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Daniel Woods Spent a Month Alone in the Desert to Send the First US V17, He Came Back a Different Person

"I told myself, 'If you want to be able to adapt to these moves and get strong enough to do this thing, you're going to have to have complete obsession over it."

On March 30, Daniel Woods topped out a new sit start to Sleepwalker (V16) in Black Velvet Canyon, Nevada. It was the culmination of a three month journey. Woods dubbed the new line Return of the Sleepwalker and graded it V17. It’s the first V17 in the United States, and only the second in the world after Nalle Hukkataival’s Burden of Dreams. Other problems have claimed the grade, but each has been downgraded with subsequent ascents. As Return of the Sleepwalker extends an established V16—the original Sleepwalker, first climbed by Jimmy Webb, has seen no less than six ascents—with seven new moves graded at V13, it seems promising that the grade will stand, creating a new benchmark in cutting-edge bouldering.

Woods dedicated himself to the project, shaping his life around it. By the time he sent Return of the Sleepwalker, Woods had given up smoking, alcohol, and caffeine and spent a month camping and climbing alone for his all-encompassing pursuit. The experience was transformative. Woods emerged from the desert with more focus and drive than ever before. He moved right from Return of the Sleepwalker to Megatron, an Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, project that Woods believes could be another V17.

I spoke to Woods about his experience just after he returned home to Colorado.

Interview

When did you first start trying Return of the Sleepwalker?

Daniel Woods: My objective for doing a sit start into Sleepwalker started two years ago. I’d projected Sleepwalker for 11 days, and after I did that I saw that there could be a low start coming in from down and left. It added two or three moves of V12 into the stand. I got close to doing that. My goal this year was to come back and try to do that.

I started trying it in January and … I don’t know. I wasn’t that inspired by it. I didn’t think it would level it up enough. My goal was to try to get something that’s next level.

Down and to the right there was a better, more obvious start. It would add more moves and some harder moves, and make a complete, full line. I started getting psyched to try that and started mid-January.

What’s it like focusing on the same few moves day in and day out for months on end?

I told myself before going into this thing, “If you want to be able to adapt to these moves and get strong enough to do this thing, you’re going to have to have complete obsession over it and try it a lot.”

The whole boulder is very skin friendly. You don’t really have to worry about splitting your tips or anything like that. It sits in the shade all day, so you get good conditions. So you have a best case scenario for developing strengths in order to do it.

My attitude was: Go in hard every single day, train the sections, perfect the movement, adapt to the line, and then try to just see how far you can go.

What was your process?

At the start, it was mostly dialing Sleepwalker. The whole thing gets its difficulty because Sleepwalker is the crux. You just have to do Sleepwalker pumped. So I was like, “You need to have Sleepwalker dialed.” I probably did Sleepwalker 15-20 times. I did it four times in one session. Then I got it into my head, “OK, it’s wired now. I just need to wire the bottom and then it should go.” I thought it could go fairly quick because I had Sleepwalker so dialed, and soon found out that was not the case.

Sleepwalker turns into a way different boulder problems after you add in a V13, no matter how wired you have it.

What was it about this problem that drew you in so completely?

For one, the rock quality is insane. Nothing will ever break on it. It’s all pretty open handed [moves] and the feet are all smears. It’s just super solid.

The line itself just inspired me. I’d always go up to it and be like, “Wow, this is one of the more beautiful lines I’ve ever seen.” The movement’s insane on it. The hold selection is perfect.” Honestly, it’s just really fun to climb on. For the first two months I was having a blast on it.

Towards the end, the climbing became less fun and more stressful, but that’s just natural when you have that pre-send jitter.

You cut out alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, and caffeine for the problem. Did you notice a difference?

Yes. Even now I’m dead sober. Something clicked in my head. My lifestyle before this was more doing whatever. I wasn’t that inspired by anything out there. It was working—I was still able to send some hard boulders—but this thing presented something different. It was like, “I need to be in the best shape of my life, I need to have full clarity in the head. I need to be zoned in and obsessed and feel the line, without any other substances to distract that feeling.”

It just clicked in my head one day: I need to stop smoking, stop drinking every night. I need to replace alcohol with water. I need to get on some supplements. I need to eat well. I just need to turn myself into a machine right now.

Woods making a big through for a steep sloper on Return of the Sleepwalker. Photo: Bobby Sorich

Did you achieve that feeling? Did you feel like you were in the best shape of your life with a clear head?

Totally. It was funny … The day I sent, I tried to drink a small bottle of sake. I was like, “Fuck it, let’s celebrate a little bit.” I drank two shots, and then I couldn’t finish it. I felt my body start to absorb the alcohol and tighten up. I was way more addicted to feeling really good, feeling healthy and on point. So I realized that I don’t need to drink anymore. I’m not opposed to it in social situations, but it changed my perspective. I’m 31 now. I need to take care of myself. If I want to try these other hard projects out there, I need to be on point.

