Limits
By Austin Parker
on 11.14.13
Photo by Austin Parker

I
magine cranking your way up an unforgiving rock face, no ropes or safety protection, just your fingers and wits pitted against every crimpy, stretched out, exposed move. At the hardest moment your grip finally gives out and you plunge more than thirty feet — to a splash landing in the Olympic Training Pool in Park City, Utah. For some, this kind of climbing, called deep water soloing, is the stuff of nightmares. For the few dozen professional climbers and thousands of spectators at the recent Psicobloc Masters Series, it’s a progression of the sport unparalleled in its difficulty and exhilaration.

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Psicobloc, Spanish for “crazy boulder”, traces its origins to the seaside climbing around Mallorca, Spain. There, steep cliffs and small islets create the perfect playground for practicing overhung, sketchy climbing. The stakes are more serious than typical sport and trad climbing (roped with different methods of protection) because a fall means a dip in a cold lake or ocean and starting your project from a boat at the water’s edge all over again. Born from a small cadre of world-class boulderers and sport climbers, deep water soloing has simultaneously become a way to push the limits of rock climbing and celebrate the sheer joy of losing to gravity and living to tell about it.

Since its inception, deep water soloing has been a sport for the elite, with competitions in exotic places and yearly pilgrimages to places like Mallorca, Olympos, Turkey and Halong Bay, Vietnam. However, with the surging popularity of Psicobloc competitions, many climbers began searching out new, unclimbed areas closer to home. Chris Sharma, an icon among the world’s climbing luminaries, and perhaps the greatest innovator the sport has seen this century, brought the excitement of the Psicobloc competitions to the USA for the first time this year, and we were on the pool deck to capture the action.

The attending athletes list was the climbing equivalent of the ’94 Dream Team (without anything close to the collective height), and the awards list many of them brought to the table was truly impressive. Multiple national and world champions, Everest summiters, and Psicobloc veterans converged on the fifty-foot wall to showcase their talents, celebrate as a group of close friends (the professional community is like an extended family), and, most importantly, to inspire the next generation of climbers.

Deep water soloing has simultaneously become a way to push the limits of rock climbing and celebrate the sheer joy of losing to gravity and living to tell about it.

The crowd cheered hometown hero JC Hunter on to the women’s semifinals, but reigning world sport climbing champion Sasha Digulian proved unstoppable as she knocked off female climbers from all over the world. A quick course reset and nightfall signaled the start of the men’s finals. A grueling fifty-foot route threading through the long overhang and a tricky dyno (a dynamic move usually only accomplished by an all-out leap to the next hold) sent many climbers — including the seemingly invincible Sharma — into the pool. The late summer night turned chilly as the final round brought a surprising victory from Jimmy Webb, who pushed through the crux to climb just inches higher than the runner-up, Daniel Woods, before taking the plunge.

Deep water soloing may never take a mainstream turn like triathlon, freestyle skiing and other action sports, but the Psicobloc Masters Series was a resounding success for climbers and fans alike. The climbers’ enthusiasm was contagious, turning the crowds into participants rather than just spectators. The wall opened to the public the morning after the competition, offering local climbers an experience akin to throwing a pitch at Fenway. We even tested our bravery against the wall for a couple of screaming plunges into pool. We may not see many events quite like the Psicobloc in the near future, but next time you’re at the local lake, look for young rock climbers paddling on kayaks and stand-up boards in the direction of the cliff bands. Psicobloc is here to stay.

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