally strong, but has cherubic intonations due to his fair skin, bright blue eyes and the contiguous lion’s mane of blond hair. These physical attributes have mutated his brain into producing strange self-deprecating sarcasm that causes him to alter his physical appearance. Like the thin “pedo moustache” that molested his upper lip, and that he had been wearing a mawkish “Mallorca” beach dress as a shirt. The recent addition of an unsightly fake tattoo depicting a pro wrestler to his neck confirmed that we were dealing with something none of us had ever before seen.
Chuck and MC were filming Nels as he parodied Patrick Edlinger, the famous French first ascentionist, who once appeared in a 1980s movie executing flamboyant calisthenics and soloing in the Verdon. Dressed to a tee, Nels was wearing pin-striped short-shorts that revealed sack and had a chalk satchel strung across his stout chest. A cigarette was pressed between his lips, and a bedazzling princess’ headband held his Norse hair in place.
Next to Nels, another climber looked frightened and was hugging a tufa like a baby monkey clinging to its mama. Nels cut his feet to pass over the poor chap, revealing the fun-filled ingredients of his short-shorts. The little monkey reeled in horror and Nels looked back at the camera to give a thumbs up.
MC said, “Do you think anyone here would believe me if I told them that that guy once beat Chris Sharma in a comp?” Nels finally pumped out and fell into the ocean and the show, for now, was over.
Deep-water soloing doesn’t get any more intimidating and raw than the 60-foot Diablo Wall, two seconds from downtown Porto Cristo and home to famous routes like Loskot and Two Smoking Barrels (S2 5.13c)
Over the past few days we had continued our deep-water education while occasionally sport climbing. Due to these unique circumstances, a perfect balance could theoretically be achieved—hard sport climbing days followed immediately with easy soloing jaunts as active recovery. No rest days needed, unless you wanted to go to Palma—at 350,000 people, by far the largest city on the island—to shop in chic boutiques and see La Seu, the great cathedral, or simply enjoy the local cuisine. But otherwise, in Mallorca there’s no reason not to climb every single day.
Jay Holowach was and is Nels’ partner in crime—we referred to them as The Canadians, and also “Jay and Silent Nels,” even though the adjective should be reversed. Nels’ chronic shoulder tendonitis made climbing more or less unbearably painful, so he and Jay spent a lot of time clubbing, occasionally returning home from Palma at 7 a.m. with pockets filled with women’s phone numbers and stories about bouncers ejecting Nels for his strange sun-dress shirt and unnerving neck tat.
Jay plays it cool, but deep down he’s totally nuts. Along with Chuck and Ethan Pringle, Jay showed us what unshitting balls-out soloing looked like, and as far as any of us could tell, he does not get scared. When Jay sent Loskot, he double-dynoed with two hands at once, and there were rumors that he would backflip off any cliff.
Ethan was killing it also. He had just come off the most rapid ascent of Realization (5.15a) to date, and was ticking off many DWS projects easily. He originally intended to repeat Sharma’s Es Pontas, but the famous sea arch quickly disheartened him. The crux dyno revealed itself to be somewhat contrived, as a viable section of 5.12 could bypass the well-hyped move. Further, Ethan was unable to do the upper, more difficult crux, which like Sharma he briefly previewed on toprope.
Mysterious to the point of being recondite, Ethan sometimes struck me as unhappy, or something like that, but his magnetic charm and genuine laughter insisted otherwise. He has a subtle fixation with repeating Sharma’s most famous lines, as if he climbs not for pleasure but to measure up. Still, this was the best climbing year of Ethan’s life. He had pushed himself to the zenith of difficulty in the sport, but still seemed unable or perhaps unwilling to go much further than what others had already achieved. I have no doubt, however, that he is a much better climber than he (and everyone else) realizes. For now, Ethan had stopped trying Es Pontas, which was fine with us as there wasn’t much other developed climbing to do around the arch, located near the southern town of Santanyi.
One of the best soloing days of the trip was when Mason, Jen, Sam and I hung out and climbed with Ethan at Cala Barques, working a short enjoyable 5.13b. Ethan’s true passion for the sport beamed as he campused through the route barefoot. We all took turns trying hard, falling in, making jokes and having fun.
For whatever reason, climbers are driven to balance those mellow, non-committing days with something intimidating and raw. And deep-water soloing doesn’t get any more intimidating and raw than the 60-foot Diablo Wall, two seconds from downtown Porto Cristo and home to famous routes like Loskot and Two Smoking Barrels (S2 5.13c), Ejector Seat (S1 5.12d), Afroman (S1 5.12b) and All Cats Are Black in the Night (S1 5.13b). On our first day at the Diablo, Jen sat atop the cliff for a couple of hours swallowing fear and trying not to throw up.
