No Ropes & No Chickening Out: Deep Water Soloing in Devon

When the only way off a rock face is to go up or plunge into icy water which would you choose? Mike Brindley went to the West Country to test his nerve...

Words & photos by Mike Brindley

I’ve always been attracted to climbing, but recently my love affair with the sport has taken on a life of it’s own.

I’ve been bouldering at least twice a week for about six months solid and with summer in full swing, now seems the perfect time to get out of the regular indoor sessions and venture into the wild.

Now this is by no means the first time I’ve climbed outdoors, but I’d be telling huge porkies if I said I wasn’t a tad nervous for this trip, which promised something a little bit different… and a whole lot scarier.

This trip promised something a little bit different… and a whole lot scarier.

Nevertheless, fuelled by a recent book called The Society for Timid Souls (solely focussed on the subject of being ‘brave’) I decided I couldn’t turn down a challenge, and so I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing to a trip down to Devon for a weekend of DWS (Deep Water Soloing).

For the uninitiated, DWS involves climbing cliffs, without ropes, above deep water – and relying on water in place of the usual crash-mat or rope; it’s not an incident of self-abuse in the middle of the Pacific, as a quick-witted friend once suggested.

After hastily stocking up on some of the supplies required for DWS (more on those later), and a few last minute training sessions, Friday arrives.

The group I’m going to climb with are four regulars out of my local climbing centre The Arch in London, and although all of them have more wall-hours under their belt in recent years, this will be their first venture into deep water territory too.

Conor, Jake, Jana and Boon have already made their way down to the Torquay area ahead of me, and are all set to reccy the Berry Head area when the weather comes in.

Friday turns out to be a complete wash out, so they largely spend it in the pub drying off – although thankfully the do get a chance to scout one or two locations which we’ll check back on when (and if) the rain clears.

I spend most of the train journey down picturing how it would pan out if we were to attempt to climb in the current storm – aided in my imagination by the fact that I’m passing through stations around Dawlish, where the rails completely collapsed into the waves 2014.

Thankfully the others have already pitched the tents when I arrive at our campsite, so we head quickly to bed, hoping that we’ll wake up to a better scene.

A chilly, but fairly dry, night passes – and we load up to make a move for Berry Head. Jana’s car just about squeezes the five of us in, packed with a huge stack of chalk bags, climbing shoes, dehydrated bananas (which provide invaluable energy), an inflatable dingy, and a bonus inflatable ring for safety.

Boon’s guidebook has given us more than a few essential tips, as well as an idea of where to head to – but I think for the most part we feel that we’ll only know if we’ve prepared enough when we get there…

Thankfully forecasts are correct and the day is a lot clearer than the night before, and although we’ll be keeping a close eye on it, the sea seems to be pretty calm too. We walk down past the first few fishermen’s platforms to launch-spot-one at the Navigator Pinnacle.

It’s there that the scale of what we’re about to do really hits home.

Boat and ring inflated, Jake is first to test out its stability in the water. It soon becomes apparent that the optimistic photo of man and child happily paddling on the cover of the box is wholly inaccurate.

Our craft happily holds one man, but can only be navigated with a rope from the shore – held on the platform about 8 feet above sea level and towed along to the start point of each route.

It soon becomes apparent that the optimistic photo of man happily paddling in our boat is wholly inaccurate.

Needing a little confidence boost after this initial test – we figure that a traverse close to sea level is probably an easier starting point than a straight ascent, and make our way back along to the Labyrinth Pinnacle to see what’s on offer there.

With much easier access, the Labyrinth traverse is a simple climb into the start point (going from right to left), and we swiftly send Conor in to give it a proper try.

The grading for this route is a 4+ with the easier of two finishes, which should be do-able, but with bird shit filling some of the holds, and at least a few Compass jellyfish lingering in the water below, I’m pretty happy not to be the guinea pig.

Nevertheless, Conor takes the first hit admirably. Coming gradually through the initial crux in the cave at the start (which we can’t see from our platform), and only submitting to the lure of the waves about two-thirds of the way along – shortly before he would have reached the exit route through a route called “Barefoot and the Hendersons”, which takes you up vertically back to the safety of the flat rocks.

The on-shore party have made our way around to the route exit at the other side of the cave at this point – and after a tense moment of shocked silence as he swam to shore – we realise that there’s not too much to fear here other than the chill brought on by 30 seconds in the Devon sea; and potentially a few barnacle scrapes on the way out.

