What a bonus. Not only do you find a deserted, unspoilt Calla on the beautiful North Coast of Ibiza, but you discover it has some breathtaking Deep Water Soloing. Heaven just got better.
Now some of you will be reading this because you climb. Others will just be taking a passing interest, because you are fellow sailors, friends or family following our trip. If you are curious about what deep water soloing is, it is essentially rock climbing, as high as you feel safe, over the sea.
For me, it is the freest expression of climbing. When I deep water solo I feel unencumbered by ropes and I can explore where I want. I prefer to do it in a group of people, all egging each other on to success or splashdown, but DWS has the advantage that I can just go out on my own. Most of the time I’m comfortable that I can drop into the water unharmed, sometimes I have to be a bit more careful. Usually more vigilance is required when I’m high up, knowing that I’ve got to get the fall just right, but it never feels life threatening.
You don’t have to go high, you can turn on the adrenaline when you want. If I just want to relax, I traverse along the bottom of the cliff or I do the smaller climbs. If I’m in need of excitement, I’ll venture a bit higher.
I knew Ibiza had climbing, but I wasn’t really expecting to be climbing here. There’s loads of sea… it’s an Island. There’s sea cliffs. It goes without saying there was going to be Deep Water Soloing, but I wasn’t actively looking for it. It’s just by chance that we ended up in Calla Potitxol, which had a bucket load to offer for DWS fans.
What no Guide?
If you’re a climber and you’ve never turned up somewhere without your climbing guide, go and do it. It’s refreshing.
Now I’m pretty sure with the quality of rock on offer here that there are climbs all around Potitxol that have been done before. However, this does’t matter when you turn up to the cliff without a guidebook and you don’t see any climbers to give you the beta. In addition this place has none of the obvious signs of previous climbing activity like bolts and chalk marks.
Regardless of whether the climbs have been done before or not, it’s not the point. It does’t matter. Without your guide or helpful fellow climbers on hand, you feel like the pioneer. The one who is exploring the rock for the first time.
What no Routes?
It takes a little time to get used to the fact that you are the one shaping the routes and you are the one dealing with how to piece the more complex lines together for the first time. I’ve felt this before, in Iceland, when together with some locals we opened up a new ice climbing area on the deserted East Coast. When we first walked into the previously unexplored valley we were gob-smacked at how many good Icefalls were just waiting to be climbed. The problem was picking and choosing which lines to do first. A similar feeling greets me as I feast my eyes over Calla Portitxol.
Picking a route, the right route for you, is an art. You want a few routes that are going to be nice and pleasant. However, you want to pick a handful of lines that you know are just on the edge of do-able. The lines that will not only be good quality, but they’ll test you. They need to be hard enough to be a challenge, but the difficulty needs to be such that you can send the line.
I spot some fine looking traverses round the cove on the way in, ‘easy’ is covered. It takes a dinghy ride to really suss out the harder lines. From the dinghy I get a look at a few possible projects and I try and piece together the route I’ll take and how to unlock the sequences on the harder steeper sections.
As they say in the marines, ‘Time in reconnaissance is seldom wasted!’.
Sometimes, you can make a lot of progress from the bottom, just by looking. At other times, you may think you’ve worked it out, but the line throws a number of surprises at you when you actually put hand to rock. I know which lines I’m having a go at now. I’ve gone for a small amount of high quality potential routes that look of differing difficulty, and that brings me nicely to…
What no Grades?
Man invented grades to compare himself to other men. Its liberating to step away from the vertical dick swinging. In reality, climbing is your experience and climbers, at whatever level of difficulty they climb at, have the same experience as each other. There’s the routes you can do and the routes you can’t. Then, most importantly, there’s the routes that define you, the one’s that test you to the limit and provide you with those glimpses of you being the best you can be.
At Calla Portixol, on a long traverse where I really should have been thinking about the climb, I get to contemplate this and expound on this concept of relative difficulty. I can’t completely step away from Grades. It’s force of habit. So I invent my new Dan grading system.
Here it is. You can use it too, you just substitute my name for yours. Although, I’ll warn you this system works better for me because I have the name Dan, that with an extra ‘m’ becomes a useful sub-modifier.
Da(m)n Doable – DD
These routes I can do pretty much any time of year, in any state of fitness.
Da(m)n Hard – DH
I can do these routes with a struggle. It might be the wobbly first attempt where it’s touch and go to the top. It might be a route that I need to attempt a few times, because it has a technical crux sequence I need to learn. However, I can struggle up them pretty much consistently providing I’m not unfit. Conditions don’t need to be perfect.
