By Dean Fleming
“It goes, boys.”
Those three words rang around the globe when legendary climber Lynn Hill became the first person to free climb the Nose (VI 5.14) on El Capitan in 1993. While most climbers today know of Lynn Hill and her many historic climbing achievements, her long list of groundbreaking ascents continues to astonish. Hill was the first women to climb 5.12d in 1979, the first women to climb 5.14 in 1991 and the first women to on-sight 5.13b in 1992. During Hill’s relatively short competition career, she quickly rose to the top of the ranks, winning more than 30 international competitions including five consecutive wins and the Arco Rock Master. As the 25-year anniversary of the first free ascent of the Nose quickly approaches in 2018, 56-year-old Lynn Hill continues to lead a busy life in Boulder, Colorado as a climber, instructor, mother and “grown-up” home-owner.
Anyone who has dedicated their life to a sport for more than a decade will know that it takes a strong sense of commitment and perseverance. After over 40 years of climbing, Hill seems as psyched as ever, and continues to improve her climbing methodically.
“I think that maybe I’m unusual in that I haven’t really felt burned out,” said Hill. “But I’ve tried to maintain balance in my lifestyle as a climber. I do the kind of climbing that has meaning for me and I don’t let the various forces around me destroy my sense of freedom and enjoyment of climbing. I’m a lifer and I want to climb for as long as my body will allow. I don’t really care about the grades and I don’t really care if I plateau.”
“I’ve definitely had my periods of training for things like the Nose and for competitions, but I ended up retiring from competitions because I didn’t want to burn out,” added Hill. “It seemed like competitions were pushing me toward indoor climbing only. I started thinking this is not why I started climbing – this is taking me away from my passion for rock climbing. That is why I retired early from my competition career and instead focused on things like free climbing the Nose and traveling around the world. When I look back on those days of traveling and working on the Nose, I remember calling it “Vacation Climbing.”
“I’m 56 years old now and I want to climb and feel good when I climb,” added Hill. “I think it’s better to under-do it rather than over-do it. I try to have fun with my climbing. I like to warm up, push myself a little bit and then just go home. I’m probably climbing better now in a certain aspect. Although I might not be stronger, I feel like I haven’t lost much since those days for a combination of reasons; I try to be as fluid and efficient as possible. This started out as part of my mental training while preparing for the Nose. I focused on optimizing every movement and maintaining an efficient flow of movement while conserving my energy so that I could climb 5.14, 2,500 feet off the ground. I feel like I’ve become a better climber over the years through the process of analyzing my own technique as well as that of other people for instruction purposes.”
Over the past decade Hill has been working on an instructional video called “The Art and Technique of Rock Climbing;” a passion project that focuses on the technique for face-climbing in applications like sport climbing and bouldering. The video will introduce climbers to the library of techniques that are used on everything from slabs and vertical faces to overhangs, corners, and arêtes.
“It’s a lot of material and it’s taken me over ten years to put it together,” said Hill. “So far there’s no one else doing this, and I figured out why; because it’s really hard! To try to explain something as complicated as climbing with simple indications is very difficult. I also don’t have a lot of time to focus only on my personal projects because I’m being pulled in so many different directions. In my household, I have a 14 year-old son who just entered high school. I also have a dog and a cat, so I’m always busy.”
In the 1990s the North American climbing community unanimously recognized Lynn Hill’s achievement of free climbing the Nose on El Capitan. As most groups of human beings tend to do, the climbing community in North American has often felt the need to place superlative adjectives and award titles to our climbing heroes. In the mid 90s it was common to hear Lynn Hill referred to (perhaps rightfully so) as the best climber in the World.
“I don’t agree with being called the “best climber in the World,” said Hill. “I did something that nobody had done before, and I would agree that I was in a small group of top climbers capable of making such an ascent. There were other amazing climbers in various places throughout Europe who were doing some cutting edge routes at that time. I think being able to do the first free ascent of such a historic route got a lot of people’s attention. If anyone had been able to do it before me, they would have, because it was a prize waiting to be grabbed. I had developed my skills as a traditional climber growing up in southern California and climbing in places such as Joshua Tree and Yosemite. During the late 80’s and early 90’s, there was no access to the Internet and most American climbers weren’t really aware of what was happening overseas.” Because I traveled to various places in Europe during a pivotal time in the development of free climbing, I developed the necessary strength and skills that other Americans had not developed yet, I did my first 5.14 between competitions in France back in 1990 when there was a single route rated 5.14 in America.
While Lynn’s achievement of climbing the Nose was followed by a large amount of positive and supportive behavior, she was also unfortunately met with some negative, sexist attitudes.
“It was unusual that I was able to do [the Nose], and of course because I’m a small women some men made comments such as “She was able to do it because she has such small fingers” or “she could fit better inside the corner (Changing Corners),” said Hill. “Both are true facts, but there were other sections of the route that was perhaps more difficult for me because of my small size. I think those statements indicate hints of that jealousy that come from sexism and the idea that men always have to be better – if a woman does something before a man, some men try to find a reason to undermine the achievement instead of just recognizing the beauty and vision of the ascent. No matter what size you are, you still have to be a very good climber to free climb the Nose, so why couldn’t they accept the fact that a woman is capable of making such a breakthrough ascent? I don’t see a point in dwelling on people’s small-minded ego problems. It’s not my problem, it’s their problem.”
“I would say that the level of sexism in climbing is somewhat better now, because there are so many young strong women proving that women can be really good climbers,” added Hill. “Look at gymnastics and the amazing Cirque de Solei performers. Women are able to perform at a very high level in those disciplines. I don’t like the tendency to compare men and women all the time. Women can do some amazing things, and men can do some amazing things, and sometimes it’s a different style. When you see people perform at a high level it’s beautiful to watch. We should all just be happy that men and women are complementary in our approaches. Hopefully, we can work together in harmony to improve the conditions of the world, rather than trying to dominate or claim superiority over each other based on gender.”
Between juggling her household in Boulder, Colorado, traveling for work and recreationally climbing, Hill has found an adoring and rewarding passion for teaching others the sport she has dedicated her life to mastering.
“They say you learn the most by teaching, and to me it’s fascinating to watch people climb at any level,” said Hill. “I’m trying to communicate what I’ve learned over the years and the best way to do that is to learn from the people who I’m trying to teach. It’s a two-way street. I’m learning from them and they are learning from me, and the more clear that I can be with my instruction, the easier it is for people to learn and progress, but more importantly, I hope they enjoy the experience. I like to learn and progress, but not at the expense of having a good time. If it becomes too serious then there is a greater chance of burning out. When people put too much pressure on themselves to succeed, it can ruin the joy of climbing.”
“I really look forward to the next camp in Joshua Tree which will take place on the 20th through the 22nd of October,” added Hill. “It’s always fun to see my good friends in Joshua Tree and I’m sure we’ll have another good crew of people at this camp. There are only about 14 people in this camp because we want to keep it small so that everyone has a chance to get to know each other. I hope that we all learn a lot from each other. That is why I like to do these camps because I think it’s great to have a collection of personalities that work and interact with each other in different ways. And of course, Seth and Sabra always have some sort of special entertainment up their sleeves. I’m sure there will be some fun and unexpected surprises for us all.”
“And speaking of surprises, I’m trying to think of a special way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first free ascent of the Nose…” added Hill. “We’ll see; I’m still trying to organize my ideas…”
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