The idea to solo the route started in 2012. I went down there on a weekend trip to Lulworth with a group of weekend warriors from London, predominantly to DWS in the neighboring Stair Hole. The conditions were unfavourable, sea grease sticking to the rock and making it all but un-climbable. Ramon Marin, always seeking an off-piste adventure, suggested having a look at Durdle Door, and together with Adrian Baxter we went to explore. The images left with from that day are vivid: gaping exposure on the rock ridge approach; slick, strenuous climbing; burning flash pump; the panting breath of relief, standing at the top. It was one of those events that stands out like a torch amongst the grey swirl of memory.
Durdle Door is a grand, sweeping arch of rock that curls around from the mainland, one foot planted firmly into the water, a knife-blade ridge running along its spine. The feature itself could have been lifted from a fantasy novel, the name picked from nursery rhyme. Quite simply, this jewel of the Jurassic coast begs to be scaled by the vertically minded.
It begs to be climbed. This calling was first answered by Pete Oxley, the South’s most prolific new-router, with two routes that he bolted. Riding to Babylon 7a+ (5.12a) in 1992, and Arcwelder 7b (5.12b) a year later. They are both dream routes: Wild positions, wickedly steep and excellent, solid rock. However with reasonable sea below them, they also dare to be soloed. Mike Robertson—psicobloc hero and author of the seminal DWS guide—was the first to solo Riding to Babylon in 2001.
Until now, soloing it remained a pipe dream. My DWS partner-in-crime Liam Cook would often discuss it when stuck in the gym, indulging in escapism. A descendant of the Cook brothers—who were collectively responsible for many of the new routes on the South coast—Liam is not only of strong climbing pedigree, but also one of the best partners one could hope for; motivated, bold, adventurous, encouraging and supportive. Our excursions with him are rarely dull. It was with Liam that I went for a recce of the great arch.
We woke up early to make full use of the high Spring tide that was due to peak at 10am. The mission was dysfunctional from the start: A lack of gear, knowledge and familiarity with the terrain making a straightforward approach pretty outrageous. At one point, after the third failed abseil down the wrong section, I turned to Liam and was about to suggest sacking it off. The day hung in balance. Was it an omen? Was it not our time? ‘How have we not died yet?’ I said instead, half-jokingly. With no abseil rope and no slings or carabiners, Liam made an exposed scramble down shattered, overhanging rock. The muffled confirmation a few minutes later was music to my ears.
By the time we got to the bottom it was nearly high tide, and I set up the rope with renewed speed. There was no chalk or other evidence of the route having been done recently. I wondered with Liam when the last time it had received attention. I enjoy climbing neglected routes. It feels like one is honouring the past, awakening a giant from slumber for just a short while, then letting it rest until the next suitors arrive in some years' time.
The climbing itself is sheer joy. A corner at the start leads to a no hands rest at 8m, before questing out over the arch on a sculpted ramp line. A few metres from the top the jugs run out, leaving one to puzzle out a crux sequence on flat edges that bar progress to the top. On neighbouring Portland, the more accessible and highly popular sport climbing area, it would be an instant classic.
I was at the top of Durdle Door, having lead it clean. Back at the base, Liam asked if I was going to go for the solo. I could feel my mind whirring away with all sorts of internal checks and balances I wasn’t party to; it felt like a slight humming. ‘Yeah, why not?’ I surprised myself with the answer. The unconscious decision-making was nuanced and complex, but the tangible result was a set of reasonable conclusions: Conditions were good, the climbing felt steady, and the tide was still high. Essentially, I could think of no good reason why I shouldn’t.
Oh, yes—just the water depth. Joff, Liam’s uncle, had arrived in a kayak to spot. He offered to snorkel the drop zone to check for depth. He swam around, face down. ‘It’s about 3m here,’ he said, over the easier first half of the route. He swam out a bit and dived down. ‘And really deep here,’ he said, over the top, more important half. ‘At least 4m’. We had different ideas of the definition of really deep, but it would do.
Stepping out from the ledge—unhindered by rope, released from fear and doubt—was a relief. A phrase popped into my head as I climbed: the unbearable lightness of being. It turned into a mantra. I had no idea what it meant, but it felt right, just like the climbing. Before long I was shaking out on the jugs below the final sequence. Thoughtlessly I pulled on the small, flat holds, and mantled out the final shelf. There was joy—and closure.
Deep water soloing is all about stripping things back to the essentials: The sound of the sea, the texture of the rock, the feeling of breath, and of life. These are the moments that I seek, to do something so meaningless and yet meaningful, both arbitrary and profound.
All that awaits now is for Liam, when the time is right, to do it too. I would like to sincerely thank Liam for capturing that moment on film and for allowing me to go for the solo that day. Also Joff Cook and Mike Robertson, for snorkelling, spotting and showing us the way.
Jerome Mowat Climber and writer. Based in Sheffield and London.