Deep water solo (DWS) had been on Antony Bartlett’s bucket list for quite some time. What better place to start with this sensational climbing practice than in your home town? Here is his story about his first DWS-comp in Exeter (UK). Splaaash!
Deep water solo
Deep water solo, the graceful art of climbing above water without protection. It had been on my climbing to-do list for a long time now and every attempt to rally the troops for a DWS vacation always culminated in utter failure. Then along came DWS on the quay, a competition set up and arranged by quay climbing in Exeter, my hometown of all places. Last year was the first year and due to a series of events I ended up not being able to partake. This year however, was my year.
I spent the last s months training and climbing hard in preparation for the comp. A niggling finger injury which still plagues me as a write this took my grade from serious to ffs. Despite this I trained hard, stretched through the pain and the week before the competition, climbed my first 7A boulder! I was feeling strong, I was feeling confident, I was feeling ready to take part in my first competition.
I’d climbed Dust (competition in Monk Eindhoven, ed.) before but for me that wasn’t scary. It was more a free for all with not really any spectators. This however was going to be just me and two other people on the wall in front of hundreds of people. God, I was shitting myself, and I wish that was figuratively. I hate climbing in front of people but as a person who likes to push my fears I figured this would be a great opportunity to stand up and face it, balls to the wall.
Top or drop
So I grabbed my climbing gear, three pairs of shoes, two vests, one pair of board shorts, one chalk bag, loose chalk and some plastic bags for the chalk bag. I stuffed it all in my bag, shouted good bye to my mum and headed out the door towards the river, and the wall.
The climbing wall had been constructed on a floating barge. It’s situated on a part of the river customarily reserved for boat storage, meaning the water is deep enough to support a decent fall. I’d seen the wall a few days earlier on a trip to the gym for last minute training, but now all the routes had been set. We were allowed to see the qualifier routes before the comp. Apparently it had been decided this year that the qualifier would be open and on the semi onwards there would be isolation. So I took a moment to stare at the wall and start to take in the routes. There were three colours and the blue had been reserved for the men’s competition. The women were already competing on the red circuit and in between them splashing and sending I took a moment to stare down the wall.
With the wall firmly subdued by my epic stare I headed over to the registration tent to sign in. My number was written on my leg and hands for the judges to see and I received my goody bag for the comp, T-shirt and snacks woo, you can’t go wrong with that. They then asked me to fill out a little questionnaire, which I, being a childish mofo of course, filled this in with some pretty stupid answers because I thought nothing more of it, until I exited the tent to hear the commentator reading things out for the climbers on the wall. Feck, I wonder which part of mine he’ll read.
The girls were climbing hard, quite a few splash downs, especially on the middle route which had a hold called the wrecking ball. It was a large circular hold attached to the wall by a chain. The grips looked solid enough but as soon as people took a hand off to proceed. Splosh. They went in the drink. I say drink, this is not water you want to swallow on the best of days. I spent a lot of time in that river as a child so I’m well aware of its water quality and its great ability to help you create your own brown water, out of your arse.
But the girls were climbing hard and watching some top the third route was an amazing sight. They seemed to progress in difficulty from left to right, three routes, one harder than the other and you had one shot on each. Top or drop. The third route though, even when you did send it required a drop into the water. You had to give the people what they were there for, lots of people falling in the water. The first two routes were top outs meaning you could climb over the top of the wall to dry safety but the third had been designed to give the people what they wanted, wet t-shirts. Anyone who managed to top the third route would generally hang there a moment, remove their chalk bag and shoes to throw them over the other side and then drop down in the water. Great to watch.
I couldn’t watch forever though as I needed to hit the gym for a warm up. My number was low meaning I’d be out on one of the first boats so I needed to get the body ready for some punishment. There were a few other guys in the boulder hall getting warmed up. It was a great atmosphere and I met some nice people, chatting about the comp, there didn’t seem to be any tension or conflict, everyone was just happy to be climbing wanting to do their best and see others climb hard too, it really helped to calm my nerves.
So I hit the wall with a few of the guys, met some nice interesting characters including the guy who’d be hitting the wall before me. Amazing. I’m not exactly a blend into the background type person and with a recently new hairstyle ( tiger print ) I was pretty sure I’d stand out that little bit more. Luckily for me the guy before me was sporting a mohawk and a similar amount of ink on his body. Phew, I wouldn’t be the only colourful mother fucker on the wall I thought, and as I turn around, in walks another guy with a mohawk now I knew my fears were not required.
