Renowned climber Lynn Hill was in our studios August 24th, 1999, answering questions about training, climbing, and inspiring others. Watch it all in this replay of the live video event.
Lynn Hill: Climbing Through the Glass Ceiling
As climbing broadened in appeal and entered the mainstream, Hill has, over the past two decades, given focus to, and put a likable face on, the sport. Through both her sport climbing, as the first woman to flash 5.13a and the first to "redpoint," or totally free climb, 5.14a, and her big wall achievements, such as her first free ascent of The Nose in Yosemite, (followed the next year by her first free ascent in a day), Hill has become an inspiration, and not just to women, but to all climbers.
"Lynn is a phenomenally good rock climber," renowned climber and author Greg Child recently told MountainZone.com, "much better than me." And his is an opinion shared by many. By now a bona fide celebrity (replete with invitations to the White House), Hill still is driven by one thing: an abiding love of climbing.
"I still feel that the most important part of climbing is having fun with your friends," she said, "and usually in a beautiful place, because rock climbing occurs in a natural environment. That's the real spirit of climbing."
A natural talent who led the very first climb of her life, Hill admits she didn't know what the protection was for or what the "numbers" meant. But she was so good it didn't matter.
"The first day I went climbing," Hill remembered, "was at Big Rock, a local area near Riverside, California. It's a granite slab, low-angle, a lot of balance and technique. I didn't know anything about the equipment, so when my sister started explaining how to make a Swiss seat for the harness and tying the knots, I was just following along. And then she pointed up, said, 'Okay, now go!' So I did, and I kept climbing and looked down and it seemed kind of strange, but I just kept going. And at the end of the climb she said, 'Okay, that's the top, now you can come down.' I thought, 'oooh, you know, this is intense!' But I didn't really even know if it was dangerous or not."
"Yeah, I loved it," she said, "and I loved getting out of the city, too. I loved being in places like Joshua Tree, a beautiful place. And being in a natural environment and playing - that's what we did. Just running around the desert bouldering was great fun! In fact, to this very day, when I go back there that's what I do: just go out with a big crash pad with some friends and go bouldering.
"Actually, the first time I went to Joshua Tree was also with my sister. She said, 'Let's do the southeast corner.' It's not a very hard climb. You start up a low-angle face with no protection, and eventually stand up on sort of a ledge, and there's a big flake and a crack behind it, and you're supposed to put protection in there. I didn't even know what the protection was for, or how to use it. My sister said, 'Take one of those chocks and put it in the crack, then go up the crack.'"
Hill laughs at the memory. "I guess you could say I had a pretty unusual introduction to climbing. But I was always a good athlete as a kid. I was a gymnast, and I was the guinea pig for learning new spotting techniques. So I was used to actually doing things and going for it, you know. Or trying new things. So that's why leading my first climb probably wasn't out of context for the kind of little girl I was. I didn't mind trying things. And I probably didn't understand the risks, either, but since I'd never had a problem with it, I learned that if you focus on what you're doing and try hard, usually it works out."
Hill started climbing in the '70s, and eventually joined the top ranks of climbers, making her mark as a professional climber first as a rock climbing guide and later as a competition climber.
"I started climbing in 1975," Hill said, "and climbing was so much different then. It was something that people who were outcasts in society did, people who were not conformists. So to imagine climbing in the context of mainstream society, White House, all the things that have happened in the sport since then, was inconceivable.
"Even as late as 1983, '84, '85, I thought about trying to pursue climbing in some professional realm. And the first thing I did was become a guide, a rock-climbing guide. Of course back then they didn't even have the regulations that they do now, and it probably wouldn't have been possible for me to do it back then, given the situation that it is today with the laws and liability and all that stuff. But I didn't imagine that it was going to be possible to make a living as a professional rock climber. And then competitions came into existence, and that changed the sport quite a bit."
Hill recalls that the competitions honed her skill and even taught her techniques that would prove useful on longer climbs. But, eventually, she said, she realized she had to stop competing if she were to grow as a human being.
