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Lynn Hill

One of the great rock climbers of the era takes on writing and motherhood
By Peter Potterfield - December 9th, 2004


As Lynn Hill concludes her third decade of rock climbing, she acknowledges, reluctantly, that her impact on the sport is probably second to no other woman. As climbing expanded beyond what was basically a fringe activity in the 1960s and entered the mainstream by the 1980s, it was Hill who put an appealing face on the sport as she made a name for herself.

The first woman to flash 5.13a, the first to "red-point," or totally free climb, 5.14a, the first climber ever to make a free ascent in a single day of The Nose on Yosemite's El Cap, Hill has become an inspiration not just to women but to all climbers. Writer Jon Krakauer summed it up: "Lynn Hill isn't just one of the best female climbers in the world, she is among the greatest rock climbers of all time."

"I've been climbing for nearly 30 years now," Hill said recently during an interview for GreatOutdoors.com, "so my body knows how to do it. In fact, I'm a smarter, better climber now than I ever was. I can train less and climb better now than ever before. Frankly, that's not what I expected to happen as I got older, but I'm enjoying it."

And while Lynn Hill continues to climb at a rarefied level, she is also taking on new and completely different challenges: author, web meister, ambassador for Patagonia, rock-climbing teacher, and mother. Without question, the biggest new milestone in her life is son Owen, age 20 months.


"I always had the idea that I wanted to have a kid," Hill told me, "but that's all it was, because until you have one it's just that, an idea. And you don't know if you can. And you don't know if you're going to meet someone who also wants to start a family. When the clock really started ticking, I had to make the call, and I got lucky on all counts. I was 41 when I got pregnant, and I don't' think you want to wait too much longer than that."

With Owen now almost two years old, Hill admits that's being a mom has meant a radical change in lifestyle for one of the most high profile climbers in the world.

"It's a struggle for me in some ways that I can't just go, just leave at a moment's notice to travel and climb like I did before," she said. "But I'm glad I did it, so glad I could have a healthy child. And I'm glad I met someone I could connect with who also wanted to be a parent."

Hill admits that even for a climber known around the world, meeting the right person can be a hit or miss proposition. In this case, it was her friend Steph Davis, whom she met at Camp Bridwell near Cerro Torre in Argentine Patagonia, who introduced her to Brad Lynch. Hill had accepted an invitation to go on a climbing trip near Davis's home in Moab. It was a climbing trip that ended up changing the direction of her life.

"The bottom line is this: everybody has their life and you go through life and you meet the people you meet, and interact with those people, and that's the way it goes," said Hill. "But, in the end, everything still is limited to your path in life, whatever that might be. My path happens to be that of a well known climber, but I don't see the Lynn Hill that other people see, that famous person. I'm just inside my mind and body looking out at the world. But I enjoyed meeting Brad, and it was fun talking with him because he wasn't awed by who I was. We hit it off right away."


Lynch at the time was a recreational climber and professional chef in Moab. As the pair's relationship grew, both of them faced unexpected changes in course, big ones. The two, with son Owen, now make their home in Boulder, where Lynch continues "chefing" for the outdoor industry, and climber Lynn Hill takes a mother's pride in her new kid.

"Owen seems really smart," she said, beaming. "He's definitely athletic. He's already climbing and swinging from the edge of tables or whatever else he can reach. To me it's pretty amazing to se a very little guy doing these things. He's just been phenomenal, he's cute and smart and seems very curious. I find it fascinating to watch him watch things, and people, you can tell he's taking it all in, even if the doctors tell you they don't really focus on things until later. Until you have a kid there's no way to appreciate how fascinating a child can be."

But a new child isn't the only major change for her. Hill, who for a decade was a sponsored athlete at The North Face, returned last year to Patagonia. It was Yvon Chouinard, at what was then Chouinard Equipment, who first offered the rising young climbing star a sponsorship almost 20 years ago. Now she's come full circle, back again with Chouinard and his bigger and very different outdoor company.

"I'm really happy to be back at Patagonia," said Hill, "in some ways it's like coming home. A lot of the same people are here, and I really like the products. I'm from California, and there's something about working for a California company that feels right for me at this time of my life. I had a lot of good friends at The North Face, particularly Conrad Anker, but Patagonia seems like the right place to be now. I feel I can be the person I really am. And Patagonia's support of the environment is something else that I feel strongly about. I think it's important to work for a company that supports the same issues I believe in."

