Climbers head to Lake Travis to try deep-water soloing

July 20, 2017

I don’t stick to rocks like a gecko, the way some of the climbers I’ve seen scaling limestone walls around Central Texas do.

I hang there more like a sack of rocks, barely clinging to handholds and footholds that really skilled athletes could probably use as overnight campgrounds.

Plus, let’s be honest. Rock climbing scares me. The hard ground down below makes a less-than-cushy landing pad, and as many times as someone has explained how safe and secure those harnesses and carabiners and bolts make things, I still shake like pudding when I find myself strung up on a climbing wall.

But I learned something recently: If you put that climbing wall over a nice blue-green patch of deep water, I’m all in. I love the water, and I love jumping into it. Suddenly the thought of falling off a climbing wall seems more inviting than intimidating.

In deep-water soloing, a form of rock climbing done over water without ropes or harnesses, a fall means plopping into a lake, river or ocean instead of bone-crunching terra firma. I’ve headed to Pace Bend Park on Lake Travis, about an hour from downtown Austin, to meet Adam Mitchell, owner of Rock-About Climbing Adventures, for a morning of deep-water soloing.

When I arrive, Mitchell hands me a pair of neoprene climbing shoes, just like the ones climbers use on land, and we board his small, flat-decked bay boat for the trip across the lake to a fern-covered corner of Cow Cove. Water drips from the walls, and limestone formations remind me of oversize, worn-down teeth.

“In deep-water soloing, you can climb on a cliff face and just fall in the water,” says Mitchell, who is president of the Texas Climbers Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates for climbing access and helps maintain climbing areas. “Part of it is the freedom of movement. You’re able to do whatever you want. It’s like being a kid, you know? Falling into deep water.”

Deep-water soloing first gained popularity in oceanside locales in the Greek islands and along the coasts of Spain and Italy. But Central Texas is becoming another hot spot, with canoes, kayaks and motor boats carrying climbers to sites on Lake Travis that are mostly inaccessible by land.

Mitchell put lake climbing on the roster at Rock-About Climbing Adventures last summer, adding to a lineup that already included land-based climbing excursions to places like Enchanted Rock, Reimers Ranch and the Barton Creek greenbelt. Most of the company’s customers are beginners or even first-timers; many are out-of-town tourists. He also offers summer camps for kids.

Today he stops the boat along an escarpment, slips on his climbing shoes and jumps in while his dog Macy watches. Then, when I’m not looking, he morphs into Spider-Man. He slaps one hand on the rock, finds a grip where there’s not one, lifts his body out of the water and inches his way up, snaking along like he belongs there. When he’s had enough, he drops back into the water.

I try next but get a little freaked out by the palm-size spiders watching me from every crevice I almost shove my hand into. We move down the cove a few hundred feet to a new spot, where I manage to haul myself out of the water and up onto a ledge, where I then gleefully leap into the lake.

If you try deep-water soloing, check first to make sure water is deep enough — at least 10 feet if you’ll be climbing up to 30 feet — and that no rocks, branches or other obstructions lurk below. Don’t just look with your eyes, either; get in the water and feel around or use a pole to test that the landing zone is clear and the water is deep.

“For beginners, it has to be a little overhung, too — or at least vertical — so you fall into the water,” Mitchell says.

Remember that conditions change constantly, too. At Lake Travis, water levels in the summer can drop by a foot or more every week, exposing new hazards. A big rain can raise lake levels, again changing what spots are safe to climb.

After Cow Creek, we zip over to one of Mitchell’s secret (and undisclosed) climbing spots, a limestone amphitheater that looks like someone hollowed out a section of the cliffside with a gigantic ice cream scoop. The water level is too low for safe climbing here, so we head next to some rocky cliffs along Pace Bend Park.

Mitchell eases the boat up next to the wall, then scampers up the rocks, using cracks, lumps of rock and slight indentations as handholds and footholds. At the top, he stands on a ledge, then takes a flying feet off the 20-foot cliff.

I go next, and something clicks.

It doesn’t matter if I fall, so I try things I wouldn’t try on land. I follow the sloshy footprints Mitchell’s wet shoes have left behind. He coaches from below, reminding me that climbing is more about leg strength than arm strength. He tells me to stand up on my feet, trusting that they’ll cling to the rock.

I look down and see the water below. I swing my leg out and over, putting weight on it and swinging my arm up to the next knob. I felt a twinge of Spidey-ness, and somehow make it all the way to the top. I like the feeling of accomplishment. I’ve climbed hard to get to this perch.

To celebrate, I turn around and jump.