One by one, and then two at a time, we all give the traverse a go.

After initial hesitation, Jana goes in to break new ground ahead of the boys, finding the low route to the start of Barefoot and the Hendersons, which makes to the possibility of completion seem possible.

Eventually Jake (after accidentally kicking his normal shoes into the sea in excitement) makes a few dynamic moves through the exit route and tops out for our first completed climb of the day.

For the rest of us, unfortunately, the initial 40-odd metres of traverse continues to prove draining enough that the finish eludes us.

So with the promise of more rain tomorrow, we decide on a change of scenery. Watched by a local seal that’s taken an interest in our activities, we head back to the Navigator Pinnacle, where the easier routes don’t go sideways, but straight up.

Ed Boon leads the charge this time – at least after Jake explores a precarious climb-down option – and he reaches the start of a route called Crunchie (4a) by dinghy.

Crunchie is by no small order, but a proper DWS route. The fall that awaits those who fail is 9 meters plus, which, although dwarfed by many others, seems more than enough for a first trip. It is, as Boon says later the ‘perfect introduction’ to DWS.

In typically confident fashion, Boon ascends with fairly little hassle, and the rest of the group are assured that ‘any of us should be able to do it’.

I’m unconvinced and stubbornly hold onto my spot on the fisherman’s platform, using the camera in my hand as justification.

I stubbornly stay put on the fisherman’s platform, using the camera in my hand as justification.

Conor floats into position and climbs the first ten or so feet before returning to the inflatable. ‘Not for me, at least not today’ is his reply.

Then up goes Jake, holding a steady pace and topping out, happy to come back to the rest of us dry.

Finally Jana is towed in. She reaches the same spot as Conor, before taking a practice jump into the sea – a fear she apparently wants to face – and then goes on to do a few more leaps from a reasonable height.

And it appears we’re done for the day.

Cards come out, a few rounds of Shithead go down and a couple of shared beers that we have stashed do the rounds. I assume that the day is done, maybe the weather will hold, and I’ll feel a little braver tomorrow.

But I’ve seen the weather forecast, and the smattering of clouds that is starting to close in now, and my observational role in the afternoon hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of the group.

We decide that there’s time for one more ascent, and before I know it, I’m sitting in that little one-man dinghy heading for the seemingly sheer escarpment of Crunchie.

The route, as I’d been assured, is not some un-conquerable leviathan, but reasonably within my abilities. Still, I barely notice my taped, slightly strained fingers, and before I know it I’m a fair few metres above my comfort zone.

Before I know it, I’m sitting in a little one-man dinghy heading for the seemingly sheer escarpment of ‘Crunchie’.

I’m told by Jake later that I moved fairly quickly through the middle section of the climb, and my momentary hitch comes about as close to the top as possible. A point where Boon has said the route is easy either side of you, but not directly up.

I shout out something to the rest of the group below as I try to figure out my move, and for a split second, the idea of jumping down enters my mind. But water or not, going up seems preferable at this point; and at any rate I’ve got this far…

Maybe something from that book about bravery comes back to me at this point, I’m not exactly sure – but regardless I remember that this is well within my climbing ability. I wriggle free from the thought of what could go wrong, and spot my exit, and it’s done.

The hype stays with me throughout the fish & chips at Brixham that evening, and well into the week. Not just for the personal achievement, but for the day, and how it all came together.

DWS is pretty niche, due in part to its reliance on the right sea and weather conditions, and we had pretty much the perfect day to give it a go.

Sunday pisses it down, as expected, so we never do get to try out the routes in Torquay, but in some ways that made our Saturday all the more sweet. First DWS taster completed. Weather permitting I’m keen for many more.


It’s worth bearing in mind a few things if you’re heading off to try DWS. For starters we came across a few areas where it was prohibited in July because of bird nesting (nearby Berry Head at The Old Redoubt and Rainbow Bridge for example).

Then there’s a little bit of extra cost in multiple pairs of shoes/chalk bags (so some can dry while you climb in the others). We bought cheap boots, which definitely worked for routes at this grade – and arguably the lack of ropes and gear makes it comparatively easy to get started.

It’s definitely advisable that you give the coastguard a quick call to let them know where and when you’re going to climb, and you can also get DWS specific insurance through the BMC.

Finally it was invaluable to have a decent guide book, (we took ‘Deep Water’ by Mike Robertson) as these not only give you indicators of the routes, but show additional safety ratings for each spot, so you know how high-consequence they could be if you’re climbing outside your ability.

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