Her schedule at Patagonia is a full one, ranging from "ambassador meetings" at Yosemite to gatherings in Ventura, where company athletes get to go surfing with Jerry Lopez. Hill also traveled to Europe last summer to assist with the company's European business. But there is still time for other activities: Hill was invited to be "god-mother" at Petzl Roctrip, a gathering of Petzl rock climbers last summer at Gorge du Tarn in Southwestern France. It was there, while still breastfeeding Owen, that she demonstrated why she remains one of the most highly regarded climbers of the age.


"Those Petzl climbers make a pretty strong group," said Hill. "It wasn't like an indoor competition, but they had this format set up where you could do 15 routes that made up the flash comp. You had to try flashing the routes, and were not allowed to practice the moves--you got lowered to the ground to start again if you fell off. And then there was this harder route, pretty tough really, the voie ultime, that they let you work on. It was rated 5.14a, an intimidating rating. You really had to have the power and the precision to get the moves. So it turns out I was able to do this hard route, and I was the only woman there who was able to do it. I think it was really surprising for the others to see me breastfeeding one moment, and then go and crank this route. They were all like, 'What! She can still do it! Whoa...' It was pretty funny."

Despite the demands of motherhood, Hill has been on other climbing trips this year, including one to Cuba as part of her Patagonia role. "That was a lot like climbing the limestone in Vietnam or in Thailand," Hill said. "it's warm, the rock is full of stalactites and pockets. It was fun."

Hill said she is currently at work on her new web site, lynnhillclimbs.com, which is scheduled for a spring launch. The site will go hand in hand with the rock-climbing clinics Hill will put on with a handful of other climbers.

"We're going to pretty much cover all the major regions of the country," Hill said. "We'll start out in Bishop in April, then May in Moab, June in Eldorado Canyon before we head back east for fall, September in North Conway and the New River Gorge. It should be fun. In addition to direct instruction, I'd like to do some video taping so we can critique technique at the end of the day."

Motherhood and her move to Patagonia came on the heels of Hill's largely biographical book, Climbing Free, published in 2002 by W.W Norton & Co. Hill, who did much of the writing herself, collaborated with writer Greg Child on the book project.


"It was funny, I spent so many years talking about the book that doing it was something of a catharsis. It had been on the back burner for 10 or 12 years, and finally my agent presented me with a contract. I knew when I signed on the bottom line that I had to get ready for some real work, some difficult work. You have to just sit down and do it, and when you're not a professional writer, that can be daunting."

"Working with Greg was an interesting experience," Hill explained, "He would take my writings and organize them, and he encouraged me to elaborates on certain elements. He emphasized that telling the story is what's important, so he really helped me think about what I wanted to say, and figure out who my audience was."

Ironically, Hill said she found it easier to write about things that took place long ago, because she had had the time and opportunity to carefully consider those experiences, than it was to write about more recent events. But as much as the book was meant to be a memoir, Hill also said she wanted to convey the early days of rock climbing in Joshua Tree, and the beginnings of modern rock climbing.

"The idea was to convey the history and culture of free climbing," she said. "I was interested in exploring the traditional roots of the sport, and then how it transformed and fractured into all the specialties we see today--sport climbing, wall climbing, bouldering, etc. Rock climbing was all of that before, but in the last couple of decades it has just become more specifically categorized than it was before."

"I don't know very many who have written about that period of free-climbing history," Hill added, "so it seemed important to offer my perspective, a unique perspective. And I wonder if a male writer would have presented that information differently. I think the book is important from that stand point, because I am a woman, and there are not many female viewpoints on climbing, or the history of climbing, out there. I'm hopeful Steph Davis will write another book on climbing from the female perspective, but right now there's not a lot out there."

The challenge of writing a book, although very different from the demands of rock climbing, was no less difficult, according to Hill.

"Greg was a great help," she said, "but in the end it seemed like he left me on my on at the crux . It was a good thing I wrote the book while I was still single, because I couldn't devote that kind of time and energy to it now. I was really stressing out, so I just sat there and kept grinding through it. I'd show something to Greg, and he'd say it was no good, and I'd get pissed off and work even harder. I kept at it, and eventually was able to put down what I wanted to say in a way that I was happy with."