I surveyed the cliff looking for Loskot and Two Smoking Barrels, the climb that first introduced me to the idea of this thing. I wanted this route in the same way that past climbers have wanted Astroman and La Rose et le Vampire and every other iconic route that has embodied the climbing zeitgeist, or “spirit of the day.” But I kept my intentions to myself as it would’ve been a little brash, even for me, to go around saying that I’d be making monstrous dynos 40 feet over the water. When I finally spotted the famous wrapper thread you’re supposed to jump for with your nuts in your stomach, I said, “Holy shit, the dyno is at the top of the fucking cliff!” And like Jen, I took a knee and tried not to puke.
Strange forces were at work, the colossal ones that rustle through every generation and cause old ideas to recede and new eras to be born. The unstoppable phenomenon of a wave that is so fresh and powerful it sweeps everyone up in its path, taking them on a ride they never asked for but could never imagine living without—a Golden Age, or something like that. Every climbing discipline has had one, at places like Yosemite, Eldo, Smith, Hueco and Bishop. And each era in its own way contained the frantic elements Spirit and Fire.
My generation is the most fragmented, quietest one in the last hundred years. I admit this pisses me off. The boomers had something, a voice, perhaps, that spoke for all—they pooled their energy and believed it was making a difference, even though they will be remembered for leaving the world in far worse shape than they found it. Whether or not weadmit it, my generation is lonely, socially and emotionally dispersed. In my 26 years, I have only been taught that nothing is sacred.
At the Diablo Wall, I experienced a doping realization that we were right smack in the middle of a definitive era at the best deep-water soloing cliff in the world. There was an uplifting sense that we were the musical participants to a new, totally radical form of climbing that was completely ours. We were experiencing a moment that comes only once in a while, the feeling of spinning so hard for so long and suddenly having our axes aligned. We were here, we had all the Fire, and for a moment, our Spirit was winning.
“Let’s go do Afroman,” Sam screamed. “Shake and bake, baby!”
People don’t seem to know just how exciting it is even to reach the base of the solos in Mallorca. Did you know that you have to downclimb these cliffs to reach the start of many routes? That means that you begin your deep-water experience right at the scariest place—three points of contact at the top of a wall. Some of the downclimbs are actually pretty hard, and often wet, and you better not fall because it’s a downclimb, and therefore doesn’t count.
Sam, Mason and I went down a 5.11 that felt as if it had been sprayed with a firehose to reach a little scoop beneath Afroman. The Diablo Wall is pimped out with rope ladders strung to good ledges where climbers sit, dry off and chalk up for another burn. People have stashed chalk and towels here. Tight-fitting shoes are overkill, and one pair of comfortable slippers is all you need since the outer rubber dries quickly. Unless you want to chill in the ocean, you probably won’t need a boat or inflatable raft. Taking a chalk bag is nice, but not always necessary as most climbs are short and bouldery, and sometimes chalk bags are hanging in the middle of the wall before hard cruxes. Even under normal circumstances, I am a strong advocate of liquid chalk, so do not shrug me off when I say that the Hot Fire is absolutely essential in deep-water soloing. Bring a few tubes of it and don’t ask questions.
As with most Diablo Wall routes, Afroman’s 5.12b crux is at half-height, or 30 feet. Sam went first, deciphering the beta through the steep grotto. He appeared to struggle for a second, but then relaxed and hooted, now on top.
I went next, and easily reached what was obviously the crux as my precious jugs had grown an evil sense of humor, becoming bastard slopers. I vaguely recognized the shouts of a mass of people watching me climb … I hate it when people watch me climb. Where to go? A big move up to a crimp? I had to really go for it, you know? So I made a hazardous toss, banking carelessly on the probability that I could hang on to anything. My tips grazed the ghost of a tiny hold and I was off, rag-dolling 30 feet through the air and smacking the water with the full horizontal grandeur of my uncooperative body.
I swam over to a ledge with, thank god, an easy rope ladder, and fished my defeated remains from the liquid crash pad. I poked my side, bruised and battered.
“Bad beta,” a German climber said. “You mustn’t go so fast. Bad beta.” He stepped over me, hopped on Loskot, botched the dyno and, to my great glee, totally ate shit.
Mason committed the same beta atrocity I had, and sadly joined me on my sunny ledge. We warmed up and dried off and watched Sam go up and down the cliff as if in flight. Deep-water soloing is a large thing to wrap your head around. Like anything, some got it right away. I shoed up and started up The Lobster (S2 5.11) with a crux right at 55 feet, but the only “easy” way up from our position. Mason started climbing below me, but he got off route and fell into the water again.
“Nice one,” Boone said as I barely scraped over the wall’s definitive lip.
“Ah, whatever,” I said. “I just missed that crimp on Afroman. Man, Boone, I’m still pretty scared of all this.”
