ROCKFAX Deep Water20.95, added Jun/2008, see all Rockfax news & reviews
Reviewed by Toby Foord-Kelcey
© Mike Robertson, Jun 2008
For a couple of years in the mid-1980s, I toyed ineffectually with being a 'full-time climber'. After a promising start in Nepal, Australia and one or two other exotic places, this lifestyle choice gradually lapsed into an extended stagnation in Bristol, interspersing long periods of doing not much with poorly-funded trips to nowhere in particular. A few other climbers in Bristol shared this life, one of whom, Crispin Waddy, would carve a successful trajectory from it into the future, whilst the rest of us eventually slid into office enslavement or other variants of normality.
Sometime in late summer 1986, Crispin, already revealing glimpses of higher ambition, encouraged three of us - Phil Windall, Jamie Ayres and I - to join him in Swanage, where he'd set up home in the Tilly Whim caves. I have various fragments of memory from the week or two we spent there: evenings nursing a single pint for hours in the gloomy Durlston Castle; stumbling later down the long dark cave-access tunnel, within which our host banned use of a torch; sleeping fitfully after failing to find a flat place to sleep; waking up to diffused but dazzling sunlight burning through the sea fog each morning. We climbed for few days in the Boulder Ruckle then were led by Crispin over to Connor Cove. At that time, there were almost no routes recorded there, probably because of the low height of the cliffs and limited number of belay ledges. Crispin rigged abseils optimistically in a couple of spots, and I held his ropes on some first ascents around E3/4 on what was later named the Funky Wall.
One day I was down on a ledge sorting ropes whilst Crispin eyed possible lines around us. Then I noticed he was gone and - more puzzlingly - was not tied in. He traversed a long way leftwards above overhangs, vanished around a corner and eventually reappeared on the cliff top. Reunited later he talked through the physics of what he'd done: the cliff was steep and not that tall, the water was deep and there'd been no real danger. I listened but didn't comprehend. The route was Fathoms; years later I realised it was probably the earliest first ascent in Britain made intentionally in DWS style.
A day later we were below the Conger and made a convoy solo. Crispin insisted that this was the normal way to do the climb; a statement that would only cease to be an exaggeration a decade later (though it was true that the route, originally led on gear, had been soloed by Nick Buckley in 1983). Most people are elated after their first deep water solo. Lacking any peer group endorsement that it wasn't madness, I set off scared, had a moment of relief after sketching across the hanging chimney crux, then reverted to terror, not helped by Crispin and Phil's laughter, as I topped out on friable shards of crud. As I get older, I notice that the world is split into people who grasp opportunity whenever it appears in front of them whilst others examine opportunity, succumb to caution and say "no thanks". Handed a privileged chance to get involved in British DWS pioneering from its inception, I turned my back and didn't solo above water again until 2002!
As Crispin was more inventor than promoter, DWS didn't gain popularity - or even a name - until the Cook brothers and other Dorset mafia embraced it in the early 1990s. The Into the Blue guide followed, then the festivals, Chris Sharma and global ubiquity. And now, the final stamp of maturity: its own Rockfax, Deep Water. This exceptional book, much broader in scope than Into the Blue, surveys DWS across Britain, Europe and beyond. The first two hundred pages are a definitive tour of the UK areas, most of the rest devoted to three holiday destinations (Algarve, Costa Blanca and Mallorca) and the last few pages an overview of almost everywhere else. Though DWS routes have been winning space in sea cliff guidebooks for a few years now, a very large proportion of the routes in Deep Water have never before been documented. Pembroke alone has about 160 routes, of which almost all are new, except some once-led routes now soloed. The amount of work the author, Mike Robertson, seems to have put into the book is astonishing. In stark contrast to many other sea cliff guides, that rely too much on written descriptions, almost every crag in Deep Water has face-on photo topos, suggesting countless hours in a kayak wielding a camera. Attention to detail is also evident in features like the marked escape swims for every crag, which might otherwise not spring to mind as important until too late, and guidance on optimal tide and conditions timing. The book additionally hosts an authoritative review of DWS safety and tactics, which as far as I know is more comprehensive than anything available elsewhere.
