mountain zone home

1st Ascent
Black Pyramid

Cruising the Zodiac
Chamonix: To Climb
or Not to Climb

Twight's New Route
Oregon's Smith Rock
Greg Child Photography

mountain zone home

photo of Lynn Hill
Lynn Hill,
[click to zoom]
(photo: Greg Child)
I can see why the Indians found solace in the Indian Creek Valley in southeastern Utah. Its sharp, visceral beauty is so demanding of the moment that to describe it to one not present makes an almost absurd challenge. With walls that reverberate and arches that offer views more clandestine than their frames, it gives the impression of a motion picture in reverse. Yet, so earthy are the contrasting vistas of sage-green fields, brown, spidery trails, and monolithic rock—which display moods of their own as they change from orange to red to purple, depending on the sun's telemetry—that it almost seems, well, unearthly. And while visitors may come for a few hours, or even a few days, to visit this odd neck of the planet, it is the climbers who come to drink and breath and play in the aura that is this valley.

"When you step off the ground on a climb, you know it's going to be an adventure. You have to deal with everything that comes your way and you're responsible for every movement. You can't blame someone else or anyone else..." — Lynn Hill

Given as much, when Canadian sports cinematographer and director, Jon Long, decided Indian Creek Valley would become the location for the rock climbing segment of his IMAX movie, Extreme, it came as no surprise. Like the name, the movie promises extremes: the most accomplished athletes in the most aesthetic places performing the most extraordinary feats of their sporting disciplines, including surfing, skiing, snowboarding, windsurfing, ice and rock climbing. Utah's red rocks were the necessary contrast to the "blues of the ocean segments, and whites of the snow segments," says Long. As for climbing, what an IMAX film will do is help to dispel the perception that climbers are unreasonable extremists. IMAX cinematography is shot on a negative 10 times the size of traditional 35mm film, then projected in theatres with eight story high screens. If climbing truly is a three-dimensional, spontaneously choreographed ballet, as climbers claim, then Extreme will be the first opportunity for viewers around the world to see this ballet and all from the angles of expert climbers.



As for choosing the climbers and other experts in the film, Long not only wanted "the best," but also wanted people who lead "adventure-oriented lifestyles." When it came to rock climbing, Lynn Hill and Nancy Feagin were a natural fit. Not only are both women renowned rock climbers, but they live the lifestyle, climbing all around the world, from limestone faces in France to California's El Cap—a few times over.

So, for two weeks in May 1998, while Long and his crew captured Hill and Feagin—via helicopter—as they crack climbed in Indian Creek Valley, I, too, was privy to the most incredible climbing I'd ever seen, from distances unimaginable in any other circumstances, in a place like none other on earth.

The following is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Long and I, with Nancy Feagin and Lynn Hill, for the IMAX movie Extreme.

How did you get into climbing?
Lynn: There are words in my baby book that my mother wrote, "Lynn climbs the monkey bars like a pro." I climbed everything, I climbed trees, rock, and I enjoyed playing outdoors.

Nancy: I got into climbing when I was young. My father was a knee surgeon and one time he worked on a climbing guide who bartered free lessons for the family in exchange for my dad's services. So we all took climbing together. I loved it. I was a gymnast and loved playing on rocks, so I was natural at it. It seems children come into the world with such imagination and seek out adventure, and that that's what climbing is about in some sense.

Lynn: Absolutely. The spirit of play is really the most important thing in my book. You have to love it. There's work involved and discipline, but when you're engaged in an activity that's fun, you're thinking about flow and grace and you're holding on without any more than you need to—and working with your whole body. Imagination is key.



Would you consider climbing a form of self-expression?
Lynn: I think everybody has his or her own style. It's personality—some people are quick and fiery and they'll approach and climb that way, but if they're wrong, they'll fall off. And other people, they'll look and touch the holds and figure out if they can do it and then commit. I'm more like that. I like a rhythm if I can, but if it's really hard, I look at the holds and touch them.

Nancy: If you do first ascents, you're showing your creativity and self-expression. You can tell how some people are by their climbing, if they're more dynamic or controlled.

