On March 30, and after three straight months of work on the severely overhanging line in Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on the outskirts of Las Vegas, Daniel Woods established the most difficult boulder problem in the U.S.—likely the hardest such route in the world.
Rated V17, Return of the Sleepwalker, in Black Velvet Canyon, adds a six-move V13 start to Sleepwalker (V16), first done by Jimmy Webb in 2018.
It “took 70 days over two years,” Woods says. “I went mentally deep on this thing.”
While roped climbs follow the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), which classifies routes from 5.0 to 5.15d and is based on endurance, bouldering is rated by the hardest individual move or moves. VO (5.9 on the YDS scale) continues all the way up to V17, which is somewhere in the 5.16 range (5.16 is a theoretical grade that no one has yet climbed on a rope).
Bouldering is all about pulling as hard as you can on a rock. “The name of the game is seeing how far you can push yourself,” says Woods. “I had severe bruises on my fingertips, and definitely got pretty beat up on it.”
Since there’s no gear (aside from shoes), it’s just the climber facing up against the stone. Quick primer here: Bouldering is done without ropes and all falls lead to the ground; climbers rely on solid spots by their partners to direct their flinging bodies; they use foam-filled mats, called crash pads, positioned on the ground to cushion their falls.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, “climbing,” as the The Guardian reported, went “from niche sport to worldwide sensation.” Even during 2020, which devastated many indoor climbing gyms, the Climbing Business Journal reports that more climbing gyms opened than in the prior year (2019). Since The Spot, the first bouldering-specific facility in the U.S. opened in 2002, today 40 percent of new gyms are bouldering-specific, according to 99boulders.com. Suffice to say, bouldering has gained a solid foothold.
With his ascent of Return of the Sleepwalker, Woods, 31, became the best boulderer in America and one of the two best in the world. From (where else?) Boulder, CO, Woods has flashed (meaning his first attempt) V14 and climbed up to 5.15b on a rope. Before establishing the V17 Return of the Sleepwalker, The North Face-sponsored athlete made the first ascent of the following V16s: Creature from the Black Lagoon and Box Therapy, both in Rocky Mountain National Park; Hypnotized Minds near Estes Park, CO; and The Process in Bishop, CA.
Woods repeated Sleepwalker (V16) in January 2019, requiring 11 days of work, then he got to work on the next line down the boulder, a sit-start that would add two moves up to V12. When that line wasn’t demanding enough, he moved further down the boulder and began work on what would become Return of the Sleepwalker. In total, the boulder problem is 16 moves long.
As he spent day after day on the opening sequence, he also started lapping Sleepwalker. Repeating the climb increased his power and fitness, and he did it 15 times before completing the Return of the Sleepwalker. On the day he did it, he walked up to Return of the Sleepwalker and did it on his first go.
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“This was for sure the most mentally challenging thing I’ve done in bouldering,” he says. “For those three months, I basically worked just on that. You start dreaming about moves. All day you just think about the movement of that line.”
Finnish boulderer Nalle Hukkataival became the first to propose V17 when he established Burden of Dreams in Lappnor, Finland, in 2016. No Kpote Only and The Big Island Sit both once had V17 ratings, but subsequent climbers have downrated them, reports Climbing.com.
Wood’s Return of the Sleepwalker is one of only two boulder problems with a proposed rating of V17 in the world.
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Now back home in Boulder, Woods has his sights on his next potential V17 project, which he started work on before Return of the Sleepwalker. The boulder is located in nearby Eldorado Canyon State Park. “It’s the same length as Return of the Sleepwalker, 16 moves with zero breaks. You just keep going.”