Ben Rueck: How to Climb Out of Your Comfort Zone

Experience a breakthrough by getting out of yours
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Experience a breakthrough by getting out of yours

The following story originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of our print edition.

Ben Ruek Climbing Comfort Zone Australia Grampians

On the beautifully streaked Taipan Wall in the Grampians of Australia, Ben Rueck forgets his comfort zone on Groovy, Australian grade 28, YDS grade 5.12d. Photo: Andrew Burr

We all have a comfort zone, this warm, fuzzy little place in our minds we retreat to whenever we are challenged or afraid. For the first half of my climbing career, my comfort zone was bouldering. Growing up in Grand Junction, Colorado, I had access to some of the best boulders in the world. As I matured as a climber, though, something felt lacking in topping out problem after problem. I became stagnant and arrogant, justifying shortcomings by labeling anything that challenged me as lame or not “pure climbing.” I was an idiot.

That all changed when I met my two closest friends and training partners, Rob Pizem (aka Piz) and Mayan Smith-Gobat. Both are prolific roped climbers that tend to focus on big walls and traditional climbing, so my options became limited if I wanted to get outside with them. Piz and Mayan would drag me up walls, teaching me the finer points of “pitching out” and placing gear-—all the while my nerves were on fire as my stomach clenched with fear. More often than I like to admit, I thought I was going to die—my comfort zone was trying to protect me from the unknown as well as perceived failure.

Those two quickly shattered my zone. We usually had goals of completing routes in a day, making the option for retreat unavailable. The first big wall I climbed was with Mayan on the Diamond in Rocky Mountain National Park—Hearts and Arrows (5.12b). I was proficient on 5.12, but it was completely out of my league. I sat petrified on small-cam anchors as the wind and ice-cold water ripped at my jacket. I stared at the ground just waiting for the gear to fail and send me plummeting to my death. I wasn’t able to lead a single pitch; Mayan had to drag me on toprope to the summit. However, there was a small sense of accomplishment and a spark of curiosity.

My second wall was with Piz in the Black Canyon outside of Gunnison, Colorado. I led quite a few of the pitches—terrified but still on the sharp end. It was slow progress, but progress all the same. As I gained more experience on multi-pitch, single pitch, and walls, I pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone. I discovered that my fear was more manageable. I gained strength and confidence as I ventured farther above bolts or cam placements. Mental pieces that I was not aware of surfaced, and soon climbing became a game. The questions “What am I capable of?” and “How does this sequence go?” became my mantra, and with it, I achieved my goals.

But a comfort zone is a funny thing. Like your climbing ability itself, it’s dynamic. Climbing The Place of Happiness (5.12d, 18 pitches) in Brazil brought to light that if you are truly challenging yourself, you will always be outside your comfort zone. Place of Happiness crushed me on the first attempt. Unable to manage my fear due to 30- to 60-foot distances between bolts on small, friable granite holds, I felt paralyzed. My mental game fell apart, and I was back to being that scared little boy on the Diamond. However, even though I was frightened, I managed to pull it together for the second attempt and climbed my pitches until Mayan and I were weathered out 180 feet from the top and had to bail. Pushing myself in these situations created exponential growth in both my personal and climbing life. When your comfort zone is expanded and challenged, you become more curious, more adventurous, more dynamic—a better climber.

climbing in flip flops

Rueck puts a modern spin on the infamous Patagonia poster featuring John “Verm” Sherman nonchalantly chugging beer during a flip-flop free solo of Lord of the Rings (31/5.13d), Grampians. Photo: Andrew Burr

How to Expand Your Comfort Zone

1. Ask better questions 

This was tough for me to learn, but when met with failure, many climbers ask “Why can’t I climb this?” I am guilty of it, but as I developed, I learned that it is not a why can’t I, but a how can I. With this subtle shift, there become definable terms that can be improved upon in sequences and step—which inevitably will lead to some level of success.

2. Eliminate “failure”

Climbers are too often focused on the negatives—shortcomings in strength, power, endurance, etc. When we fail on a climb, we chastise ourselves. Here’s a secret: No one cares! So neither should you! If you learn from mistakes and maintain a positive attitude, there is no failure. Not achieving a goal isn’t failing. It’s just a baseline for trying again.

3. Think less, do more

Most fears that keep us from learning or trying are centered in our imagination. We think more than we act. Calculating risk and reward is a good trait as long as a balance is found by putting those calculations to use. Make a move or nothing ever gets done. Even if all that gets done is moving on from a project or bailing on a route, you’ve done something.

4. Embrace community 

No man is an island. Climbing is social; we develop relationships with friends and partners that help us grow. A community can help create a connection and reach breakthroughs. Support and encouragement can help expand comfort zones into trying new things (even if you don’t achieve your goal that particular time).

5. How bad do you want it?  

When I first started training with Piz, we would start at 4:30 a.m. After eight weeks of this, I felt a drop in motivation. When the alarm sounded, I’d debate between sleep and train. Each time I asked myself, “How bad do I want it?” Every time I’d get up and go meet Piz. Those words have pushed me completely out of my comfort zone.