This happens to be a climbing sweet spot, routes that are both memorable but also accessible without having to devote too much time to them.
Da(m)n Extreme – DE
It’s difficult to describe the DE Grade, but these routes are my ultimate climbing achievements. To do a route that is Extreme I need to be on peek form. I need to be having a good day. Usually, success will come only after a number of attempts across many days. These occurrences rarely happen. Part of the reason for that is that it is hard to get people to come along to the same cliff and play on the same route time and time again. Sometimes, even I tire of repeatedly going up the same bit of stone!
To put this grade into perspective, I can describe a route that I’d class as Da(m)n Extreme. This route is Gates of Greyskull at Lulworth Cove (normal grade F7b+). It’s no surprise that this is a DWS. I went down there by myself on a number of occasions to attempt it, no unwilling belayers required. Finally, at the end of the DWS season I returned for yet another attempt with my friend Adam.
By this time I was really climbing fit and probably two stone lighter than I am now. As a bonus there was someone there to egg me on. My first attempt was a near success, getting oh so close to the top and then plummeting 45 feet into the drink. Frustrating.
I took a rest and then had a poo. You might think it’s crude of me to mention this, but it’s an important fact. When you’re climbing at the extreme edge of your own ability, ‘offloading’ a few pounds can mean the difference between success and failure. It was a result. I ‘dropped the kids off for swimming’ and didn’t have to go swimming myself. I pulled over the top and savoured the sweet feeling that comes from knowing that you were the best you could possibly be… maybe the best you’ll ever be!
Da(m)n Impossible – DI
I’ll never do these routes unless I change my lifestyle and forego all fun to devote my life to training for climbing. Not going to happen!
I’ve got a suspicion about the grades of my chosen lines now. One of them is DD and the best looking route there is either DD or DH. There’s also a steep overhanging arete that looks DI, but it could surprise me with hidden holds and become DE (in which case I’ve got no chance with my level of fitness). It could surprise me further and be DH – I hope so.
Getting on the Rock – The Traverses
The traverses round here provide extremely accessible climbing. If it gets a bit hard and steep you can usually find a line higher up the cliff thats easier. You can traverse forever here. I’m thinking a good challenge at some point might be to traverse the whole of Ibiza.
Time to Throw Some Serious Shapes
My first attempt at one of the vertical lines looks interesting. Bern rows me to the cliff in Baby Ios (the dinghy) and I spend a bit of time sussing it out.
This looks amazing. It reminds me a bit of Freeborn Man – a famous and fantastic DWS route in Swanage. This could be as good. There’s definitely two ways to choose on here. After the steep face there’s an overhang and it looks like you can go straight up. However, straight up looks hard and I reckon the path to victory might be to unlock the face by shimmying to the right.
I prepare to step on to the vertical dance floor and throw down some serious shapes. This route makes me wanna dance. Unfortunately, stepping onto this dance floor is more difficult than stepping onto the revolving dance floor of the Tuxedo Royale (crapy nightclub in Newcastle) when you’ve had a few shandies. We do an intricate berthing manoeuvre against the cliff and I hop out bare footed, keeping my boots and chalk bag dry. Phew, as luck would have it I have a wife who can manoeuvre a dinghy with precision.
I climb the route. The climbing flows, it’s absorbing. I try to go straight up from the overhang and it proves too tricky. Strength is running a bit low now so I reverse the roof and try and get a rest in just below where it gets really steep. After a bit of R&R I venture out left. It’s tricky, at the edge of my abilities, but the line falls.
Obviously, in this world I’ve created, where I’m the pioneer and first ascencionist I get to name the route. I’ve named it Freeborn Dan as my homage to the classic Swanage line.
An Overhang Too Far?
I crack on and tick a few other lines off in the bay, but I can’t get the outstanding overhanging butress out of my head. I leave it till last because I pretty much know its going to spit me out, especially in my current state of fitness, but that’s no reason not to try it.
Sure enough, I’m two attempts in, I get half way up and splashdown. The climbing is excellent, proper upside down stuff at points. I return to have another go. This time there are a few jellyfish hanging around to increase the will to cling to the stone.
My third attempt unlocks the upper reaches of the climb, but the holds are just too small for me at the moment and I can’t hold it. Splashdown… Phew, no stings!
It’s time to move on and leave Calla Portitxol and looking back I don’t really mind not completing this route. So often you find that with working routes (or indeed doing anything) that the journey defines the experience, not arrival at the destination. Moving over the stone here is a pleasure, trying to piece together the moves is absorbing. Why ruin it by actually succeeding! Anyway, we need an excuse to come back.
Note: There is another more general article about our visit to Portitxol here.