Over the last weekend I took the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with the American climber Daniel Woods. Just shy of his 24th birthday Daniel is a veteran of the Bouldering World Cup circuit and 7 time winner of the ABS Nationals in the U.S.
When you first meet Daniel you are struck by his fine boned wiry physique. From his fine, pronounced cheek bones to his slender snakelike hips the diminutive American has a body sculpted by years of hard climbing in much the same way as many of the world’s best like James Kassay, Nalle Hukkataival and Alex Megos. All shoulders and upper body strength Daniel moves with a grace and fluidity on rock that is born from years of hard climbing.
Since turning professional in his mid-teens Daniel has traveled the world seeking the hardest lines, the most physically challenging problems on rock, and as such he was perfectly placed to ask about the current trend of grade compression and its impact on bouldering culture.
Sitting down in the cabin he was sharing with his wife Courtney in the small village of Wartook in the Grampian ranges in Australia’s south east, Daniel was happy to discuss his evolution as a climber and the current state of hard bouldering from the perspective of a full time professional at the leading edge of the sport.
The following is an excerpt from the interview that is scheduled to appear in full in the second issue of The Circuit.
Daniel, there seems to be a real trend at the moment to cap the upper end of bouldering around the 8c boulder level. Whenever anyone does an 8c at the moment someone will come along and propose a personal grade of 8b+ or even lower. There seems to be a big squash of hard grades internationally.
Is this because bouldering has reached a plateau? Or is it because people are keeping each other pegged and pushing down each other’s achievements until there is a clear progression in difficulty?
There’s a lot of parts to this question I think. (Daniel goes quiet while pondering an answer)
We had icons back in the day like Fred Nicole, Bernd Zangerl, Klem Loskot, Toni Lamprecht, Chris Sharma for the U.S, Dave Graham… Those six climbers are the ones who were going and establishing 8b+, 8c on a daily basis. And that was ten years ago.
Our new generation which is us presently (gestures around as the surrounding cabins are filled with some of the world’s best boulderers) , Myself, Paul, Adam Ondra, Alex Megos and others, we’re coming into a new wave and it’s weird because the previous generation of Fred and Dave and those guys proposed the magical number of 8c back in the day. Now 10 years forward we still have the same grade of 8c, but it’s weird because now there’s more people climbing hard than a decade ago. There’s more resources. There’s more media resources to get information on beta and stuff to do things faster.
Back in the day, I never watched climbing videos (YouTube and Vimeo clips). They weren’t out there. I would read a magazine, see a photo and be like “I’m travelling to Switzerland to try dreamtime!” Because it looks amazing from the photo, I don’t know the beta.
I think people are doing things faster these days because they’re training more. There’s more gyms. There’s more techniques being developed. There’s more information out there. More knowledge to prepare yourself before you go try the climb.
So then you just have to be strong enough to do it!
So why haven’t we improved this generation, from the past generation?
It’s kind of a diss to the past generation saying “you didn’t even know what you were talking about” (the rapid increase in grades over the late 90’s early 2000’s) because we’re going and repeating their problems. They’re still hard but I think we’re capable of pushing the limits to 8c+ and 9a. It’s just that people are too scared to propose that and to commit.
It’s like kind of a competition of who’s going to get the first confirmed 8c+.
So you’re putting your reputation on the line if you propose a higher grade?
Yes, and I think there’s like 7 or 8 climbers out there fully capable of climbing 8c+ at the moment, and a lot of them are right here in the Grampians Like Dave, Nalle, Paul, Myself, Carlo, Alex…
So it’s just funny to see this stagnant plateau that we’re sitting at right now. There’s honestly things that I’ve done that I think are 8c+ but I want to repeat other things (at the 8c level) before I can push those things and say “Ok, these things are definitely a step above the past generations test pieces”. That’s when it’s right to say “OK, they’re harder” you know.
And if people flash 8b+ and stuff it doesn’t surprise me, or 8b even, it’s just saying that we’re way more prepared than the past generation.
Yes, there’s something like 13 people who have flashed 8b now.
Yeah, like 10 years ago that was unheard of! If you flashed 7c+ years ago you would be in magazines and people would be like “I didn’t even think that was possible!”
