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Deep-water soloing (DWS) continues to grow in popularity as climbers identify more areas to enjoy this unique pursuit. It offers the simplicity of free soloing while significantly lowering the potential consequences of a fall. Still, the potential for injury is real, and there have been a number of DWS accidents, including a concussion sustained during an event at Summersville Lake, West Virginia, injuries at Psicobloc Masters, and at least three recorded deaths in Europe.
The following tips will help you identify potential injuries, landing-zone dangers, and precautions to take. The ability to swim confidently is a must, especially as many DWS walls are located above saltwater, with associated changes in tides and currents.
The 2002 World Congress on Drowning in Amsterdam defined drowning as “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from airway submersion or immersion in a liquid medium.” This encompasses drowning without injury, drowning with injury (usually brain damage), or fatal drowning. Drowning risk may be even higher in DWS due to the sudden nature of immersion as well as potential trauma.
With cold water (70° F and below), there is risk of cold-water shock, wherein sudden exposure to cold water can cause uncontrolled gasping, rapid breathing, panic, and even lethal heart rhythms. Gasping or panic can cause choking, and the altered rhythms can cause unconsciousness, with the mouth and airway dropping below the waterline. If you survive this phase, within the first 15 to 30 minutes cold-water shock can reduce your swimming capability due to cooling of extremities, increasing your risk of drowning; after 15–30 minutes, you risk hypothermia.
Controlling your breath and keeping your airway out of the water is critical during initial exposure. This is a mental exercise as much as anything—recognize that gasping and the shock of the cold water are normal and not necessarily dangerous (aside from irregular heart rhythms). Your best bet is to consciously slow your breathing and assert mental control over panic. Once the initial minute of cold-water exposure passes, you actually have a long window to problem-solve getting out of the water.
DWS climbers are also at risk for traumatic injury—typically blunt trauma. Such injuries usually occur due either to poor entry or collision with submerged hazards. (With submerged hazards, there’s also the possibility of becoming entrapped by a tree, rock, etc., representing not only trauma risk but also that of drowning.) Of special concern are neck and head injuries, with particular drowning risk if a head injury causes unconsciousness or a spinal-cord injury causes paralysis. You can also sustain water damage to your eardrums, especially with a poorly planned sideways entry. Other blunt injury patterns are similar to those of a climber striking the ground, such as fractured lower legs (tibia/fibula), ankles (talus), and feet (calcaneus).
Landing zones and water exits
To begin, always check the depth of entry zones before climbing. Water levels can fluctuate significantly due to changes in tide, lake levels, and rough seas. Identify submerged hazards like rocks, reefs, and flotsam. Remember, the sea floor is always moving—even boulders can move with the tide. Calm water has greater surface tension and will make for a harder impact compared to rough or interrupted water, which has the advantage of aeration but may be more difficult to exit. Finally, identify your egress locations. You can place fixed ropes for both emergency and routine egress, and/or place spotter(s) with throw bags and boat(s) or raft(s) at key points.
Safe entry techniques
The best way to avoid injury in DWS is to practice safe entry techniques. The two primary methods are the standard entry and the armchair entry. Practice at a pool with a high board/platform or your favorite swimming hole with a known safe depth. Both entry types begin with a controlled release from the wall, maintaining a loose posture that lets you “correct” your fall to a more vertical position, facilitating a feet-first entry and preventing an off-kilter landing. In the event of an uncontrolled fall, swing your arms in a circular pattern to correct body position forward or backward.
Typically, you enter the water feet first, with your legs positioned together and your arms held tightly to the sides of your body. Prior to entry, fight the urge to glance down, and instead look toward the horizon to maintain an upright position—looking down can result in your tipping forward, with an increased risk of concussion or damage to the face, ears, and eyes. This is the easiest and often safest position to assume, and is thus the default.
This is the default position for shallower water (<10 feet), to limit deep entry; it should not be used in long (and faster) falls. With this technique, you pull your legs up toward your chest and lean back as if sitting in a lounge chair, with your arms extended to your sides. This method is difficult to master, but dramatically decreases impact by letting you contact the landing zone with more of your body. Performed correctly, an armchair entry can absorb a 30-foot fall in as little as 5 feet of water.
DWS Safety 101
- Know how to swim.
- Always have a partner to assist if injury occurs.
- Identify landing zones and associated hazards.
- Watch your partner’s landings and be prepared to assist.
- The higher you climb, the harder you fall. Injury and/or death can occur from even low heights with poor entry and impact with underwater hazards.
- Do not look down in a fall. Doing so will tip you forward and increase your odds of head injury.
R. Bryan Simon and Seth C. Hawkins are co-authors of Vertical Aid: Essential Wilderness Medicine for Climbers, Trekkers, and Mountaineers. Their company, Vertical Medicine Resources, provided medical coverage for the PsicoRoc DWS event at Summersville Lake, West Virginia, in 2016.