"Even from the start," she said, "for me the competitions were a pretext to meet people and travel and go climbing. The competitions themselves were also an interesting place to learn and be confronted with the fact that now is your time, do your best right now. Which happens in climbing on rock, in many situations. If you're on a scary lead, or in the mountains and you see storms coming, you can't just try again tomorrow, you've got to do it now. So there were some things in that realm of competition that were applicable to all experiences in climbing.
"But the thing I didn't like too much towards the end was how focused it was on just indoor climbing and training. I didn't start out training on artificial walls, and that's not really ever something that I wanted to do as a full-time profession. So as it became more and more indoor oriented on artificial walls, I liked it less and less, and kind of moved away from it.
It was Lynn Hill's first free ascent of The Nose on Yosemite's El Cap, and her subsequent one-day free climb of the route, that perhaps more than any other single event secured her place in the elite of climbing. Climbers everywhere were blown away by the mere fact of the achievement, not to mention the grace and style with which she pulled off her remarkable one-day ascent.
"I think that The Nose climb actually was a statement for me about people doing what they're capable of, no matter what the perceived difficulties are," Hill said. "If you're small, if you're tall, if you're...whatever your body type or sex, it doesn't really matter. If you want to do a climb and you've worked at it, it's not unreasonable even, if you do have the ability, why not? Why be limited by what other people say?
"Early in my climbing career, a guy once said to me after a a climb at Joshua Tree, 'Gee, I can't even do that.' That statement was the start of a whole process for me in pursuing my own dreams and not listening to what other people say. Okay, so you can't do it, but maybe I can. Or maybe I can't. But I think everybody has their own qualities and skills and desires, and as long as we're all true to what we want to do, that's the most important thing. It's not what other people think about what you do, it's your experience and how you approach that."
Despite the fact that Lynn Hill has made an indelible impression on climbing, she seems modest about her achievements, and reluctant to accept the mantle of the most famous woman climber in the world. Hill remains more interested in her own personal growth than any fame that she may have.
"Do I feel pride? I don't know," she said. "I definitely am content with my position in life. I think I've done some incredible trips to places with really interesting people, and it's a privilege to be in this position.
"But I wouldn't say I'm at the top level in all of those areas. Like Alex Lowe, for example, and Greg Child, when I did climbs with them in Kyrgyzstan, they were much more used to dealing with snow and ice, which I don't really deal with very much except for to go skiing or snowboarding. And I'm not that fast. I like to take my time when I climb. I love to enjoy and when you're in an alpine environment you're always in a hurry because the storms could come in, and it's just almost a matter of habit to go fast, even when you don't need to. So I wouldn't say that I'm at the top level in some of those areas."
"So that's why I said before, it's a privilege more than a sense of pride. Of course I am happy about it, but I look at it as an opportunity, something that I can develop in the future. There's always new things to do and always chances to learn about different kinds of climbing and different people."
What's next for Lynn Hill? She's been working on a book to, as she puts it, "give something back to the climbing world."
"I started out writing a book that was informational, with some training information and things that I had sort of researched, because I actually did study biology in college," Hill said. "And then I decided that actually that wasn't going to make very interesting reading. Since I learned about these things through experience, so what I should talk about are the experiences and through the experiences, the knowledge that came from it. I just tell the story and let people take from it what they want. And some of it is informative, but mostly it's entertaining and gives some insight as to the history for climbing; people that I met; experiences that changed my vision of climbing; and how I changed over the course of 24 years."
And for Hill, there will always be more climbing:
"I think it's normal and good to have peaks and valleys. Sometimes you go for the maximum, sometimes not. For me, right now, to do something that would be maximum, I would need a certain amount of preparation, trainingand a goal, obviously. I think it's really important also to go out climbing and just have fun with people that you like to go climbing withclimbing vacations. That's mostly what I like to do.
"But I do think it's interesting to pick a goal once a year and really go after something so that I feel like I've learned something and challenged myself. We always want to make progress in some way. And then once you do that goal, okay, then you shift gears and do other things, because climbing is not the only thing in life, either."
Peter Potterfield, MountainZone.com Staff