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Interview: How Ben Hanna Became the Athlete He Wanted to Be

After 19 days in Dry Canyon, Arizona, at the Celebrity Cave, 23-year-old Ben Hanna put down an impressive list of 5.14's.

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After 19 days in Dry Canyon, Arizona, at the Celebrity Cave, 23-year-old Ben Hanna put down one impressive tick list. Hanna managed the third ascent of Lee Majors (5.14c); and he climbed Suzanne Somers: A Love Story (5.14b); Almost Famous (5.14a)—on his second try; Boogie Knights (5.14a), also on his second try; and then he managed the first ascent of both Suffer (5.14a) and No controls (5.14a). 

That’s six 5.14s, in case you weren’t counting.

Hanna, originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, began climbing as a toddler. Beginning on a youth team and eventually transitioning to the World Cup circuit (just last weekend he placed 30th in the Seoul Bouldering World Cup!), Hanna has been a steadfast student of the craft. In between training cycles and competitions, he’s made his way outside to tick (among many others): Helsinki (5.14c/d), in the Bat Cave, New Mexico, and Everything is Karate (5.14c), in the Crack of Noon Buttress, California.

Early in 2022 Hanna went to the Dry Canyon with fellow pro climbers Nathaniel Coleman and Sean Bailey. Coleman, who first ascended Lee Majors, bolted an extension to the line a few years ago, which stacks a V10 into a V13. The unclimbed test piece may be one of the hardest lines in the country.

When Coleman and Bailey invited Hanna on the trip, he was outside of his “designated” window to climb outside before he needed to train for the upcoming Team Trials. He said no, but in the end they convinced him, saying he could leave early if he wanted. At the Team Trials, which took place in March, Hanna placed fifth in bouldering and fourth in the combined bouldering and lead category to earn a spot on the US Team.

Climbing caught up with Hanna to hear more about his trip, the importance of outdoor climbing, and his mental game when it comes to throwing down. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ben Hanna: Man, Myth…or Hulk?

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Climbing: At the start of the video, you talked about how you felt like it was important for you to go outside climbing at the end of 2021. Can you elaborate on that?

Hanna: I was feeling like I needed to do that for my mental health. I felt like I had just spent so much time training, and I just needed to go climbing after Nationals. I couldn’t just train until the team trials. I hadn’t been out climbing for so long and I was also like, “I can’t spend four months training for Team Trials with the possibility that I just still don’t make the team.” And I had just spent a year just training, just to end up not going to the World Cups. So, [after Nationals], I set aside three weeks to go climbing outside and it was amazing. But then, Nathaniel and Sean were like, “Dude, we’re going to Arizona for like a week and a half, two weeks. It’ll be a short trip to go try this project,” and I really wanted to go and finish Lee Majors up … I ended up staying for like 19 days.

Climbing: Can you tell me more about Dry Canyon? What are the routes like? 

Hanna: It’s classic Southern states limestone, where you’re just kind of in the middle of the barren desert. It’s actually pretty close to home for me, just a couple of hours south of where I grew up climbing in the Bat Cave, in New Mexico. And the limestone is super, super good. Some of the best. There’s definitely some lesser quality rock there, and then there’s some really, really amazing gems—just full, white limestone. 

Hanna makes his way up Suzanne Somers: A Love Story (5.14b). (Photo: Mantas Motekaitis)

Climbing: Yeah, the routes in the video looked so sick. 

Hanna: There’s a couple of built routes, but I’m not one to really complain about that. I don’t really mind that, and then Lee Majors I think is all natural, which is pretty amazing to me.

It’s kind of perfect how it is. It’s all bullet-hard rock and has like perfect stalactite roof climbing.

Climbing: In the beginning of the film, you spoke about your “early life crisis.” Can you expand on that? 

Hanna: I always knew I was going to be a professional rock climber. I remember the day when I was like 10, when I came home from the climbing gym, I was like, “I’m going to be a pro rock climber.” My mom was like, “Uhhh, all right.” And then, of course, everyone was like, “Dude, you can’t do that. That’s not a thing that people do.” But it just worked out well enough with time. By the time I turned into a young adult, rock climbers were actually getting paid. 

After graduating high school, I was still living at my parents’ house, and I had basically mapped my career out. I was 19, 20, then 21 years old, and I had none of the achievements that I thought you needed to have to be a professional rock climber. I hadn’t made a final at a Nationals. I wasn’t climbing the hardest stuff outside, or even like the second hardest stuff outside. I was getting 60th to a hundredth place at World Cups. I was having almost no success with the achievements that I had set for myself to reach to quote-unquote be a professional rock climber. And then I forgot to sign up for nationals in 2019. So I missed the whole World Cup circuit. I missed all the qualifying events for the Olympics. So I just didn’t get to compete for a whole year. And I kind of had this early life crisis where I was like, “What am I doing with my life? I’m not going to college. I don’t have a job. I’m really not that successful at rock climbing.” … As far as everyone else in the U.S. who I was comparing myself to, they were like, “I don’t know if I’m really even a professional rock climber.” I was like, “Dude, you’re like podiuming at World Cups. So what does that make me?”

