History and ethics of deep water soloing
This article explores the history and ethics of deep water soloing, and the differences between DWS and the more regular representations of climbing, firstly tackling the general picture, and then discussing the individual's personal approach to DWS routes.

History and ethics of deep water soloing


In a nutshell, climbers are demonstrably lazy, and harbour no real desire to carry gigantic racks of wires and ropes about their person. One of the first people to consider the possibility of the sea as a form of 'protection' was a guy called Nick Buckley, who one day soloed the E1 of The Conger, down at Swanage's Conner Cove - a route very well positioned above water. Nick was, I believe, simply following a natural inclination to jettison unnecessary extras and frustrations. That deed done, it fell to an exploratory Crispin Waddy (a fellow often found at the forefront of progress in climbing) to further the art form. This he did in the late 1980s, usually at Conner Cove, and often climbing alone.

The most popular UK venues are Conner Cove and Stair Hole (both near Swanage, in Dorset), Cave Hole on the isle of Portland, near Weymouth, and the Devon hotspot of Berry Head

Present day

Now after a decade and a half of sustained interest and development, the DWS genre is both established and practised over a wide geographical range. We have watery crags along the length of England's south coast and beyond. The most popular (but by no means all) being the venues of Conner Cove and Stair Hole (both near Swanage, in Dorset), Cave Hole on the isle of Portland, near Weymouth, and the Devon hotspot of Berry Head. You can be sure that DWS is here to stay!


Let's begin with how DWS may be considered less detrimental to matters of access and over-use - and how DWS enthusiasts might safeguard the future for DWS.

DWS is User-Friendly

DWS is by far the least encumbered off-shoot of climbing, and it can be regarded as one of the most environmentally friendly. This is partly due to the remote and inaccessible nature of the pastime; and partly it's down to the lack of need for fixed protection, both bolted and otherwise. Let's face it: if you were a landowner faced with potential legal responsibilities, both imagined and real, would you feel comfortable about the users of your land trusting their lives to fixed anchors in the rock under your legal jurisdiction?

So do your bit:
  • Observe bird bans
  • Take out your litter - and that of other folk
  • Keep the beach tidy
  • Smile quaintly at passers by
  • Learn the first names of the more accommodating sea birds at the crag
DWS © Andrey Bandurenko
DWSPersonal climbing ethics

These were touched upon in some detail in the Climbers' Club 'bible' of 1995 'Into the Blue'. In short, we all make a choice about our individual approach; the DWS guide highlighted the ethics employed during the first solo ascent of the route concerned (see that guide for full details). You could choose to go for the perfect on-sight; have a bash when the route is fully chalked up; take the route on with a little crucial beta from a friend; carry out an inspection on a rope before you make a play for it; or even go for the full, pre-practised approach (especially useful with some S3s). Whatever you decide, tell the truth afterwards! Liars are losers, and invariably get caught out.

A mixed-ethic example

This author took on Riding to Babylon at Durdle Door (7A+ / S3, 85ft high), in early September 2001, but was concerned about the loose rock to be found from half-height to the top. Ethic employed - abseil the 40ft, leaning upper headwall for a good clean and a full chalk up, then solo the route, taking on the ground-up approach for the first 50ft of the route.

The future

So maybe in a few years we'll find ourselves in an era when landowners are so concerned about fixed protection and climbers, that they'll do almost anything to avoid a court case. Will DWS folk, sneaking quietly in to the crags to climb, be the winners? You bet!


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