Registration took place at 1pm in the tent by the water. The guys explained the rules, what was in, what was out, make sure to be at the boat on time or it’s gonna leave without you. That was it, simple, climb well, make sure to hold firm to that last hold and do your best. Awesome. Sounds easy enough. Right?
After the registration I headed over to my mum who had come down to watch me climb. Weirdly this was the first time she’d ever had the chance to see me climb. I was excited to have some support in the crowd and it was nice to see a friendly face. We stood and had a chat for a bit while the first boats went out and it gave me chance to see some of the guys climbing the routes already. Man number one was up and made his way out onto the first route. I can honestly say I did not envy him being the first out. Later there would be three people on the wall sharing the tension but this poor bastard was out there alone, forging on into no man’s land as the whistle blew and he made his ascent up route number 1.
The boat call
The first route was fairly straight forward, overhanging it moved out to the right before heading up onto some massive jugs. A well placed heel hook allowed for a movement out to a fairly decent nodule. This was the tricky part out of the roof though where if the heel hook was placed right you could easily pull your right hand off the same hold as your foot and onto a semi bomber sloper. The guy let out a grunt as he made the move but failed to stick the right hand, he was off, falling, and splash, he was in the drink. Fuck. I thought, this was meant to be the easiest route of the three and this guy’s off before getting out of the roof. Nervousness grew as he was picked up by the paddle board and taken back around to the side of the barge. Let’s just hope it was nerves I thought as the next guy stepped up for the challenge.
All eyes were on him as he also moved out onto the wall on his own. It seemed the previous guy would be on the second route on the next time slot. But guy number two was out onto route one and soldiered on. I’d seen him during the warming up and he seemed capable enough of pushing through route one, and push through he did. He was up and through the route like a whippet up a drainpipe, making it look extremely doable. He still struggled through the roof but it was definitely not going to a problem.
I wanted to watch a bit more of the climbing but my boat call was getting closer so I headed over to wait by the side, trying to take in a little more of the comp. A few more people sended route one as I watched multiple people drop on route two. Route two was a definite step up in difficulty. An awkward combination of hand holds lead to a very shitty dyno to what looked like a seriously shit sloper. Fuck, lot’s of people were dropping there or making it through there to drop on the next section. This was definitely going to be interesting.
Eventually my number was called and I stepped onto the boat with 2 other guys. Tension was building as we made our way across to the barge in the middle of the water. I was excited and nervous all at the same time. From the boat you could see the crowd which had severely increased in number. Fuck I thought again as I saw all those eyes looking in our direction.
The back end of the barge was just like hanging out at a climbing gym. Everyone was getting siked and checking their gear in preparation to hit the wall. Each competitor had 3 minutes to top or drop before the next person was called out onto the wall. I hung my gear bag up on the scaffolding, the construction which supported the wall. It made for a surprisingly good way of staying warm as people used it as a pull up bar. I found a nice little section where i could balance and warm my core as well as do some nice pull ups too.
So I did my best to stay warm as I watched the people heading out for route one. I knew my slot was coming when Mr. Mohican made his way out of the door and out onto the wall. They’d set up three small holes at the bottom of the wall for each route. It allowed for you to easily climb out and set up on the starting hold until the whistle was blown. To be fair my first fear right now was, shit, what if I slip when getting out. I chuckled a hearty chuckle as I grabbed my big bag of chalk and headed to the doorway.
Dean Potter’s footsteps
My heart was in my throat as I stood there, momentarily I’d chalk up a little and let the dust settle while I waited for my call. Mr Mohican had topped out, just like most of the other people before me now. The pressure was on, I didn’t want to fall on this route, not the first one, I had to make it to the top. “Go” No more thinking though, it was time to go. I grabbed the rail and looked out the door. Hundreds of people looked back. God damn it. I dragged my ass out and onto the starting hold. Gripped tight, positioned my feet and waited for the whistle. It blew, I went. The first few holds really were bomber, better than expected as I made my way up the wall. All I heard now was the voice of the commentator and my heart beating in my chest. He threw out some facts about me as I climbed. The fact I was here from the Netherlands and my local gym was Monk, boom! Shout out to the local gym. I hit the roof and positioned myself upside down working hand over hand before bringing my heel up to rest. It was solid as I reached out and grabbed the nodule under the roof. The commentator called out another. My climbing inspiration, the reason I’m here, Dean Potter. He sadly died this year in a BASE accident but his legend will live on, I’ll always remember him anyway as my hand left the adjoining heel hook and statically sat on the sloper. It was solid, so extremely solid I could bring my left hand up to match. Out of the roof it was a simple step to the top, the holds were semi crimper but good body position and feet meant a ladder approach to the finish. I’d done it woooo I’d done it, I looked down at the judges for confirmation that I was safe on the end hold before throwing myself up and over the wall to safety.
