Written by Alex Kahn
Sitting at the large kitchen table in the quaint Spanish town of Cornudella de Montsant, I edit photos feverishly on my laptop. To my right, Finnish female powerhouse Anna Laitinen completes an online school assignment, Matty Hong sits across from me cutting a video for Petzl, while Jon Cardwell heads up the table transcribing an interview with Daniel Woods. I bite into a dried fig, chewing on the small seeds as they pop in my mouth. “We can only have one person in this house who chews like Daniel,” Matty says with a sober expression and sarcastic tone. He is referring to the excessive amount of chewing Daniel allocates towards consuming his meals. It’s quite comical and everyone in the house wonders how to chew something into submission as he does, but this is Daniel Woods. He trains his body into submission, he climbs into submission – until he can’t hold on any longer or sends – he would chew his food into submission.
“Do you chew your coffee as well?” Matty turns his attention to Daniel who is sitting on the sofa. He’s eating an intricately prepared oatmeal dish that Anna [Laitinen] taught him from her years of experimentation.
“Sometimes,” he says through chews with a deadpan expression.
“Like, if there are coffee grounds in it or something?” someone asks. Everyone laughs.
“ExACTly,” he responds, emphasizing the letter “t” as if creating two unique words, ‘exact’ and ‘ly.’ This word is just one of many that comprise Daniel’s unique vocabulary. Other words he prefers are, “wowwwwww,” (drowned out to intensify the meaning behind the word) usually applied as a reaction to something someone has done, something that is impressive, or something unexpected that has happened; “Lezz go,” used when he feels hyped on something and ready to do it; “good on ya,” used to denote pride in someone,” and “no worries,” used in place of “you’re welcome.” Daniel Woods might be the least intentional comedic pro climber out there—or perhaps he is just so sarcastic no one can ever tell if he is intentionally joking. He typically begins his mornings with a cup of green tea combined with a scoop of cordyceps mushroom extract. He admits it tastes horrific, but likes to think it helps. Other daily routines include B-12 vitamins and Go Gnarly Vegan protein drinks either mixed with water or almond milk.
Over the course of time I have known Daniel, I observed how much more time and thought he allocates to nutrition. “If you want to perform, you have to put things into your body that are gonna benefit it and heal it fast. If you put shit into your body, you’re not gonna have energy, you’re not gonna have muscle. You’re more prone to injury,” Daniel tells me. It helps that he knows how to cook and enjoys the process. Many other top athletes I know would like to prioritize their nutrition more, but don’t know what to do when faced with a counter of healthy ingredients.
While I’ve known this table of guys for about a decade, much of that time has focused on climbing. The topics of emotion, motivation, obsession, and balance never came up. However, the more time I spend climbing with people like Daniel—observing his behavior and climbing patterns—the more interested I become in why he is the way he is, and how it’s translated into him being one of the world’s best rock climbers.
Daniel Woods needs no introduction. Making his mark as a nine-time ABS Nationals Champion in the indoor climbing scene, establishing numerous 8C and even 8C+ boulder problems, and now accomplishing 5.15b/9b on a rope, there is no doubt he is one of—if not the most—talented American climbers of his generation. However, there is more to Daniel Woods than just success, fame, and his friendly demeanor. To many, he might appear as a humble and even relaxed person, especially for all the accomplishments he has achieved. Inside, there’s the constant mental struggle to stay balanced and keep his sometimes unhealthy climbing addiction in check. These days, climbing has become so specified with such excelled levels in each discipline. It’s a wonder how and why Daniel continues to push himself to succeed in indoor bouldering, outdoor bouldering, and outdoor sport climbing—all at the same time. He’s the first to admit that sport climbing and bouldering are entirely different sports that require different ways of thinking and training. Additionally, indoor competition climbing has diverged so far from outdoor bouldering that those who win the competitions might never even step foot on a real rock (or have a desire to). Daniel, with all his drive and motivation, has settled on trying to excel in all three disciplines at once. He has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
* * * * *
Later that day, we are at the Laboratori in Margalef. Daniel stands underneath ‘First Round First Minute.’ He wants to tick off the left variant ‘First Lei,’ 5.15a/9a+, before tackling the 5.15b/9b he came here to complete. Daniel Woods has a routine that consists of “obsessively chalking his hands,” as he phrases it. He spends ample time looking at his skin, holding his hands up to the wind, looking at the holds, and rehearsing the beta in his mind and often out loud. Woods stands atop his skate shoes and blows twice into his climbing shoe before putting it onto his foot. He repeats the same process with his other shoe. He stands on the small rock tower to reach the first holds, a commonality in Margalef where all the start holds seem to be well beyond reach. Breathing deeply in and out, moving his arms back and forth, he prepares to pull on the wall. For the next hour, he practices each move, trying every foot combination, picking which hand holds he wants to use and in which ways. He works out the sequences and divides the full line into different bouldering problems, assigning each a grade. His goal for the day, and for his first session, is to climb each “boulder” of the route separately. He is hard on himself, knows what he is capable of, and expects to always perform to his highest potential (as long as he has prepared in the right way). For this trip to Spain, he created a strict training regime and feels fully prepared and capable of tackling any challenge.
