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Daniel Woods’s New V17 is the Hardest Problem in the US—And Possibly the World

"It’s all just a game people... and I play the game," Daniel Woods wrote in announcing the new problem, one of just a handful of proposed V17s in the world. "The game is how comfortable can you become with your own insanity.”

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There was a five year stretch in the early 2010s where no one could touch Daniel Woods. He was the strongest boulderer in the world, establishing testpieces that became benchmarks for the upper end of the grade scale and repeating the hardest problems in any location he visited. While he has continued to make V15 and V16 first ascents—like Box Therapy in 2018—the gap between him and the rest of the best has narrowed, with guys like Jimmy Webb, Giuliano Cameroni, Drew Ruana, and Shawn Raboutou nipping at his heels and often bettering him. 

But a few days ago, on March 30, it was as if the last few years melted away. Woods, 31, made the first ascent of Return of the Sleepwalker—a low start to the V16 Sleepwalker, in Red Rock, Nevada, that Jimmy Webb established in 2018, and which Woods repeated soon after. 

Woods graded it V17. In one fell swoop, the Daniel Woods of legend was back.

Daniel Woods on one of the final moves of Return of the Sleepwalker (V17).
Daniel Woods on one of the final moves of Return of the Sleepwalker (V17). Photo: JP Melville @tradisplaid

V17 (9A) was a near-mythical grade not long ago. Nalle Hukkataival was the first to affix it to a problem, when he sent his longtime project in Lappnor, Finland in 2016, and named it Burden of Dreams (unrepeated). Up until this Tuesday, there were only two other proposed V17s: No Kpote Only, a “Barefoot” Charles Albert boulder in Fontainebleau, and The Big Island Sit, first climbed earlier this year by Simon Lorenzi. Both have since been repeated, and the second ascentionists have each suggested downgrades to V16. Return of the Sleepwalker and Burden of Dreams are likely the two hardest boulder problems in the world.

Woods announced his send with a spare and triumphant Instagram post this morning, April 2: “‘Return of the Sleepwalker’ (FA) proposed 9A/v17. It’s all just a game people… and I play the game. The game is how comfortable can you become with your own insanity.”

Woods first started trying what would become Return of the Sleepwalker in late January and early February 2019, right after his ascent of the original version of Sleepwalker. Woods wrote on Instagram at the time that the sit start “adds in a 3 move v12 straight into the stand The first move is the crux and is a savage low percent right hand drive by into a hard to get into slot edge. I would stick this move 1 in every 10 tries. … This is easily the hardest thing I have tried and now I feel possessed by it.”

Daniel Woods was in pursuit of the perfect conditions, both physically and mentally, during his battle with Return of the Sleepwalker. Photo: JP Melville @tradisplaid

Throughout the rest of 2019 and the pandemic-plagued 2020, Woods turned his attention elsewhere. He climbed a bevy of hard lines in Switzerland including Off the Wagon Sit (V16), 4-Low (V15, FA), and Primitivo (V15, FA); in Colorado he added to his tally with Blade Runner (V15), Deathstar (V15, FA), and Dicktopia (V15, FA); and he even made a rare foray into roped climbing, nabbing the third ascent of Carlo Traversi’s new route Empath (5.15a) in California.

About three months ago, with Red Rock season in full swing, Woods returned to the Sleepwalker-Sit project. As he realized the depth of the project’s difficulty, he rededicated himself to his craft with a renewed vigor and singular focus in pursuit of the next level in bouldering. He cut out alcohol, marijuana, tobacco and coffee from his life. 

Nearly three months into the Sleepwalker-Sit project, after trying almost nothing else, Woods began questioning his sanity. He told photographer JP Melville, who had been shooting him on the problem, that most of his hardest projects had gone down after no more than 10 days of effort. “Why didn’t I go session other lines?” he wrote on Instagram. “Well I told myself if I wanted to climb the hardest shit I’ve tried then complete obsession needs to occur. This line has taken over my life the last 3 months. I don’t sleep at night because of it. I don’t think about anything else in life besides.”

But still, he would go out to the boulder, crank some EDM on his bluetooth speaker, and give the boulder some tries. Whereas Woods had started the process with a crew—Jimmy Webb was sessioning the project with him, and there were multiple cameramen—by March he was on his own. He stopped staying in hotels and began camping. He would make the rocky drive to the trailhead in Black Velvet Canyon in his Toyota sedan four times each week.

“Loads of people would walk down from [multipitch] climbs like Epinephrine or Dream of Wild Turkeys or Fiddler on the Roof and be shocked to see Woods there on his own,” JP Melville, a photographer who was shooting Woods on the project, told Climbing.

Daniel Woods down low on Return of the Sleepwalker. Photo: JP Melville @tradisplaid

But as demonstrated by his Instagram posts, Woods was in no-way keeping his siege under wraps. He shared his progress, his struggles, his doubts, and his breakthroughs on social media. It evoked Adam Ondra’s public battle to send Perfecto Mundo (9b+/5.15c) in Siurana, Spain, last year, and—going further back—Alex Johnson’s famous “Siege The Swarm campaign to try to tick the famous Bishop V13. 

Daniel Woods's Return of the Sleepwalker is the first proposed V17 in the United States.
Daniel Woods in front of Return of the Sleepwalker, the first proposed V17 in the United States. Photo: JP Melville @tradisplaid

Both of those climbers failed to accomplish their projects, but Woods seemed unconcerned about that possibility. His focus on the process itself—success or failure—was the point.

In early March, Woods’s monomaniacal focus began to pay off. His Instagram stories and posts showed small, but concrete progress virtually every session. He was getting incrementally further: first to the sloper, then to the slot, then beyond. 

This past weekend, Woods nearly took it to the top, falling on the final toe hook moves, unable to get his feet above him. On Instagram, he called it the “biggest punt” of his life.

The operation was as bare-bones as ever. “In the final days of his attempts he had no spotter and a single camera man,” Melville said.

Then on Tuesday, Woods walked up to the Wet Dream boulder as he had too many times in the past three months. He put his shoes on, chalked up, and sent it first try. There were just a couple other people around to witness and just an iPhone recording, as all the cameraman had left.

But Return of the Sleepwalker, V17, was done.

Return of the Sleepwalker  is the latest high-water mark in Woods’ career. Several of his first ascents, such as The Game (V15), Hypnotized Minds (V16), and The Process (V16), have at one point of another been contenders for the hardest boulder problem in the world.