Climbing Free delves, for the first time, into some of the background and details of what is Lynn Hill's seminal achievement: free climbing The Nose on Yosemite's El Cap in a day. On that amazing day, September 20, 1994, darkness had fallen, her headlight was dimming from low batteries, and with a growing sense of exhaustion, Hill pressed on to make the final moves: "I reached out to the edge of a bulge above me, and I felt an alarming sense of fatigue in my arms," she wrote. "I focused my attention on a tiny edge on the face above. In the next instant, I lunged upward and caught the edge with two fingertips." Eventually, she reached the top.

"Climbing the Nose in a day was definitely a huge event in my life," Hill said. "I put a lot of meaning into it. I think that is one of the reasons I was able to succeed: I put a lot of importance on it myself. When you do that, you can be motivated for the right reasons, and that gives you the ability to draw on energy that normally you wouldn't be able to access. By making it important and putting it above even my own ego needs, I could succeed. I think that's a crucial point we all have to deal with when we try something hard: Is it about my ego or about the climb?"

The achievement rocked the climbing community because no climber, male or female, had ever been able to do what she did. Lynn Hill had accomplished what no human being had done before.

"That climb was bigger than me," she said, "and that was how I was able to do it. It does stand out as one of the highlights of my career, if you want to put it in those terms. I was exhausted at the finish, but I was so in the mode of doing it perfectly that I didn't even have any 'gobies' on my hands. I was so focused on doing it perfectly, not slipping a jam, going with the flow, trying to dose my energy, that I was really in a different space. At the Great Roof and the Changing Corners pitch, and even the last pitch, I needed to have the energy when I needed it, and it's powerful.

"You have to remember, you only have a few tries on the hard sections. It's so intense that you could never recover. No way. That's the whole game. And that's what I meant about focusing, not squeezing too hard on any hold, concentrating not just on the moves but concentrating on not exerting any more energy than necessary."

While Hill continues to climb at a standard of difficulty beyond what most climbers can meet, the climb of the Nose a decade ago in some way s symbolizes her unique attitude toward climbing, and toward life: In the best of situations, climbing can be a state of consciousness where there are no distractions or expectations, just the challenge. In Lynn Hill's world, meeting the challenge is everything.

"One thing I learned on that climb is that nobody is perfect," she said. "You can shoot for perfection and accept a good effort, and that's pretty much what The Nose was all about: Shoot for the best you can possibly imagine, and then be content with hard won success. Sure, it would have been nice to go from the bottom to the top without falling, but I feel good about what I did."


Comments

stonemasters

hey I'm ty. and yes I'm a girl. (: anyway I was just going to compliment how great lynn is! She's amazing from the start she was just outstanding. Outclimbing all the guys with her when she first started! isnt the crazy? I hope to have a life like that...even if I ever become as good as her(which I probably won't) I don't think I'm going to let the world know...I'd just want to be with my guy friends and climb! ha. that'd be so amazing.

Posted on March 6, 2010 - 9:07pm
by ty

What's Lynn Hill's height?

Hi Heather, or anyone.. What is Lynn Hill's height? I'm sorry for the question but I was wondering if there are there are any great female rock climbers who are as short as 5"..

Posted on July 31, 2009 - 4:10pm
by t-bud

Lynn Hill's Height

I meet Lynn at an outdoor store in Vancouver over 10 years ago. We are only a year apart in age. She had just finished up a trip in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. I got a signed poster for her. She seemed very nice and encouraging. I was amazed that she was slightly shorter than me. I'm about 5'3". So anytime I climbed and couldn't reach for a hold, I thought of Lynn. She is really a superb technical climber who really thinks out her moves.

Posted on July 8, 2011 - 8:25pm
by Visitor

Lynn Hill never ceases to amaze

I have always been impressed by Lynn's accomplishments but of all of them, I am most impressed with her "ascent" into PARENTHOOD. I'm sure she has days where raising little owen is harder than any 5.14a.

Thanks for continuing to be an inspiration to us all.

Posted on July 8, 2008 - 2:11pm
by Greg

Lynn Hill is my rock

Lynn Hill is my rock climbing idol. Being about her same size in height makes me realize that it is not the size of the person but only the determination that you give to something. She is an amazing woman and will be a great mother. I am so happy that she has seemed to find her way in life even in what used to be a "man's" world.

I hope that some day I can be even just a fraction of the climber as she is and able to raise a sucessful family as well.

Thankyou Lynn for everything you have done.

(p.s. This article is amazing for how is explains where she is now with her life and where she hopes and is going.)

Peace and Happiness
~Heather

Posted on April 11, 2008 - 10:53am
by Heather

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