Rockfax titles carry an expectation of a visually-inspiring product, raised further in this case by the knowledge that Mike is a professional photographer. Broadly, expectation meets reality here, though there was some slightly blurred photo reproduction in my copy. The topo pictures are uniformly excellent. Surprisingly though, amongst the action photos I didn't feel there was one stand-out that absolutely encapsulates the exhilaration of DWS. However I suspect that reflects my own over-exposure to the genre, particularly in recent films, rather than the actual image quality in the book. If you have seen the DWS footage of King Lines on a high definition screen you'll know what I mean. That said, it was good to see the classic freeze frame sequences of Tim Emmett and Matt Ward showing how to - and, not to - fall into water from height appearing in Deep Water, even if many will have seen the shots before on this website. I was also pleased that the front cover, and several further photos inside, showcase Rainbow Bridge at Berry Head, one of Britain's finest long climbs of any kind. If you want one single reason to buy this book, it is the accurate description of that route, never before available. Rainbow Bridge has also been compellingly over-graded at 7a+.
If Deep Water has a flaw, it may be that some find it cliquey. The same names pop up repeatedly in FA credits, half-anecdotes, photos and a mildly-indulgent 'Flying Fish Top Ten'. This creates a slight 'where we went on our holidays' feel, raising - unfairly I am sure - the question of how many routes pioneered by non-friends-of-Mike may have been omitted? More substantially, the geographic scope of the book is quirky and could do with a rethink before a second edition. The glaring omission is Krabi in Thailand, which must rival Mallorca in many travelling climbers' holiday plans. Deep Water has a single page with a couple of photos and recommendation to obtain Matt Maddaloni's online DWS guide but nothing more. My guess is that Mike may have done this to help out Matt? Laudably uncommercial if so, but surely it would be better to cut a deal to use some of his content?
An odd fact about Deep Water is that it has not sold well so far. No doubt the 2007 launch, in the middle of the UK's worst summer for years, did not help. It is also not on sale overseas, despite winning an excellence award at the Banff Mountain Book Festival in Canada. The rationale is that Rockfax's UK cost base combined with the currently very strong pound makes the book uncompetitively priced. My feeling is that this is an issue Rockfax should re-evaluate, not least because at this time Deep Water is a unique offering. The typical buyer of a 'global' guide like this will be the gap-year/ year-off climbing traveller embarking on their world tour, of which the US especially spawns large numbers every year. I'm sure copies would fly off the shelves of REIs in college-towns across the USA almost regardless of price and from appropriately-located stores elsewhere in the world too.
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Alan James at Rockfax also suspects that the relatively high grades in the book may put off buyers. Entry-level DWS tends to be around F6a, simply because sub-vertical rock is unsafe to solo. But that is a grade many people manage happily enough, at least indoors. Having taken quite large groups out to solo for the first time, on the Musandum coast here in the Gulf, I have been struck how easily climbers can be addicted to DWS and also how some reveal boldness above water that they don't show on conventional routes. It's a chicken-egg sort of activity: the appeal and your potential performance isn't obvious until you try it. So perhaps, within the UK, Deep Water will spark its own virtuous cycle by enticing new people out to have a go?
Having launched into this review with my ambivalent first encounter with DWS, I felt I should close with an anecdote from my more recent, overwhelmingly-positive experiences. Then I stumbled over words on the subject from Andrew Bisharat at the Rock and Ice website that I realised - reluctantly - I couldn't hope to emulate but should definitely share:
"I traversed out to the edge of where the real climbing began and looked down into the undulating water, grasping a whale's mouth jug and chalking unremittingly. For some reason, I thought back to many years ago when I won roshambo and had to lead the first pitch of El Cap's Zodiac, my first time aid climbing. The reminiscence wasn't sparked by any similarities in the act itself. Rather it was a likeness of sensation: That rare, electric feeling found only in climbing, when you're on an adventure so new and uncertain, and once again you're standing at the rim of the rabbit hole, uneasy and scared, until all of life's gusto catalyzes into a high-powered serum that instantly clears your brain of all anxiety and the only thing that matters is that you jump headlong into the darkness and ride the tunnel to the very end. I don't remember much from my first deep-water solo other than that the holds were large and I don't think I breathed, but when I reached the top, I yelled with all the world's fire in my belly, fueled by a tumultuous wave-pool of high-octane chemicals that only the body's best organs could produce. And that was it. I wondered if I'd ever climb on a rope again."
- ROCKFAX Trad Climbing + Jan-08