“Andrew, you have no idea how different this trip is for me than two years ago when I was first here. But it took this long. I was more prepared this time. I mean, I get it now.” Boone is always serious, even if he’s not, and when he’s not, he waits to see if you get the joke before he buckles over in laughter. He’s simultaneously a sage and fraught with emotional complexity, like a 42-year-old child who never ceases to find the world bewildering and full of adventure.
My side was killing me from getting plucked off the Afroman like a louse, so that meant it was beer time. I opened a quart of Estrella, and sat at the top of the Diablo Wall, judging with the narrow slits in my face. Chalk and tickmarks abounded, chalk bags hung from holds; there were guidebooks with ratings and beta for every route. Not exactly what I had been expecting. The whole scene was a far cry from the idealized notions the preceding hype had formed in my imagination. It was as if climbers can’t let our sport breathe in all its fullness—we are always making things easier, stupider, less adventurous, with guides, beta, egos and spray acting like an emphysema on the incredible pulmonary tissue of our sport.
There was a moment in the early 1990s when bouldering was still so uncool that it somehow seemed pure and unadulterated. Now look at it: a giant production of contrived highballs with 18 stacked pads and just as many spotters; tickmarks, dabs, toprope inspection. V-grade bickering, beta and bullshit. Even though it’ll always be fun, dope, whatever, in some ways it’s forever tainted. Maybe it happens in every renaissance—when the creativity and energy become so hot that the original ideals are lost to the flames.
Atop the great Diablo Wall, I was suddenly privy to an incredible temporal vista. Some part of the extraordinary spirit of deep-water soloing remained visible, but clearly it would not be long for this world. And somewhere in between lay our position: lucky enough to experience the sport in its mercurial perfection and burdened by truth that we were all contributing in some way to its loss.
Part #3 If backflips cannot save us, there is no hope
“Boone!” Sam yelled. “Get your camera! I’m gonna backflip.”
Sam clutched the railing of our second-story condo. We had changed our accommodations when our group split in half: MC, Katie, Chuck and Ethan had flown home, but Jen Vennon, Mason, Sam and I, Jay and Silent Nels, Boone and Jenn Walsh, and now, out of nowhere, Chris Lindner, were still going hard. Our new digs were far less luxurious, with only two beds for the nine of us, but it was much more intimate and fun.
“Don’t do it, Sam,” I said. “That pool is only three feet deep at best. You’re going to choss yourself, dude.”I wasn’t alone—everyone else had come out to our balcony to try and talk Sam out of flipping into the pool, which he was only doing to impress the two beautiful German girls in the condo below us.
“Shit, I would’ve done it by now if you guys hadn’t said anything. Where’s Boone? I want a picture of this. Boone! Get your camera!”
A German family, on an until-now peaceful vacation, was quartered directly below. We made up a scenario that then became a running joke for the rest of the trip, and it went like this: The family would go home, describe what they saw to their friends, and say, “And szen, zee American, right before he hit his head on zee pool, he say, ‘Hey y’all, vatch dis!’”
We were all laughing at the joke, but Sam was intent on flipping.
“Why don’t you put a bottle of wine in your pants, too,” I suggested. “Then, after you flip, if you somehow don’t smoke your head into the concrete, you can pull the wine out and open it for zee ladies.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Sam said. The family anxiously watched from their condo below. The girls, however, were smoking and pretending not to care.
“Fuck it, backflip,” Sam said, and then he was off in the air, somehow managing to break the center of the oblong puddle. The Germans cheered. We shook our heads.
The elements of Mallorca were beginning to score our minds and bodies. The Mediterranean environment, as beautiful and peaceful as it seemed, was brutal with sun, sea and sand. It had sculpted our very edges and refined us into a stronger, lighter, bolder version of ourselves. Sam had harnessed these empyreal virtues, and unwittingly captured it with, “Fuck it, backflip.” The crass, wonderful words nearly became a mantra, a feeling of invincibility that drove us to such a high that the future had never been more irrelevant.
The next day, we went to Cala sa Nau, an area with both moderates and projects alike. Little information existed on the majority of routes. Unconfirmed ratings and zero beta defined most climbs at this section of Cala sa Nau, which, in some ways, was more intimidating than the Diablo Wall. It was just as tall, only most cruxes occurred at the very top of the 60-foot prow.
In deep-water soloing, there’s absolutely no bullshit. No matter how many chalk bags and rope ladders you install on these cliffs, you can’t detract from the simple, wonderful truth that in deep-water soloing, there are only two outcomes: You either reach the top or you fall a long way
The day began immediately rough and exciting as waves struck the limestone pilasters puncturing the water. WHOOMP! The ocean was giving us a small taste of its awesome capacity. WHOOMP! These waves would strike the wall with such power we could feel the violent reverberations in the grips, as if we were being warned by the harbingers of the apocalypse. We descended a 5.10 to reach a slit in which six people could sit. Thankfully, there was rope ladder there, though it was nearly sawed in half and if it did cut, an intense, dangerous swim lay ahead.
