World’s Hardest Climbs: Return of the Sleepwalker

How Daniel Woods developed and sent one of the hardest boulders in the world.
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For most of us mortal climbers, the grade of V17 is somewhat mystical. It’s hard to even comprehend just how difficult a climb of this level is!

And there’s not a lot of people who can tell us about them: only six people have sent V17.

In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at one V17 boulder problem: Return of the Sleepwalker, and the process by which Daniel Woods sent it.

The Problem

daniel woods on return of the sleepwalker V17
© Bobby Sorich

Return of the Sleepwalker is a boulder problem in Red Rocks, outside Las Vegas. Daniel Woods established the climb and did the first ascent in 2021 by adding a six-move sit start to an already existing V16 problem: Sleepwalker.

In doing so, he sent the hardest boulder in the United States at the time, and the second V17 in the world.

Jimmy Webb did the first ascent of the original Sleepwalker. This problem contains 7-8 very difficult moves on poor slopers and underclings up a very steep face. At the top, the crux is a final blind move to a poor hold, from which position the climber must stick a toe hook with the left foot.

The original version has a stand start; Return of the Sleepwalker adds six moves that are around V13 to the bottom of the boulder.

Location

Return of the Sleepwalker is located in the Black Velvet Canyon in Red Rocks, Nevada.

The desert of Red Rocks is a climbing mecca for all types of climbing, and Black Velvet Canyon is an especially fantastic spot. The canyon is perhaps best known for multi pitch trad routes: Black Velvet Canyon contains classics such as Epinephrine (5.9) and Triassic Sands (5.10).

However, the canyon has bouldering too. There’s quality problems ranging from the accessible grade of V0 all the way up V17, so there’s definitely something for everyone! The rock in Red Rocks is sandstone, so it’s not especially sharp and there’s lots of slopers in addition to the cracks that usually make up the trad routes.

The Second V17

Return of the Sleepwalker was the second V17 to ever be climbed, and the first in the United States. The first ever V17 to see an ascent was Burden of Dreams, a climb in the country of Finland that was first climbed by Nalle Hukkataival in 2016.

After that 2016 send, no one else sent a V17 until Daniel Woods made the first ascent of Return of the Sleepwalker. There are now five proposed V17s in the world.

The First (and only) Ascent

daniel woods on the lip of return of the sleepwalker V17
© Bobby Sorich

As of now, Daniel Woods is the only person to have climbed Return of the Sleepwalker.

Woods first did Sleepwalker (V16) in 2019, sending the climb after 11 sessions of projecting. He saw potential for a sit start, and started projecting what would become Return of the Sleepwalker.

The beginning of Woods’ process was to dial Sleepwalker; he estimates that he climbed it 15-20 times, including one day where he did the V16 four times in one session! Woods knew that in order to put all the pieces together, it would be essential to hone every move and make them all as easy as possible.

Return of the Sleepwalker took Woods three months of effort, and became somewhat of a spiritual journey. At first, he was staying in an Airbnb with friends and working on the climb with others. However, his friends eventually wanted to move on, but Woods remained dedicated.

He projected the problem primarily alone, and for the last few weeks before his send he camped out near the climb in order to focus all of his mental and physical energy on the send. He cut out all substances: alcohol, marijuana, and caffeine.

Each night when he was camping, he would review footage of himself to increase his motivation and hone his beta. As Woods put it in an interview with Climbing, he went “full crazy mode” in order to send the boulder.

Woods noted that of all the boulders in the world, this one is a good problem to project: it stays in the shade most of the day and it’s quite skin-friendly. If it’s too hot to climb other boulders, Return of the Sleepwalker can still have decent conditions. These factors, in addition to the high quality rock and movement, made this a perfect line for Woods to project.

The Send

daniel woods using a toe on the sleepwalker

On March 30th, 2021, Daniel Woods topped the boulder and achieved the coveted first ascent. He was by himself for the send, though his friend happened to walk by when he was topping out the easy slab section. It was a stressful experience: Woods said that he felt anxious the morning of the send. However, during the actual ascent he entered a sort of flow state: he felt strong and the moves felt relatively easy at first.

However, he had to fight at the end. Woods noted that the crux near the top is difficult to stick: you have to hit the hold exactly right, or you’re off. He barely stuck this last move on the send go, and he almost fell as he toe hooked the jug.

Throughout the projecting process, Woods had to push through doubts and uncertainty. For example, there was one move on the low start to the boulder that he hadn’t done for weeks. He considered giving up on the entire boulder, since if he couldn’t figure out this move to a sloper, he would never be able to do the entire thing. However, a week and a half before the send, he finally stuck the low crux move. He was able to do it twice in one session, and that gave him a renewed boost of motivation.

Woods said that he enjoyed the single-minded focus the experience gave him, though he also noted so much time alone could be depressing. The experience wasn’t exactly fun, and at times he even questioned if it was healthy. He worried that the lack of social interaction might affect his head and hinder his climbing.

Woods spent a good month primarily alone, and he’s not sure he’ll do that again to the same extent. However, he learned a lot from the experience. He realized that the sobriety he had during this period was beneficial to his overall health as well as his climbing, and he plans to continue this way of life.

“I realized that I don’t need to drink anymore,” Woods said in his interview with Climbing magazine. “I’m not opposed to it in social situations, but [the experience] 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.”

Since his send, Woods has continued to focus on hard bouldering. He has tried other V17s, such as Megatron. He said the focus he achieved during his projecting of Return of the Sleepwalker inspired him to continue to push himself on cutting edge boulders.

Recently, he climbed Railway, a V15 in Colorado. He also recently spent a few weeks trying Alphane, another V17, but has yet to send it.

Who else has tried the boulder?

The V16 version of Sleepwalker has currently seen 12 ascents, including Jimmy Webb, Drew Ruana, Nalle Hukkataival, and Nathan Williams. The boulder has yet to see a female ascent.

Return of the Sleepwalker has yet to see a second ascent. Nathan Williams put quite a bit of effort into trying it, but he has yet to send. It’s unclear if anyone else has been seriously projecting the boulder.

Since the boulder has only seen one ascent, the V17 grade has yet to be confirmed. However, it seems very likely that the grade will hold up, since Sleepwalker is confirmed at V16 and the sit start adds quite a bit of difficulty.

Comparing to other V17s

simon lorenzi on burden of dreams 9A
Simon Lorenzi on Burden of Dreams © Gilles Charlier

There are currently five proposed V17s in the world: Burden of Dreams, Megatron, Alphane, L’Ombre du Voyageur, and Return of the Sleepwalker. Alphane and Burden of Dreams are the only two on the list that have seen multiple repeats; all the other boulders have yet to see a second ascent.

Most of the V17s in the world involve a lot of hard crimps. For example, Nalle Hukkataival’s Burden of Dreams consists of brutal crimping up a steep face. Return of the Sleepwalker is a bit different in that it mostly contains open-handed holds.

Conclusion

Daniel Woods is a very impressive rock climber, and one of his proudest achievements is the first ascent of Return of the Sleepwalker. Woods will likely to continue to claim hard first ascents, as well as repeat other difficult boulders. His send was a solitary pursuit that highlights the dedication that he has to the sport.

Climbers from all over the world flock to Red Rocks each year, and of course most will never try Return of the Sleepwalker. Someday though, this incredible line will surely see another ascent, and it will be a big moment for the climbing community when it does.

Sources

  1. Interview with Daniel Woods

  2. Hard Climbs

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