“The commentator called out another. My climbing inspiration, the reason I’m here, Dean Potter. He sadly died this year in a BASE accident but his legend will live on, I’ll always remember him anyway as my hand left the adjoining heel hook and statically sat on the sloper.”
I climbed down the ladder, happy as a pig in shit that I’d made the first route. I reached the bottom to congratulations, loving the comradery here. Everyone was just enjoying themselves, of course there were those who were super serious, there were still sponsored guys climbing in the comp, but for most of us we were just here to have fun, and with that first route down my heart had settled back into it’s normal position once again. I realised that the crowd hadn’t even factored into my climbing, I’d not even paid attention to their existence once I started climbing.
The wait was short though before I was getting poised to jump back on the wall and there were a lot more wet people standing around as the second route had done it’s best to claim more than a few. I had a bad feeling I was going to be tasting the brown muck of the river on this one as I made my way to the opening. The entry point to the wall was a lot smaller on this one but the outside starting hold was pretty solid. The whistle blew and I made my way, left hand above me, right hand out to a crimper, left hand down to an awkward undercling, right foot out to a piece of crap feature, but positioned well allowed for the right hand to move out to a semi decent crimp before bringing the left up to where my right was. This was the position, the god awful position that saw a few fall. Pulling on the two crimps and lowering my body I prepared myself for failure as I launched upwards through the dyno.
Solid, solid as a god damn rock as both hands planted on what was actually a pretty decent hold. I’d swung out slightly but managed to stick it as I immediately brought my right heel up to place it next to my hands. This was the next hard part, working your way along, hands and heel to what had been ironically named the wrecking ball. A pair of jugs on a round piece of feature that hung from a chain on the wall. The girls had to use this in their route and more than enough had fallen, along with more than enough guys. I positioned my body and went out with my left hand. I gave the ball a courteous slap to push it away allowing me to catch the opposite side of it as it swung back. The jug was solid so I positioned my left foot on the wall and brought my right hand onto it as well. Woot I’d stuck it but the next part was the tricky part. As far as I could tell, the next hold was crap, crap by my standards which aren’t very high though. I brought my body along the back end of the roof, and set myself up to swing out and grab the next hold. I kicked with my right leg, swung out with my left hand, slapped the hold just gravity kicked in and my right hand dropped, sending me flying down into the muck below. Splash. I managed to keep my eyes and mouth closed and sunk into the drink and was more than happy when my head emerged above the water.
The paddle board was awaiting my arrival on the surface and took me back to the other side of the wall. My everything was soaked including my chalk bag. Luckily I’d taken this into account and put a bunch of loose chalk in a plastic bag inside my chalk bag. Perfect, I flopped the plastic bag out which now resembled a filled elephant condom and left it on the side. My top came off and was replaced with a fresh one, save our bees written on the back, a stab at the current political party. Shorts were to stay sodden and I grabbed my spare pair of shoes in preparation for the third and final route. Luckily I had a little time to spare while I warmed up again but realised I couldn’t remember the beta for the final route, luckily again I wasn’t the only one.
A few of us huddled together to try and remember the sequence, it was no good though and we knew we were going in blind. So I took a seat by the final opening and prepared for the final route. My call came up and out I rocked. The whistle blew and I started my ascent. It was a strange route though and exceedingly harder than the others. Crimpers in an overhang, not my ideal situation but I made it through the first set of moves and under the roof. Then I got stuck. My hands were on some shitty holds and I had to make my way further right. There was a tiny crimper and a pocket. I went for the pocket. I missed. And I ate shit for the final time.
Wet and cold I was picked up once more and taken back to the barge where I packed up my gear and made my way to the boat to go back to the shore. My head was racing now, what could I have done better? I went through the routes, thinking about my moves, self evaluating my performance. My thoughts were short lived though as I step off to be greeted by my mum, sis and a bunch of my friends. They were all smiling and saying I did really well and for them this was probably the first time they’d seen me climb, let alone a proper climbing event. It was good though, to see everyone smiling and despite the fact I felt I hadn’t done great, I was still super stoked for having taken part.
In true climber style, I’ll be back, stronger!
Written by Antony Bartlett