The route Sam, Mason, Jen Vennon and I were going for had been touted by Boone and Jenn Walsh as “the best 7c [5.12c] on the island,” though its real name was unknown. Boone and Jay had done the route before, and they warmed up on it, as did Sam, by now the strongest soloist among us.
I first wanted to try a 5.12a, which was tricky and difficult and zigzagged all around. I climbed up to the crux, then downclimbed back to the ledge and rested. I repeated this about three more times, completely afraid to fall after that nasty spill I’d taken at the Diablo. Still, I wanted to push myself for the usual reason: to get a better look at what was within.
Upon reaching the top, I was ready to revert into vacation mode and start drinking beer, but Sam and Jay urged me to climb more. They were working on a 5.13c with a hard, powerful bulge at the top, taking big falls, with Sam, as always, falling by looking up and holding his nuts with both of his hands until he broke through the drink.
On the awkward ledge again, we huddled together to keep warm, talking about what the moves on different routes were like. I was beginning to grasp a couple of things about deep-water soloing that made me rethink that bittersweet epiphany concerning the sport’s apparent fate I’d formed at the Diablo.
First, in deep-water soloing, there’s absolutely no bullshit. No matter how many chalk bags and rope ladders you install on these cliffs, or how many guidebooks are written, you can’t detract from the simple, wonderful truth that in deep-water soloing, there are only two outcomes: You either reach the top or you fall a long way with your nuts in your hands. Inevitably, people will use various techniques to make the sport safer and push standards, and that’s fine. But when it comes down to it, you still have to put quite a bit on the line.
The second thing I learned surprised me the most, but it’s also the most important. And it came to me that day at Cala sa Nau on that tiny ledge with old and new friends. I realized that there is more camaraderie in deep-water soloing than any other climbing experience I’ve had. The discovery was impalpable in some ways because, this was soloing: no belaying, partnerships or anything immediately obvious such as that. However, the truth is, everyone’s a partner, and you really don’t want to see your friends fall when they’re at the top of a 60-foot wall. The intensity of the experience draws everything that is human out of you and forges connections far stronger than any rope and Grigri.
WHOOMP, WHOOMP! The waves were growing with my anxiety over taking the dive, or, even worse, finding out I wasn’t good enough to do this so called “best 7c in Mallorca.” Mason tried it first, falling at the route’s second crux fairly high up. He returned to the ledge. Jenn Walsh went up, gave an awesome burn and she fell too. She returned to the ledge. We sat and talked and felt so small I swore there was no one else in the world but us.
Because she has spent seven years climbing at the Red River Gorge, Jen Vennon can hang on forever. She slowly made her way through the first crux, then the second, and then, somehow compressed an eternity of shaking out just before the last crux. She was precariously positioned 50 feet from the water, or 10 feet from the top, depending upon how you look at it. This very subtle, but important difference often decides success and failure. It’s a simple one, but truly grasping the nuances of this idea requires quite a bit of experience.
“I’m so scared!” she cried. We all encouraged her, willing her to do the damn thing first go. Her face, normally poised when she climbs, was bent and stretched in animate directions and she was obviously on the edge. Then, I noticed her expression soften; she breathed deeply a few times and committed to the final moves, topping out completely alive.
“I think I would’ve peed myself, but I didn’t want to get the holds wet,” Jen yelled down. “That was the bravest thing I’ve ever done … no, actually, falling would’ve been braver. No, that was least brave thing I’ve ever done!”
My turn. Sam said to me, “Dude, you can do this route.” I’ve never responded to encouragement before in my life—I’m an editor, which means I’ve got thick skin and a cynical view of humanity. Plus, I’ve never thought of myself as being good at anything and still don’t. But what Sam was really conveying to me was a universal idea with an unstoppable power that every climber can relate to. It’s the Gusto. Racking up and taking the lead. Getting after it. And now, “Fuck it, backflip.”
I went up the 7c and tried hard to focus on the climbing—placing my feet, not over-gripping, staying relaxed and all the other stuff that you learn and forget and learn again throughout your life as a climber. My friends were atop the cliff, and down on our ledge, watching me, only this time it felt comforting. I somehow made it through the first two cruxes, which I guess surprised me so much that I totally botched the little mini-crux at the very top of the wall.
It was a stupid mental error, but in retrospect, I probably learned more about myself from that single failure than I would have if I had muscled through and topped out. The failure made the climb special; the “best 7c in Mallorca” is forever etched into a certain part of who and what I am. But those things I keep to myself.
I fell a long, long way, grabbed my nuts and stuck the landing.
This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice No. 167, April 2008.