That’s awesome. That sounds like a positive development.

I’m still clean as hell and feel great. I will continue it.

Return of the Sleepwalker was a bit of a solitary pursuit for you, can you talk about that?

In the beginning, I was staying in an Airbnb with Sean Raboutou and Sean Bailey, and Jimmy [Webb] was out there. I had a crew to session with, and it was awesome. Then after a while, everyone wanted to go do other things. There was nothing else I wanted to do, so I just kept going.

For a good month, I was solo. I’d go up there and session alone. I switched from staying in an Airbnb to camping—put myself in isolation to really get into my head, and just be away from everything, be in the desert, review footage, get psyched, and just get raw with it. For the final 20 days, I camped 20 minutes away from the climb and went full crazy mode.

It sounds almost like a monk-like existence: You’re out there alone, living clean, and solely dedicated to one task. Was that difficult, or did you appreciate the experience?

A little bit of both. I liked that feeling of being solo. Before that I’d have distractions always around. This time I was really able to dive in and focus.

At the same time, it was also depressing. You’re just sitting there, you’re talking to yourself because there’s no other people there to talk to. You really get into your head, and wonder, “Is this healthy right now? Should I be out here? With no social interaction, am I going to get too into my head where I’m not going to be able to do it?”

When crazy thoughts kicked in, I told myself, “Look, you’re just out here to climb this line, and whatever comes of it comes of it, at least you’re sobering up. You’re getting healthy. You’re understanding what it takes to climb hard. You found something that you’re inspired by finally. If you don’t send, at least there was some positivity that came out of it.”

Were there times when you doubted yourself and considered moving on?

A week and a half before I sent, I’d put in a lot of time and I hadn’t stuck the move to the sloper, which is the crux move from the low start. I had tried for seven days to do that link. I was like, “If I keep going and I don’t do this move, then maybe I should move on because I still have some hard moves ahead.”

That next day I finally stuck the sloper. I did it twice in the session. That re-amped my psych. I was like, “OK, I saw progress.” After that point, I’d say, “Let’s just get one move further, stick the next move. If you fall on the next move, whatever. You got one move further.” I went from not being that consistent to super consistent after that, getting to the sloper four times in a day, getting to the last move a couple times in a day. That kept me going.

Woods surveying his megaproject on the Wet Dream Boulder, Black Velvet Canyon, Nevada. Photo: Bobby Sorich

Tell me about the morning you sent.

The canyon was empty. I was the only one back there. I knew that the conditions were good that day. Everything felt super sticky. It wasn’t too cold, but it wasn’t too hot either. When I was feeling the grips before warming up, I was like, “Man, it feels great right now. If you can just keep your head together, you can do it today.” But I felt way more anxious than confident. My head was in a weird space. I didn’t care, but I did care at the same time. I felt really neutral. I told myself, “Just try 100%.” That’s all I could do. I spent 30 minutes warming up on the sections, rested for  20 minutes, and then did it first go.

How did you feel while you were climbing?

Pure zone state was entered. My breathing was on point. My flow was on point. My body didn’t hurt. Nothing felt hard. Everything was feeling good.

When I arrived at the last move, that’s when I started feeling really nervous. It was the first time I arrived at the last move fresh. The move is a blind jump to this non-hold. If you hit it right, you’re on. But it’s really easy to miss. It’s a hard move to have confidence on. I told myself, “Just be accurate.” I stuck it, but I barely got my toe hook on the jug. Then I just had to fight hard to squeak it back there and tensed up as hard as I could. As soon as I got the toe hook good, I was like, “OK, you’ve done it.”

The last bit is not easy. At the beginning I felt good, but the end was definitely a fight.

What went through your head after you topped out?

I think I was relieved. It was more, “Wow, I’m done with this. I don’t have to come back here anymore.” All that mental stress just vanished. I felt excited, but more tired. I think it set in the next evening that I was like, “Wow, you just did it.” Like, psyched. But It’s a weird thing. I was stoked for the day—I’m still stoked—but I’m ready now for the next thing. It was hard, but there’s still other projects out there to go do.

Do you miss anything about having that single-minded focus?

I wouldn’t say I miss it because I feel like I still have it. I think that’s what was powerful with that experience. That mental focus is ingrained in me now. I’m going to go try Megatron tomorrow, and now I know what it takes to do something really hard and how to do it.

Using the process that I just went through, I can transfer that over and say,”You’ve been here before, you know how to project something that’s hard, and you know the type of focus that’s needed.” I’ll be able to carry that on through all the projects that I do.