To say he is motivated or even passionate is an understatement; Daniel Woods is obsessed with rock climbing, and according to him, he has always been this way. “I think to do something top notch, you have to tap into a different side of yourself, and to get into that side, you have to become obsessive about it. You only think about it, and you are always thinking about minor details that you can change to make it easier. I know if I approach something and don’t think about it, I feel just more in limbo with it. I don’t know it that well, and it takes me longer to get it done.” This obsession directly translates into nervousness and ultimately a lack of sleep when in “project mode.” On these restless nights before trying lines that push him to the limit, Daniel stays awake thinking about sequences. He watches beta videos and contemplates the efficiency of his beta. He believes this obsession helps him to retain motivation and get things done quicker. To date, he has never tried something for longer than 17 days. The culprit of his 17-day spell ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ took so long because he spent too many days trying in sub-prime conditions (rather than waiting for cool Fall temperatures). Unfortunately, his obsession and motivation sometimes make him so psyched that he struggles to hold back and wait for those better conditions.
Just as he feels nerves before attempting his outdoor projects, he feels the same nerves the night before and the day of big competitions. With competition climbing, his worries are different; “Am I in good enough shape? What’s going to happen? What tricks will the setters throw our way?”
“Competition is for a result,” Daniel tells me. “When you compete, that’s the only time in climbing when you’re gonna be competitive with others. You only compete to get a result, you know? And whether that’s making semis or making finals, podium, winning—that’s your objective. The main concern is only for that day, and then it’s over.” He continues, “If I don’t perform how I want to perform, then that’s it, you know. You go onto the next competition. Whereas, with outdoor climbing, you can dwell on it for years,” he says. “Outside, I can put a lot of pressure on myself to do some ascents. You have way more things to deal with outside. You have conditions, and that’s usually the biggest stressor—if it’s gonna be too cold, too warm, rainy, like whatever. It’s rare to get a perfect condition every day. You have to have a ton of shitty days, and then you get that one good day. Sometimes on that one good day, you are still working the route, so…” Woods trails off.
From my observations, his inspiration from the lines he tries outside is another factor to tie into the mix. With competition climbing, if you decide to compete, those are the climbs you have to try, and if you want to win, those are the climbs you have to complete. With outdoor climbing, Daniel can push himself to the same level both mentally and physically, while finding a line and style of climbing that motivates and inspires him. “The line has to look attractive, and the movement has to look attractive. The rock has to be solid. I’m not a huge fan of climbing on choss. I like simple, simple moves,” he tells me. “Movement that looks really complex to me doesn’t really attract me, but I’ll still try because it’s something I’m not good at—but definitely movement and the beauty of the line. Something that’s pure gets me really motivated.” It comes as no surprise that his favorite thing about climbing is movement and feeling light when he moves. “That’s probably the sensation that feels the best. When climbing feels effortless,” he tells me. Daniel feels this same desire and motivation from boulders just as he does from rope climbs. He defines himself as a “climber” rather than a ‘boulderer’ or ‘sport climber.’ While he is best known for his performances as a boulderer and thinks he is better at bouldering, he looks at rope climbs as “putting together a bunch of moves, a bunch of boulders,” and he is working to improve his level of sport climbing to be on par with his level of bouldering.
While trying to be successful at both, Daniel has a more difficult time transferring from rope climbing to bouldering because of the power required to boulder at the top level. He finds that is it much easier for him to build endurance than power, and tends to allocate different seasons to each so that he can train appropriately. He views them as two separate sports. “Even when you are bouldering on a rope, the feeling is different. You’re not hitting the ground. You’re still climbing more moves than a boulder. Sometimes it’s nice to climb something tall because you know the moves are gonna be easy. You get the height exposure; you get a bunch of different things that you don’t get in bouldering.” Perceiving the two forms of climbing as entirely different sports helps him to maintain motivation and never feeling burnt out. He believes he is “addicted to the feeling,” and notices that he doesn’t feel as happy if he goes a few days without climbing.
