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How The Power of Wow Got Daniel Woods Through What May Be the World’s Hardest Boulder Problem

The new video of Daniel Woods sending what might be the world's hardest boulder problem might also be the best metaphor yet for life in 21st century America.

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“Is being an adult fun?”

The question floated down from the loft where my oldest son Kai, 14, was about to fall into the black petri dish of adolescent slumber where bones are stretched and hormones brewed. I was cleaning the composting toilet at the time, a brief but stinky affair, and that probably informed his question.

Is adulthood fun? I paused, holding the bag of “compost.” No, not really, I thought, but I tend to avoid harsh reality after 10 p.m. so I said, “Yes, it’s fun because you get to do what you want. You have more freedom to choose.”

“But do you like it?”

“I love it,” I lied.

“What’s the hardest part about being a grown up?”

Tough question. Finances, work, relationships, aging — failures and wipe-outs.

“The hardest thing is getting the eldest son to be quiet and go to sleep,” I said.

———–

I’d forgotten about that conversation until yesterday when I watched the video of Daniel Woods sending what might be the hardest boulder problem in the world—Return of the Sleepwalker (V17). This might be my all-time favorite bouldering video and I’ve seen all of them. All the Masters of Stones, Mellows, Reel Rocks and Real Things. All the The Big Ups and Louder than 11s. I’ve seen every twisting fall and heard every shouted expletive, seen every dry-fire and worried glance at burning fingertips, watched every damn amateur iPhone bouldering video ever shot and posted to Instagram.

OK, not really, but I’ve seen A LOT of them and this was a great video. You get the problem from all angles, filmed by pro photogs with great equipment and editing chops, closeups of the grips and footholds, and footage so crisp you almost create a physical engram just by watching.

I’ve followed Woods since he was a grom, identifying with him in a nationalistic way since he was born in the motherland—Texas. He’d learned to climb in Texas at age 5 and didn’t move to Boulder, Colorado until he was 8, which means that he likely got nothing from his time in the motherland. On the other hand, it’s possible that Woods took on the essence of Texas in the same way a homeopathic remedy takes on the “memory” of a substance subsequently diluted out of it. This is what I tell myself and, like homeopathy, there is a verifiable placebo effect.

Woods climbed his first V11 when he was 14. At age 15, in 2004, he made the first ascent of Echale (V14), a chip-job near Golden, Colorado. He won seven out of eight American Bouldering Series national championships between 2005 and 2013. Since then he’s mostly focused on outdoor climbing and has sent more than 20 V15s and harder.

There’s no doubt Woods is a baller and the new V17 shows him as the boss of American bouldering, but beyond the preposterously-hard climbing, Woods emerges in this video as a “character.”

The video doesn’t go into Woods’ Desert-Father-like asceticism where he retires to the wasteland alone and without caffeine, nicotine, alcohol or even, nay, marijuana, and lives not in an airbnb but an actual tent, with only his shoes, chalk bag, two spot pads, a portable electric heater, a camera and occasional camera crew, and focuses one-pointedly on the send. I had to read Kevin Corrigan’s excellent interview to learn about that.

This video is more like a star vehicle for Woods, who plays both the hero and the monster in a music vid/horror film about a guy who can’t seem to stick his fingers into a slot no wider than the space between my knobby second and third toes. Woods’ voice is mechanically altered to sound low and scary. When he screams in frustration it comes out as an angry demon’s roar. The footage toggles between color and black and white and Woods’ style—black beanie, ripped T-shirt, cut-off pants and tattoos—particularly the distinctive hooded skull on his left hand and eyeball on his neck—work to create an edgy, intriguing and watchable film persona.

Beyond the beta, the story and the style, there’s the dialog. David Foster Wallace once famously wrote in an essay about Tracy Austin that great athletes can’t seem to articulate performance because high-level athletic performance requires in-the-moment presence not the ability to reflect. Champion athletes, Wallace proposes, say things like, “Well, I just went out there and did my job and luckily we played pretty well,” in response to breathless reporters’ requests for comment on the game-winning catch. They do this, he posits, precisely because that’s how they think. They don’t get all giddy and philosophical because if they did, they wouldn’t be able to make the world-class plays. The upshot? Don’t expect to get much out of the dialog. We’ll probably never know what it feels like to be Daniel Woods.

There were a few lines, however, that stood out to me. Eleven minutes into the film Woods is talking about how much he’d been through during his 52 days projecting Return of the Sleepwalker. “Seeing how much brutal force you can put your body through,” he says, “and how much mental brutality you can stand and try to keep your shit together to be able to do it.”

Somebody asks, “What’s the hardest thing about it?”

“The hardest thing that I’ve dealt with,” Woods says, “is believing I can do it.”

It brought me back to Kai’s question—What’s the hardest thing about adulthood?—and I think Wood’s answer pretty much nails it.

The hardest thing about growing up has always been believing you can do it. In his book The Life, Swedish philosopher Martin Häaglund writes that “the most fundamental form of secular faith is the faith that life is worth living … to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail or breakdown.”

In this way the video about Woods’ struggle with Return of the Sleepwalker is an almost-perfect metaphor for the human predicament—a physical and mental beat down scripted as a horror film and set to the music of Loserfur and Envenomed.

But then there’s the other dialog that struck me, the first words uttered by Daniel Woods after sending Return of the Sleepwalker.

“Yes. Wow. Yes. Wow,” Woods says (after shouting “Holy Fuck”).

It’s notable that when the billionaire computer genius Steve Jobs died he reportedly said, “Oh wow. Oh wow.”

And it gives me hope and reaffirms my faith in my projects—both the climbs and this life—when at the end of theirs the only thing genius’s can think of to say is “wow.” I suppose that’s how I’ll explain it to Kai when he asks me how we get through it. I’ll emphasize the wow.