From outside looking in, I think is very similar to what happened in Fontainebleau the 80’s where no one wanted to be the person that did the first 8a. So everyone says in Fontainebleau the hardest grade is 7c+ because a lot of the 7c+’s are 8a or even 8a+. No one was brave enough to take a step of giving the 8a grade for the risk of someone coming along doing it in a day and saying that it was only 7c…
That’s the thing though, I like to base difficulty off of how many repetitions a climb sees. So you might put up something hard, something really reachy for you that some freak tall person is going to come and do it really quick because the moves aren’t so big. But does that mean he can also do the roof problem on small edges or this, this and this?
It’s one of those things when you establish a rock climb, you just think of how a really tall person is going to do on this? How is a really short person going to do on this? What is the climbing like? Is it tension climbing, is it robotic climbing, is it thrutch climbing? What are the grips like?
Basically if you’re a climber and you have this giant pyramid, that’s like your resume for qualifying to give something 8c+ if you establish something.
A lot of the group here, we’ve gone and done some of the hardest boulders established in the world. So if Nalle goes and puts up 8c+ there’s a good chance going to be 8c+ you know. He knows what he’s talking about, same with Paul, just because of all the other problems they’ve repeated. If I went and I did it, I feel like I’m capable of the 8c+ so it doesn’t mean it should be downgraded to an 8c. These climbers are fully capable of grade, don’t downgrade it. Maybe if someone else comes along that hasn’t had that resume and just freakishly does it, maybe it’s not 8c+ you know? Maybe we missed a sequence or…
(Courtney) I mean that’s kind of what happened with The Game. Daniel did it in his sequence that he thought was 8c+ and then a year later Carlo comes and finds different beta and uses a different hold and one of the holds had got a little dug out and now it’s 8c. So still hard but now Daniel’s 8c+ is gone. But his eyes he still climbed 8c+
So you consider it was 8c+ the line you climbed.
Honestly I don’t think I was qualified to give something 8C+ back in the day I had only done like five 8c’s. I think I was young and I was like “yeah this sounds cool”. Now I feel like a more qualified having done the majority of 8c’s out there with the exception of a few so if I find something that is the next level compared to all these then I’ll throw the 8c+ grade out and be like “its good!”
(Courtney) Yeah I’ve counted and he’s done 17 8c’s.
That’s not bad.
Do you think it’s Tribal at the top? There seems to be a set of you, and a lot of you are here now that have very similar dynamics and work well together. Like Nalle and Dave seem to work well together and Paul and you. So you circulate the globe repeating each other’s problems. Is that important to survive as a professional like yourself, chasing each other’s hard problems? Do you always come across the same people?
Yes, I guess, well, we’re all friends… Definitely when Paul, Nalle or Dave establishes something that’s a big attraction for me to go and try it. If they’re going to an area it’s an attraction to go with them because you know you’re going to be looking for similar things, you know you’re going to be climbing on similar problems, it’s always good to have pads and it’s cool to be part of that action as well.
I was in the US last year and Dave and Nalle were establishing everything in the Grampians I was looking at it saying “I’m going next year because it looks amazing!” and I want to do these lines that they put up.
I mean that’s why I rock climb, to push my limits and to climb on really cool new boulders that will test me.
So it is natural that you guys will follow each other around because you push each other along. It must be challenging with different sponsors in different obligations but they all want the same thing which is hard climbing.
Yeah hard climbing, good photos, good media, good stories! I think that if I go on a trip as long as I’m taking good photos or producing good photos for the sponsors and good video coverage and the story that they can sell to the general public then it’s good!
And it has been good! Over the month or so that the international crew have spent in the Grampians this winter we’ve seen some fantastic climbing. Indeed, although the weather has done its best to spoil the show there has been a heap of cutting edge ascents, both repeats and first ascents that showcase the amazing Grampians sandstone.
Most, if not all of the international crew here this year have committed to returning to test themselves again next year, and I know several of the top World Cup climbers are keen on joining them. Will the first confirmed 8c+ or 9a be in the Grampians? We’ll just have to wait and see.
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