I almost quit. I hit this wall and was like, “I just don’t know if I have it in me, and I don’t know why I’m still doing this. Who am I kidding? And, I should probably quit this ridiculous endeavor and go to college and get a real job and move on with my life.” And I got really, really, really close to that. And then I decided to buckle down for one more year and just make as many sacrifices as I had to make. Everything I could possibly do to become the athlete I wanted to be. And it ended up working out really well. I saw a lot of success and I just kept making more sacrifices and more sacrifices and I moved across the country. Anything that came up that I thought could get in the way of my climbing, I would just, you know, make that sacrifice. And then at the end of that year, I won my first National Cup, and then I podiumed at Nationals and made the team. And then obviously COVID happened. But that gave me the confidence that I could do it and I should just continue to keep pushing, and chasing this dream.

And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I just continued to train and believe that I could make it work and make it happen. 

Climbing: Can you tell me more about some of the specifics that you were doing in that training period? 

Hanna: I was living in Dallas at the time. And then, I talked to my good buddy, Brad [Hillbert]. He was like, “Hey, move down to North Carolina and we’ll make like a four-year plan.” He’s a strength and conditioning coach. And so he was like, “Let’s make a four year plan and not focus on what you want to do this year, but focus on winning a World Cup in four years.” So we sat down and made this plan for up until this upcoming year. I talked about it in the video. We did a lot of isometrics and weightlifting. I kind of did a full year of just strength training. And then I transitioned into power and more of a climbing phase.

So when I moved to North Carolina, I lived with [Brad]. I basically slept when he told me to sleep, ate what he told me to eat, I trained when he told me to train. I did everything he told me to do. I followed the plan for six weeks, and lived in his TV room. And then after the end of that, I moved back home [with my parents] and continued the training plan for the rest of 2019. And then at the end of 2019, I moved to Salt Lake City and focused more on climbing skills, using basically a new body that I had built. I started training with Josh [Larson], and just working on comp climbing. I’ve been doing that for the last two years based out of Salt Lake. 

I also don’t want to skip over training with coach Kyle [Clinkscales, in Dallas], because he was also super, super important in my path as a climber. But that was kind of the changing point. I was in Dallas when I had that mental breakdown. And then I was like, “I need a change of space.” I moved to North Carolina and then moved to New Mexico and then Salt Lake City.

It’s been pretty amazing. Just moving in with a bunch of people that were way better than me was really important. Just to surround myself with people that were constantly climbing better than me and pushing me on all levels.

Climbing: Can you tell me about the work you put into developing your mental game? What was the key to that? 

Hanna: I honestly don’t know what the key is. But I can tell you what it’s been looking like. It’s this constant battle. I feel like Sean put it really well in his video where he said “You’ll put a lot of work in and figure out what’s working and then keep changing things.” He’s actually been really helpful with my mental game. He’s just had so much experience. But just testing different things out and like trying things and seeing if they work and what doesn’t work. A lot of trial and error of going to a competition and being like, “Okay, I’m going to focus on having fun and not worry about the results.” For a long time I found a lot of success with this idea of knowing that I was capable and feeling confident and believing in myself to succeed. But also accepting failure as an option and kind of confronting that before and during the comp. Being like, “I know I could win. I know I’m just as good as everyone else. But if I end up in 50th place or don’t make semifinals and Nationals, if I come up short of what I know I can do, I’m okay with those results.” I found a lot of success with that, but then, you change as a person and you change as a climber and you’re in a different spot in life. And so that mentality that worked for you doesn’t work for you anymore. 

Last season was a really great example of that, where I had success and failure at different points at different competitions with very similar mindsets. What worked for me at Nationals did not work for me at Team Trials. When I was at Nationals, I found this new head space that I’d never really been in before, or hadn’t been in in years. It was very similar to when I used to compete in youth, where I just rolled up and knew I was one of the best there and knew that regardless of what happened, or what was going on, I was going to succeed and climb well. I went into semifinals with the head space of like, “It doesn’t matter how I climb and what my experiences are in these boulders, because I know that I am one of the best here. And if I’m having trouble on this boulder, then everyone else is going to have trouble on this boulder. So it doesn’t really matter. Like, I’m not having a unique experience.” And then the whole final, I believed that I could win. And that was something that I’ve never really felt before at an event at that level. 

At the Team Trials, I could not get into that same mindset. Regardless of how hard I tried to force it, it just didn’t work. Every round ended up going really poorly for me with that mindset until I finally gave up and then went back to the other mindset of accepting that whatever happens, happens. And that’s when I started to climb better. It was just because I had changed as a person and was in a different spot in my life. 

