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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.
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."
"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.
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.
"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."