Is there a point or transition in your career when climbing moves from technical to a free flow of movement?
Lynn: I've been climbing for 23 years now, so looking back when I first started climbing, I was learning different elements of it. But I didn't even know the scope of climbing; each experience was just about what I was doing. And then different rock types have different forms and you have to adapt yourself to that form and shape. That's the beauty about climbing; you're in beautiful places, and its really inspiring, and there's no better way to learn about nature and life than to go with that flow, and do the best you can each time.

What do you learn about yourself when you're out climbing?
Nancy: Sometimes good things, sometimes bad. You expose yourself and it's not always pretty.

Lynn: When you step off the ground on a climb, you know it's going to be an adventure; you have to deal with everything that comes your way and you're responsible for every movement. You can't blame someone else or anyone else. Even if a rock falls down on you. You try to be the best you can in every situation—follow the natural line, read the route, and have fun. You can be hot and dehydrated and hungry, but you have to accept it and somehow find that second wind. I always have confidence that I will survive and having trust and a good relationship with your partner is essential.



Has the feeling of it changed since you first started climbing? Is the experience more rewarding, or less?
Nancy: Now I have more technical experience and it's changed and I enjoy other sorts of climbing like alpine climbing and longer routes.

Lynn: I think my career has evolved with the times and new equipment and different types of rock that I've climbed on. I've adapted different styles. I remember the first time I went to France and climbed on limestone. I'd heard a little bit about it but it was so different than crack climbing in California. You have to be open to trying different things. So it's added a layer of experience and a different vision. I look at climbs much differently now.

What about climbing attracts you the most?
Lynn: In climbing, the aesthetics are very important. There's the aesthetics of the line and you look at the features and the cracks—that's exciting for me. When I look at a wall, I look for different features—the aesthetics of the route. I like climbs that are steep. My body can swing with motion and I can do acrobatic movements and that, to me, is aesthetically pleasing. I don't like groveling, for example. Groveling is when you grunt your way up a large crack and it's not a pretty way to do it. Like when you have to stick your hand or foot in there and pull your way up. That's not aesthetic movement.

What are your favorite places to climb?
Lynn: People ask me this, and I can't say I have a favorite place, but I do have favorite types of rock. What I like about climbing is change and discovery and learning—always finding new places. I like limestone the most, and France is one of the places I enjoy most. I like the movement of the climbing there.

Nancy: I dream of big walls over 2,000 feet high, such as in Yosemite and Zion.

What is it about climbing that has made it your lifestyle?
Nancy: It's affected everything: my outlook on life, relations with other people, how to solve problems myself. I'm doing what I dream about. I'm challenging myself and living in places where I've wanted to go and climb.

Lynn: It's great fun. It's the best sport in the world. It's not about making money at all—even though I'm a professional climber. I don't have a lot of money, but I do lead a very rich life. It's a quality life—I eat quality foods, I have the best friends and experience beautiful places. I like to discover beautiful places around the world. When I get saturated with the aesthetics of a place, I move on to another. One of the great things about climbing is that I always run into people that I know, no matter where I go in the world. You hear about new places and there's always someone exploring another part of the world that you may not have thought about. They find beautiful climbs and that's what makes life interesting. It's one big, long journey.

Nancy: Seeing different countries and different cultures, and even though climbing is part of it, it's the different cultures that also make it a journey.

Lynn: Another great thing about climbing is that it's about simplicity. Climbers need only very basic things: good food and water and we don't have many demands for where we sleep. I mean, sometimes we sleep on rock or in the air. You go with the flow.

Nancy: It's a very spiritual way of being.

Do you think that simplicity is maybe what a lot of society is missing?
Lynn: Absolutely. Climbing is very simple. You have to rely on yourself and figure it out for yourself and be responsible for making your decisions. And being a little creative and imaging what's possible instead of being told what's possible.

Nancy: Too often people are worried about what other people are thinking or doing. With climbing, there aren't rules. That's what attracts me to it—you are not relying on society or anything else but yourself.

Lynn: Plus, I think the more you climb the more energy you have. And it's kind of a balanced energy—it's literally about balance because you're always looking for that center point in climbing. And I think it's contagious. If I don't climb for long periods of time, it feels like my spirit has dropped a little bit. I wake up my sprit a little bit by climbing.