When Daniel Woods first rose to the top in his climbing, he didn’t have the amount of competition that he does now. Over the past decade, the amount of gyms, coaches, teams, and die-hard climbers has skyrocketed. Rather than feel any threat from this, Daniel continues to see this, as well as his life in general, as a glass half full. “It puts pressure on me, but in a positive way because I’m psyched that there are a lot of people out there climbing hard, and it pushes me to up my level—either to try to maintain with them or try to up it, so I use it more as a motivator rather than something that is an intimidator.”
One characteristic that Daniel Woods does not lack is confidence. His confidence is not to be confused with cockiness, because for his talent and tick list, Daniel might be the most humble climber out there. He admits, “It’s impossible to know if you’re gonna do everything all of the time. I’d say most of the time I can know I can do a move just by looking at it from the ground without touching the holds. I can look up and go, ‘yeah I can do that move and that move,’ and there are some moves where I’m like ehh, because if it’s not my style of climbing I’m a little more hesitant, but it’s 50/50 I guess. For the most part, I know I can do the moves.” With his experience and knowledge of himself as a climber, he has been able to build up a level of confidence that directly translates to the goals he sets for himself. Growing up, he says, “ I felt strong. I was doing harder climbs, and my coaches were telling me I was performing well. I would see how I was performing compared to other people, and I was like ‘oh I’m climbing well,’ but I also knew I had a lot to learn, so when I was younger, I don’t think I was as confident. But now I’m confident because I’ve had 23 years to do moves. And to do moves of all different grades, on all different kinds of holds. So I think that’s why the confidence increases, because you train yourself to be able to increase your confidence. I don’t think I was ever born with confidence, you know? It’s like, I definitely had a desire to always perform well. My goal in life was to be good at something. So I think that opened my eyes to progress in climbing a lot faster because that’s all I cared about. I didn’t care about school, I didn’t care about other sports, I only cared about rock climbing. That was what I was obsessed with.” Impressed with his analysis of his progression, I wondered when this obsession began.
“Probably when I was like five.”
“ That’s amazing …”
“No, I was probably like, I’d say nine. Nine years old I was competing and training.”
“ And you picked climbing, and that was it at nine years old?”
“Yeah. I mean I haven’t really tried any other sports.”
When Daniel is feeling confident, motivated, and goal-oriented, he essentially runs at two speeds: zero and one hundred. He tries every move at 100%, he trains at 100%, he obsesses over perfecting and memorizing the beta at 100%, and he even rehabs at 100%, which is made evident through his pained expressions and short, strained breathing. It’s no wonder that someone who spends so much time at 100 needs to be at zero the remainder of the time. While some might perceive his periods of zero negatively, Daniel says, “To be honest I don’t think I get into a super negative space. Maybe to some people, they are like, ‘oh he looks pissed,’ but I’m not pissed. I just feel tired. I don’t feel like talking, and I don’t feel like doing other stuff.” He prioritizes the conservation of his energy and thoughts to dedicate entirely to his climbing objective. However, even Daniel has come to realize that, with time, his body and mind need periods of rest during which to rejuvenate. He admits that while he is focusing on a project, his stress levels are high, resulting in a minimal and poor quality of sleep. While he knows his body and mind cannot sustain this behavior for long periods of time and he needs to have breaks between projects, this is the only behavior he has ever known.
2017 was a hard year for Daniel Woods. It began with a DUI which coincided with a divorce, both things that he knows attributed to his lack of confidence and motivation. Rather than fight what his body and mind naturally needed, he chalked it up to being an off year, a rut. “I kinda was like, ‘I just wanna chill and hang out and do some hard things here and there,'” Daniel says, “Whereas this year, I’m going back to my old self where I go on a trip and all that I care about is what’s gonna get done during that trip, you know? So essentially, I’ve had a year off.” During this period, Daniel observed that a break from projecting allocated more energy and time towards doing other things in life, for instance, being with friends and spending more time with people in general. “When I’m in my climbing zone, I kind of like switch. I don’t really have motivation or energy to do other things because I just wanna only accomplish what I’m here to accomplish,” he says, “So my rhythm now is to climb hard, do a season that I am proud of, and then take a rest period and re-up for another season.”
Balance is something all people struggle with, but for climbers like Daniel Woods, he struggles to “find a balance of knowing when to rest, and knowing when to up it.” He focuses on “trying to eliminate the feeling [of anxiety] and not think about it, but it’s something that’s hard to do.” Focusing on balance is a newer thing for Daniel that has come with time and maturity. With so many years of climbing under his belt, his strategy towards projecting is something that is difficult to shy away from. “It’s something that’s wired into me,” he says, “I think the only way to stop it is to tell myself ‘ok you are done trying something really hard. Step it down, do easier stuff, and then find something hard.’”
