Ben Hanna: Man, Myth…or Hulk?

By Brad Hilbert ,

Ben Hanna redpointing Coal Train (5.14a), New River Gorge, WV.   

Daniel Gajda

Witnessing Ben Hanna, 19, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the rock is like going to a punk show. Everything starts out normally, with tickets, drinks, and a sound check, but then the atmosphere suddenly turns aggressive, intense, and unpredictable. When Hanna has a goal in his sights, a switch flips and he’ll smash his fingers into any trash hold that will move him toward the chains, jumping, deadpointing, going for it without hesitation. This “Hanna Smash” has led to flashes up to 5.14a, and redpoints as hard as Helsinki (5.14c/d) in the Bat Cave near Truth or Consequences, NM. (See timeline below for a rundown of Hanna’s recent 24-hour sending spree at the New River Gorge.)

If you met Hanna while he was patiently coaching youth climbers at the Santa Fe Climbing Center or Stone Age Climbing Gym in Albuquerque, you might not expect such intensity—or, say, if you saw him goofing off riding a shopping cart through the aisles of a grocery store, or parkouring across the monkey bars and slides in a city park. He seems like an unassuming young climber, with his thin frame, spiked hair, and plug earrings. But the “Hanna Smash” is a resting monster, waiting to be called upon as needed. Some of his feats, like sending Dope Fiend Low (V9) at Hueco Tanks in tennis shoes, most of Zulu (5.14a) at Rifle in a pair of Sanuks, and for his second-ever trad lead dispatching a spicy 5.13a pitch on Red Rock’s Dreefee, are the stuff of legends and speak to his natural talent and raw strength.

Hanna was born in New Mexico, a harsh desert state where everything is trying to to stick, stab, or bite you. Perhaps this explains his grit and drive, or it could be thanks to his parents, Cynthia and Ian, who got him into climbing at an early age. Cynthia, a self-employed hair stylist, grew up playing football and other rough games—most notably a free-for-all called “Kill the Carrier”—with her three brothers. She took that competitive spirit into track and field, swimming, and diving where she lettered in all sports. Ian, who makes his living as a dolly grip in the film industry, often took Ben climbing and skiing, teaching him how to lead outside at the age of 8 when the local gym said Ben wasn’t old enough.

At age 10, Hanna entered the comp scene, inspired by his friend Quincy Conway, a talented young climber and budding physicist who tragically perished in 2016 while conducting a science experiment at home. In his first season of youth competition, Hanna made Nationals. He climbed 5.11 at 10, 5.12 at 11, the 5.13a Goliath at New Mexico’s Enchanted Tower at 12, and then his first 5.14, Tweak Fuck (FA) at Diablo Canyon near his home in Santa Fe, at age 15. His parents’ and the local community’s support have been big factors in his success. In particular, Santa Fe locals Andre Wiltenburg and Ed Strang played a huge role in Ben’s early years by mentoring and channeling his energy. At 14, Hanna started homeschooling and volunteering as a setter at the Santa Fe Climbing Center, where he was hired as a setter at age 16.

These days, he’s coaching youth climbers, setting two days a week at Stone Age, and working on kitting out his van for full-time climbing travel. As for his notorious a muerte Hanna Smash style? It’s a work in progress: “I think it’s possible it came from really bad technique as a kid,” he says. “When I really want something, which happens a lot, I slip into what my dad calls ‘rage mode’—hence where Hanna Smash comes from.”

Ben Hanna’s 24-hour sendfest at the New River Gorge

Friday, October 27

  • 2:30 P.M. Flash: The Racist (5.13b/c), Snake Buttress
  • 6:00 P.M. Flash: Proper Soul (5.14a), the Cirque

Saturday, October 28

  • 8:30 A.M. Redpoint: Coal Train (5.14a), Beauty Mountain
  • 11:30 A.M. Onsight: Pod (5.13b), Summersville Lake

Q&A

Describe your climbing style.

I’m probably known most for my dynamic climbing, but I’m proud of the work I’ve put in to become a confident slab climber. Honestly, I try to climb with confidence, no matter the situation.

What is your proudest achievement outside of climbing?

I don’t really have a life outside of climbing. I’m a setter, coach, hold shaper, route developer, first ascensionist, and competitor. Climbing offers enough for me not to have to look for excitement outside of it.

What advice would you give your first-year climbing self?

Warm up, train harder, and “You don’t have time for girls!” (Actually, I do have a girlfriend, and she’s supportive of my travels.)

How has your training changed in the last year?

I’ve become more focused. I realized what I have to do to succeed, and have made the changes to make that happen. Like following a more focused, integrated strength program, and eating much better. I want to be the best. Right now, I’m most focused on competitions. I’m committed to a year of competitions and doing well on the competition circuit (USA Climbing Open Circuit and the IFSC Circuit).

Any tips you’d give to someone who’s stuck on their project?

You either need to train harder or rest more. Chances are, you’re not doing one of those. It’s up to you to figure out which one, and then change.

How have you overcome fear in climbing (fear of falling, fear of failure, etc.)?

Leading used to be very scary for me, but with a bit of work and time, I’ve come to love it. Now I only lead climb. Face whatever you fear slowly. Throw other people’s rules out the window. If you want to go bolt-to-bolt and hang and get comfortable on a project, do that. Great climbers have taken their time doing this; it’s only fair that you get to take yours while learning, too.

Ben Hanna 411

Spirit Animal:

The Hulk

Favorite food:

Chipotle (before, during, and after climbing)

Psyche music:

Tool

Cragging etiquette tip:

“This is not your house, and your mom’s not going to clean up after you.”

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