Elle Capitan

Elle Capitan

I have been all over the world and have had the fortune of doing things with many special people, some famous, some anonymous. But the biggest little hero I’ve ever known is Lynn Hill. The rest of us are just holding her rope. — John Long

As the endeavors of sport climbing and big wall climbing began to attract the attention of serious athletes in the 1970s and 80s, they followed the worldwide trends of the time: they were old-boys activities. As climber John Long put it, back then most female climbers were “bored girlfriends, hippies, or peculiar in the extreme.” Although we tend to admire the peculiar folk around here, Long’s 1991 statement probably alluded to the lack of women in the realm of dedicated, high-level climbing.

Today, women occupy the same upper echelons of the sport as men. For example, Woman Crush Wednesday honoree and Olympic gold medalist Janja Garnbret is considered an all-time great. To shift paradigms from one extreme to the next requires trailblazers of world-class quality.

In climbing, that luminary was Lynn Hill.

Lynn Hill on a big wall - photo from Lynn Hill Climbing

Born on 3 January 1961 in Detroit, Hill’s family moved to Fullerton, California. Her climbing proclivities began early, as she scaled nearly anything she could, from trees to street lights. A natural athlete, Hill spent much of her childhood as a gymnast, reaching the level necessary to perform at Angels games in Los Angeles. Later, at university, the track coach at Santa Monica College recruited Hill to the team, despite no previous running experience. With just a few months of coaching, she finished third in the 1500 meters and fourth in the 3000 meters at a state-level meet. Although she didn’t know it at the time, these fitness and dexterity skills would translate into another type of physical activity.

At 14, Hill’s sister and her sister’s fiance took her on a climbing trip. Instantly, she was hooked. Just two years later, she was climbing in Yosemite, long considered the hub for real-deal rock climbing. She began to tackle some of the hardest routes in the world, becoming so good that she joined the park’s search and rescue team by the early 1980s. In 1979, Hill became the first woman to free climb – using ropes for safety, but not employing them to gain any advantage during the climb – a route called Ophir Broke in Colorado. At the time, the 5.12d rating on the Yosemite Decimal System was the most difficult route ever successfully completed by a woman.

She moved to the East Coast of the United States in the mid-1980s, where she frequented The Gunks, the colloquial nickname for New York’s Shawangunk Mountains. The Gunks feature some of the gnarliest rock climbing in the east. There, she started to garner the attention of the wider climbing community. In 1986, the French Alpine Club invited a group of the best American climbers to join them in southeastern France. Hill accepted the invitation, a decision that would change her life.

As a youngster - photo from Lynn Hill Climbing
Making it look easy - photo from Lynn Hill Climbing

Though she excelled on a world-class level in sport climbing, Hill’s true love remained the big outdoor walls. In 1992, she left the professional circuit in her prime to focus on larger goals.

El Capitan is a tremendous rock formation in Yosemite National Park. The crag features a vertical rise of 3,000 feet from the valley floor to the peak. It’s a marvelous slab that has enchanted sightseers and climbers for hundreds of years. One of the most famous routes on El Cap is called The Nose, a smooth section that tackles the prow of the mountain. Though some people had climbed the route with aids, no one had ever free climbed The Nose.

Ever the trailblazer, Lynn Hill free climbed The Nose in 1993. It took her four days.

The Nose on El Capitan - photo by Meros Felsenmaus

Unfulfilled with simply conquering The Nose, Hill returned to El Capitan in 1994. This time, she free climbed the route in under 24 hours!

Climbing legend Yves Chouinard called the 1993 and 1994 feats “the biggest thing that has ever been done on rock.” German climber Alexander Huber wrote Hill’s achievements “passed men’s dominance in climbing and left them behind.”

Not until 1998 did another human replicate Hill’s climb on The Nose. Then, it took Scott Burke 261 days of effort before he could free climb that portion of El Capitan. To date, only 10 humans have free climbed The Nose. Only once, in 2005, did someone manage to surpass Hill’s time, as Tommy Caldwell spent just under 12 hours on the wall.

Check out some incredible footage of Hill in 1994 on The Nose.

A year after the sub-24-hour ascent, Hill became a member of the North Face climbing team. She began to travel the world, climbing some of the most famous walls on the planet.

In the past quarter-decade, Hill has dedicated herself to teaching others to climb, especially fostering a love for the rock in young girls. When she was 14, climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, Hill recalls an interaction she had with a man, who was surprised she could ascend a route when he could not. “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 a man or a woman.”

She has stated many times that when she was competing, she did not view the task as a competition against other men or women, but instead about society’s expectations of what women can achieve. When it comes to accomplishments, Hill’s resume speaks for itself.

She easily ascends to a position on the mountaintop we lovingly call the Woman Crush Wednesday Hall of Fame. As she famously stated when she reached the apex of The Nose, “It goes, boys!”

Lynn Hill, the legend - photo from Lynn Hill Climbing

Further Reading and Exploration

Lynn Hill Climbing – Official Website

Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World by Lynn Hill 

Mile High in Her Field : Rock-Climber Lynn Hill, a Native of Fullerton, Is First Female Star of the Sport – Los Angeles Times

Lynn Hill – Climb and More

Lynn Hill – The Crag

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