* * * * *
It’s my last full day in Spain and we decide to spend its entirety at the Laboratori where we can each try our projects. While mine is a morning climb, Daniel’s is best in the evening, and a lot of time is spent hanging out (he even takes a nap in the car). The temperature has finally dropped to a reasonable level for an attempt, the sun has left the cliff, and the winds have picked up. Daniel is ready to, “give it a burn,” as he says. He stretches his hips and knees, looks at his tips and lifts them to the wind. He repeats his same pre-climbing routine of excessive chalking, shoe blowing, tying into his rope, and deep breathes. It’s warmer than usual today, and he removes his shirt to reveal tattoos crawling up both sides of his torso. On one side is a giant black spider in a white web. The spider sits within the mouth of a massive skull that is his most recent addition. On the other side is a boldly shaded lion representing his astrological sign, Leo. For as long as I have known Daniel, he has always been interested in astrology and tries to make sense of people’s behaviors based on the qualities associated with their astrological signs.
With efficiency and lightness, Daniel is through the first bolts. He dialed in the beta, completed each section, and knows he can finish the route. While the conditions are not perfect, he doesn’t think it should be a problem. The goal of the day is to complete ‘First Ley’ and dial in the moves on the top of ‘First Round First Minute.’ He has gotten through the first crux and has reached a high point when all of the sudden, his body reaches all-time fatigue. The pump kicks in, and he falls while going for one of the final hard moves of the line. As he falls, a second fall occurs, this time as a result of a carabiner snapping in half. With a clank, the beaner hits the ground and Daniel’s body hovers a little over a foot from the road. We are both in complete shock; I can barely think and I certainly cannot speak. What had happened? Had a bolt broken? Had I done something wrong? He had almost just hit the asphalt street and had fallen from close to the top of the line. I process all the things that could have gone wrong and resulted in a catastrophe. Had I belayed him looser, had he fallen lower and another carabiner had broken, had he weighed more and shot me up higher into the air and himself lower towards the ground…
I lower him, heart beating through my ears, and we stand in shock and silence. A man and woman a few lines down run over; they saw the whole thing and tell us it was a carabiner that ripped in two. We locate the two pieces on the ground, still not fully processing what has happened and how bad things could have been.
Adrenalized to an all-time high, Daniel takes a short rest before aiding up the line and replacing every quickdraw with his own Petzl quickdraws. I think back to one of the questions I had asked him the previous day. “Hypothetically, if you were to be injured and couldn’t climb anymore… do you ever think about that? Does that ever scare you, the idea that climbing can be taken away?”
He had responded with, “I’d probably just end my life. Call it good.”
I had been shocked at his response. “You’d really end your life?”
“I dunno, it’d be hard. I wouldn’t be the same if I couldn’t climb. If I got injured and wasn’t fully capable to actually pull on anything anymore, then there would be a struggle for sure. I mean, I would probably find something else, but I wouldn’t have the same happiness within because something was stripped away from me that I love. And so I could like something else, maybe learn to love something else. But like when you do something, that’s all you know since the age of 5, it’s really hard to replace that.”
Being superstitious, I instantly thought I had jinxed him and caused this to happen. He didn’t die and wasn’t hurt, but he was so close to having a potentially detrimental injury, which in his eyes ,nearly equated to death. It was a lot to process, and I struggled to keep my anxiety at bay as I belayed him on his quickdraw replacement mission.
With the quickdraws replaced, he takes a 15-minute rest and prepares for another attempt. I wonder if he will feel shaken after the experience, but as he works through the moves again, the adrenaline only seems to fuel him further. He is angry he fell and chastises himself for being “weak.” He gets to his high point and again falls, yelling in rage. I can see his anger and disappointment; he even yells at himself in the third person. This time, however, he boinks and jugs up the wall, spending the next thirty minutes trying moves. He tells me, “I’ll look at all the different foot options, hand options, and I’ll see what’s gonna fit my style the best. I’ll try the move, and when I try the move, I’m always going for it pretty much at 100. And if I fall, then, of course, it’s a surprise. You don’t expect yourself to fall when you think it’s gonna work. But then when I fall, I’m immediately like, ‘maybe I’ll look for another option,’ or I’ll look and maybe it’s my only option and maybe I just have to try even harder, you know?”
I can only assume he is looking for another option to make the climb just slightly less tiring, one that gives him a higher chance of success. He moves his feet back and forth, this way and that. He touches handholds he is already using, but in new ways. He tries different sequences, and finally he unlocks a new method, one that will allow him to make one of the more difficult clips with greater ease. He feels content with his new approach and is ready to come down, rest, and try again. Until it’s too dark and he is exhausted, he will not stop. He is relentless.
