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Climber Daniel Woods Trades Comfort for Fear in “Highball” Bouldering

Climber Daniel Woods didn’t know whether to be happy or utterly horrified after having become the first person to climb the entire overhanging section of “The Process,” a widely attempted yet still unclimbed boulder problem located in the Buttermilks, of the Eastern Sierra, California.

Hanging by his chalky fingertips at the mid-point of the 50-foot-tall boulder problem, Woods asked himself whether he was ready to commit to the next sequence of moves, relatively easier compared to what he’d just climbed, but still insecure enough to give him pause over the dire consequences of what should happen were he to fall.

Doubt took over. Woods reversed a couple of moves, dropped 20 feet through the air and crumpled hard onto the foam crash pads spread out on the dusty desert ground.

The defeat stung. It hadn’t been his body that had given out. It was his mind.

Move for move, Woods is a contender for the world’s strongest climber. This 26-year-old boulderer and competition climber from Boulder, Colorado, has won numerous national championships, and has climbed at least 21 boulder problems given a difficulty rating of V15, at the top of the scale.

In the genre of bouldering, which is climbing boulders that typically range from 10 to 20 feet tall, the difficulty of the routes, or, “boulder problems,” are graded using the “V scale,” which begins at V0 and goes up to V16, at present. Currently there are only three problems in the world rated V16.

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Matt Gentile climbs an unnamed “highball” boulder problem in the hinterlands of Arizona; Photograph by Nick Rosen

When boulderers seek out increasingly tall objectives—i.e., “highballs”—the line between normal bouldering and free-solo rock climbing begins to blur. Falls from up high, albeit onto crashpads, carry the threat of serious injury or worse. The pursuit of this dangerous game of highball bouldering is captured in High & Mighty, one of the five short films debuting in this year’s REEL ROCK Tour.

In highball bouldering, having strong fingers is only one requirement for success. As evinced by Woods’ struggle to complete “The Process,” which he eventually succeeded in doing after many days of attempts in January 2015, having a strong mind is perhaps even more important.

The process of climbing “The Process” was a monumental success for Woods. In terms of difficulty, the boulder problem ranks as one of the top three hardest problems in the world. But perhaps even more important, “The Process” gave Woods more confidence to face fear and anxiety in other areas in life.

We caught up with Woods to hear more about the importance of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone.

You rated this V16, which ranks this among the hardest boulders in the world. Why do you think this climb warrants that grade?

I graded “The Process” V16 because the climbing is powerful, dynamic, and intimidating. The terrain is steep and technical. You can either hang the holds—or you can’t. I like this about the line. It is very specialized. I have established or repeated 21 boulders graded V15, and The Process has been my biggest challenge out of them all. There are some V15s, though, that offered moves that are harder than The Process, but they lacked the scare factor.

The thing that separates The Process from the rest is the conditions needed to do it and the scare factor. Grades are all about personal opinions and are not set in stone. Some lines challenge others in different ways. The thing that matters most in outdoor climbing is the experience in which we all go through to achieve something that is greater than us.

Have you ever had, or witnessed, a bad accident from highball bouldering?

I know that many people out there have broken bones and torn ligaments because it is a high-impact sport. You have nothing but thin crash pads and hopefully a good spotter to help keep you injury-free.

The boulders that we are climbing are 20-plus-feet-tall, and the moves can be out of control. I always set up the pads properly, work certain sections on a rope, and prepare myself before diving into the danger zone.

Knock on wood, I have yet to be injured from highball bouldering. I have definitely had tweaks, but nothing too serious.

With your ascent of “The Process,” you really had to step out of your comfort zone. Why was doing that so important to you?

It’s easy for all of us to fall into a comfortable routine. Wake up, eat the same thing for breakfast, go to the computer, see what’s on social media, drive to the gym, go to work, come back home, eat dinner, watch a movie, pass out. There are no complications to this way of life.

In order to grow and learn as a human though, it is important to make yourself uncomfortable. Bouldering has taught me so much about this and how to manage it. There’s the disbelief whether a boulder problem can be climbed, the sharpness of holds, the scare factor, torn muscles, torn ego, bad conditions, etc. These insecurities and anxieties translate into fear, pain, depression, and doubt, which we all experience whether in climbing or in regular life.

I dealt with all of this with The Process. The moment I saw this line, I was inspired but also very intimidated. I knew it was going to be the perfect mental test for me and I was ready to dive in deep.

Has highball bouldering helped you deal with anxiety and fear in other areas of your life?

Yes, it has. I understand now how the steps I use to stay calm myself during highballs can easily be applied to other aspects of life. A huge technique that I take for granted is breathing. There are different forms of breath for different situations. If I need to amp up, I do a deep inhale through my mouth then a powerful exhale out. If I need to feel in rhythm, I inhale through my nose and exhale slowly through my mouth. If I need to go full zen, then I inhale through my nose and exhale out. I use these breaths for different challenges in my life.

Is fear something to be overcome, or is it a tool that can help you perform? Or both?

Fear is a powerful feeling. Most people portray fear as being negative. The feeling it delivers can be powerful. To experience its power, I had to see the positive nature in it. In doing so, I had to break down the reasons why I was scared. An obvious one that came to mind is injury/death.

Being prepared gave me confidence to not be as afraid and more in the zone. There is always that small margin for error, but if I were to let fear consume me in a negative way, without preparation, then I would of had a higher chance of getting hurt. I feel like you can manage fear and use it in a positive way to do something that might be considered “impossible.”