There's a perception that climbers are out there trying to tame nature.
Nancy: Climbing is about working with nature and what's going on around you, the weather, the rock. It's not about conquering.

Lynn: Climbing is about being in harmony with nature. I think you learn respect when you are sensitive to nature and all its forms. If you're open and receiving it—nature is the best form of art to me.

Do you think that's something people could learn in society—taking time out to be in a different environment?
Lynn: Absolutely. I think it's about participating and appreciating what's around you and to be careful not to consume and waste or leave a trace. In climbing, we try to leave as little of a trace of our path as possible and that's about respect, too.

Nancy: Climbing is about being away from the material world, too, and gives you time to think more about your life and what's important to you.

So it differs from climber to climber, the level of respect?
Nancy: Everyone climbs for different reasons and takes different things away from their climbing experience. Whether it's the beauty of the environment, or being with your partner, or feeling of the movement. Some people climb just to say they've done the hardest route.

Lynn: Some people take it to extremes and actually change the rock so that they can climb it. They chip holds and add cement, so that it matches what they think the choreography should be. But I think if I can't adapt my form to the rock, then I shouldn't be doing it. I'd rather focus on the style of doing it than getting to the top at all costs.

Is the feeling you get climbing an adrenaline-rush or more long lasting?
Nancy: Both.

Lynn: For me the energizing part lasts longer than the climb. For me, climbing has changed me; it's taught me what works and what doesn't. When I rely on intuition and do what I believe in and feel is right, it's usually right. I think what society's been doing is teaching us not to do that, but to rely on external things. That's why I go climbing—for the simplicity. You rely on a little bit of equipment, but it's mostly yourself. Your own decisions and feelings and being at that place at that time.

What does the concept of "no fear" mean to you?
Nancy: Everyone has fear. It's the way you channel your fear—whether you let it control you or you channel it—whether it's real fear or made up fear. Are you in an avalanche zone? Or is it part of your imagination? Fear keeps you alive.

Lynn: Fear is normal, it's a part of life. For me, it can be very important because if you look down in a serious situation, you want to know where you're going to land, or put in another piece of protection or downclimb. Fear is a good indicator. Sometimes you might feel fear that is unreasonable and you have to say, 'Okay, I'm okay' and keep going. It's a red flag and I can either focus and get past that situation or I can go down.

Many people think climbers are crazy.
Nancy: It comes from people who don't know what climbing is all about. People who understand climbing know it's a pretty controlled environment.

Lynn: I think people don't understand climbing because they just see the danger—the sheerness of a cliff, which obviously you can fall off, but they don't understand the equipment or the process of climbing. Life is dangerous. It's guaranteed that we're all going to die, so we might as well have a good time and be careful, but you could die walking across the street.

Do you push your limits?
Lynn: The only time I pushed my limits, was when I had to. On occasion, I'll find myself in a dangerous situation where I don't have the option to go down. So you really have to focus on getting through and finding the solution—find the next hold and just try to do your best to stay in that moment so that you don't fall. First rule of climbing is don't fall.

Nancy: I push my limits fairly often and it's challenging. I push that edge where it's comfortable, but not to the point where I think I may die.

Lynn: I prefer to push myself when it's a safe situation and I have good protection and it's more about the gymnastic aspects of climbing and whether I can keep it together for another five minutes to make it to the top. I've been there where my forearms are burning, and I can barely concentrate on the next moves. You have to be strong and keep going.

What do you think about the genderless nature of climbing?
Lynn: I'll tell you a story. When I was 14 years old, I was bouldering in Joshua Tree and trying to overcome a mantel problem that required a certain amount of strength to push your weight up and over. This guy came over and said, 'Gee, I can't even do that.' I thought, well, why would you expect that you automatically could do it? Just because I was a small girl, was I not to be able to do it? It was a memorable experience because it occurred to me then that other people had a different view of what I should or shouldn't be capable of doing. I think that people should just do whatever they can do or want to do. It shouldn't be a matter of if they're and man or a woman. It shouldn't be a matter of one's sex. And climbing, fortunately, is a sport that's great for women. It includes a certain combination of grace and power and psychological aspects. You can use your own attributes to be a great climber.

Kathleen Gasperini, Mountain Zone Correspondent

[ Home] [Climbing Home]