I wonder how success and failure make him feel at present as well as in the long term. “I think it depends on my objective. If I’m climbing at my limit and I know it’s really hard, then if I succeed, I feel happy—usually for a while. The happiness can last for months. I just feel super empowered, like I can do anything. Likewise, if I fail, I feel like a piece of shit and one of the weakest people out there. But if it’s something that maybe is an impressive ascent but not the craziest thing I’ve ever done, I feel happy, but not ecstatic. It also depends on how long I work something for. I could climb something that’s graded hard, but I could climb it fast and I’m gonna be stoked, but not over the top. Whereas, if I actually battled with something for a long time and then eventually did it, that feeling’s gonna be way different. A lot more euphoric than getting something done quick.”
It is rare to see someone so passionate at something also be so good at it. I ask him, “Are there other things that make you happy, even remotely as much as climbing?”
“I dunno, I don’t think so at the moment. I kinda made a decision that even when I’m older, I wanna climb. It’s what I do. Other things make me happy, but I don’t think anything could replace climbing for me.”
“Yeah, it’s a part of you. Do you feel like you have balance in your life?”
“I mean, probably to a lot of people I look super unbalanced because I just really do one thing, but for me personally, I feel balanced. I’m happy; I do what I wanna do, you know? But I mean, sure, maybe I don’t exercise my head in the same way that other people do. I’m not that book smart. It’s not like I’m reading all the time, but I like to watch movies, I like to listen to music, I like to read things that I’m actually interested in reading. I don’t like to just do something to do it, to occupy time because I dunno. If I’m not doing anything, I’d rather be resting and resting my head.”
I wondered if he considers himself an introvert or an extrovert, as defined as the way in which he feels re-energized. “Depends on my mood. I think I’m a little bit of both.” While I don’t know if this is possible according to Meyers-Briggs, Daniel Woods quite literally has two entirely distinct sides to him depending on his energy level, motivation, and mood. If anyone is capable of being a mixture of the two, it’s him.
Being a pretty upbeat person in general with a ‘sky is the limit’ outlook on life, I wonder if there was a time in his past that he was dealing with something emotional or personal that overtook his ability to perform, which he now looks back on and regrets. “Oh my god. Sure,” he tells me. I ask for specifics. “I mean. I dunno. I don’t really regret anything.” The positive outlook of Woods is persistent and encouraging to others who have also dealt with ups and downs, with failures and successes. “I’ve had a ton of hard times like a lot of people have had out there. Life’s not perfect, but I don’t look back and go, ‘why did that happen to me, I’m gonna be fucked now for the rest of my life.’ You just learn from it, move on, and move forward from there.” I can only assume this lack of regret and desire to remain positive and move forward undoubtedly contributes to his success as one of the most talented all-around climbers ever.
Shortly after I left Spain, Daniel returned to the Laboratori, seeking vengeance on First Ley. The conditions were cooler, he settled on his beta, and executed with perfection, sending the line.
* * * * *
There are three ways to live life: dwelling on the past, living in the moment, or obsessing over the future. Ideally, you have a healthy combination of all three, but for many professional athletes who know their careers do not last forever, they have to make the best of every moment and not overthink the less active and fame-filled future that awaits. Daniel Woods does not seem to dwell on the past, and little by little, he learns from mistakes and makes changes to secure a better present and future. He sets immediate goals for himself, such as ‘First Round First Minute,’ and future goals, such as a project he has been scoping and preparing for in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, that he believes will be the next level of bouldering. When he achieves one goal, he makes a new one, but as of late he has already begun to think more about what his future will ideally look like in 5, 10, and 20 years. “At the moment, I still wanna be an athlete for the next decade and pushing myself, and then after I’m finished being an athlete, it would be kinda cool to work for a company I’m sponsored by or create my own company. Go more to the business side of things. But I’ll definitely always be in the climbing world and contributing to it in some sort of way. But obviously, you can’t be an athlete forever. There are generations that come up that are just gonna push the level that much higher, so you kinda recognize that, pick your time to phase out, and then start something else.”
Daniel Woods refuses to put a time limit on his professional climbing career or even allocate an age limit; he believes when the right opportunity presents itself, it will be the correct time to make an exit and make a change. Whenever that time does come, the climbing industry better watch out, because of his dedication, motivation, and persistence as a climber is any indication of how he will behave like a businessman, the company he chooses to join or create might become one of the most successful ones in the climbing industry.
To check out some bouldering footage of Daniel Woods, check out this video from his send of La Plancha V14 with Matt Fultz in Boulder, Colorado.