At the next comp in Switzerland, that was probably my best event I’ve ever had. [Ed note: Hanna placed fifteenth in the 2022 Meiringen Bouldering World Cup]. I had been climbing quite poorly the month leading up to it, to the point where a few days before I left for Switzerland, I had given up on having any expectations of the event. I couldn’t remember the last time I enjoyed climbing because I was just climbing so poorly that I would end up getting frustrated and leaving the gym. And so I was like, “Well, I’m going because I have a ticket and I have a spot and, I’ve got to go try, but honestly I can’t see myself even getting off the ground.” I would have been surprised if I got zones. And then it was my best round I think I’ve had in a competition ever, because I just had no expectations. 

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So I guess a long way to sum up your question is that, I don’t have one answer, because I think that the mindset is something that’s always changing. I think I’ll always be in a constant state of trying to figure out where I’m at and what works for me at that point in time. 

Climbing: That’s really well put. 

Hanna: Thank you.

Climbing: Bringing this full circle, what role would you say taking outdoor climbing trips has for your mental health? 

Hanna: I grew up climbing outside. I really pride myself in being a rock climber. I love all things about rock climbing. But as far as mental health goes, I feel like it really fulfills something that I need in my life, that comp climbing doesn’t. They both fulfill different things, but it’s definitely something I need in my life to be happy. It kind of just resets all my serotonin levels, and it just brings me a lot of joy. It’s really easy, especially for me, to get wound up in all of the pressures and results and shenanigans that come with comp climbing. Being able to go outside and let all that go and reset my brain, as far as mental health goes, is really important. 

It was crazy, because I decided to go on this trip because it was one of those opportunities where I knew I’d never forget it. I realized that that trip to go with Sean and Nathaniel to go try one of the hardest climbs in the world was exactly what I always wanted to do. The video that made me want to be a professional rock climber was Chris Sharma doing that exact same thing. So I was like, “Oh, holy crap, I’m being given this opportunity to do the thing that made me want to be a professional rock climber. And this is one of those moments where I get this opportunity to go participate in this part of climbing that I’ve always really loved and always wanted to participate in. So I decided that I couldn’t pass up on that. And not only the significance of the trip, but also going climbing in the desert and just hanging out with some of my best friends for basically a month. That’s so cool. No one gets to do that. That’s literally living the dream. There’s no way I could say no to that. 

Uncut: Nathaniel Coleman on the First Ascent of Lee Majors (5.14d)

But it was fully during comp season. It was definitely during the time I needed to train. I think I gave myself like just less than a month between that trip and Team Trials. And I was like, “There’s no way that I’m gonna be able to go to Arizona and climb on only sport climbs for a month and then come back and be fit for bouldering competitions.” But then I got back and I was in the best bouldering and shape of my life, which makes no sense to me. Everything that I believe as a climber was blown out of the water. There’s nothing about that which makes sense. 

Climbing: Were the routes bouldery at all?

Hanna: There were definitely hard moves on them for sure, but nothing remotely as hard as what I would have been climbing on if I were training at home. The hardest boulder that I tried the whole trip was like V11 and everything else was probably closer to between V6 and V9. 

Climbing: What was your favorite moment of the trip?

Hanna: I think there were a couple of moments. Funny enough, none of them were sending. It definitely was just moments like when we’d stay out there hours after it got dark and we’d all be hanging out climbing. Or hiking up in the morning. Just moments where you kind of stop and sit and look and appreciate where you’re at, where everything stopped. And I got to appreciate what I was doing and where I was and who I was with, that was really what I was the most thankful for.

Climbing: Can you tell me about the 5.14s you FAed?

Hanna: Yeah, they were just full on linkups. They definitely were not the proudest first ascents. But I had done Suzanne Somers and then to the left of Suzanne Somers is Almost Famous. And then to the left of that is Boogie Nights. I did those three. In Almost Famous, there was a bolt to the left that you can climb from the crux into the crux of Boogie Nights. I think that one was probably my favorite. The wall was pretty blank. … The holds kind of went away with your hands, and so you ended up just leading with this stab into a kneebar. I thought that was pretty sick.

And then the same thing for the other linkup. Around the crux of Almost Famous, you can trend right and then climb into a power endurance section. So you could climb into the top of Suzanne, which was just a bit harder than the top of Almost Famous.

So they’re one-bolt linkups, connecting the like last blank space on the wall. But they’re super fun. I had a good time on them. The climbing on that section of the wall was just so good. When I had done all the other climbs there, it just made sense to try to do those ones, too. 

Climbing: Last question: What was the rock at the beginning of the video that you held? The big square one? 

Hanna: Oh, I have no idea! I’ve got to figure out what it is. I think it’s some kind of mineral. It was super light. I have no way of actually giving you a number, like a unit number of how light it was, but it was probably a tenth of what you would expect it to weigh. I thought it was super dope. I found so many cool rocks there. That the trail to the wall was pretty bad. You walk far away in the wrong direction because it’s slightly less inclined. So we ended up going kind of straight up the hill a couple of times, because we are in our early twenties and I decided that it would be easier to just go straight up the hill. And there were so many sweet rocks there. I think I found a geode, which I thought was super cool. So that was also definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip, just finding sweet, cool rocks every day.