2 Jul 2019

Free climbing pioneer: Lynn Hill

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 2 July 2019

Lynn Hill is considered something of a pioneer in the rock climbing community and continues to influence the current generation of female climbers.  In the 1990s she basically changed the definition of what was possible in free climbing.

In 1993 she made the first free ascent of the most famous big wall climb in the world - The Nose on El Capitan in California and then a year later she made a free ascent of the same route in just 23 hours - something that was unrepeated for over a decade.

She is also one of the most successful competition climbers of all time, winning over thirty international titles including the coveted Rock Master 5 times, and the World Cup in 1990.

Whe Hill first visited Yosemite as a child, she’d never seen a picture of a rock climber before, she didn’t know climbing was possible on those cliff faces. Her older sister, who was beginning to learn to climb, assured her it had been done. 

When her sister later extended an invitation to go climbing, on her first climb she took the lead up with her.

“I was a very athletic young child, I was in gymnastics so I was very flexible naturally and I learned how to go for it…I had the basic skills and I also climbed the neighbourhood light pole making up my own technique kind of like climbing up a palm tree or something.” Everyone thought she was strange, Hill says.

Now days, she says, climbing is at such a high level it’s almost acrobatic.

Many people mistake free climbing, what Hill does, for free solo climbing, where you’re climbing without a rope, she says.

“What I do, I consider much more reasonable, like a sport, and it’s what you’ll see in the Olympics, people climbing with a rope but what they’re doing is climbing up a choreographed route, in the case of a competition that would be something of an artificial wall, but what I do is rock climbing in nature and there is no choreography other than what you create.”

There’s sports climbing, which can involve climbing vertically but there’s bolts in the rock that you clip onto it, and there's traditional climbing, where you follow natural cracks in the rock - how Hill learnt to climb. With traditional climbing, you look at the rock face and identity the hand and foot hole, adapting yourself to the terrain, she says. The rope is there, in case you fall, not to aide you in the ascent.

It’s been 26 years since she made the free ascent on El Capitan, and Hill says there were no women doing major free accents in Yosemite when she was growing up - a great motivator for her.

“I felt that it was really important to prove, by demonstration, that women are capable of much more than we’ve been given credit.”

She says an old boyfriend told her that with small fingers she would be great for doing this particular climb, something that people then echoed when she’d gone up.

“Nothing else counted, it didn’t matter that I’d been climbing for 20 something years and had experience in all different styles of climbing, it was simply down to my finger size.”

When she went back last October she realised that actually, larger people have an easier time on one section of the rock face because they can reach a foot hole or two down lower which allows them to stand their weight more on their feet, rather than being in the extremely awkward position she had to be in. 

Hill considers herself a calculated risk taker, she doesn’t push herself beyond what she thinks is too far. “I don’t believe that it’s worth risking my life for this game.”

She says you don’t always plan to be in a dangerous situation but if you are, you need to stay calm, push the consequences out of your brain and focus on the solution.

“I do believe people that like to climb like to be fully engaged in the present moment in what they’re doing, we have a high degree of interest in what we’re doing and the complexity and the challenge, we like more and more challenge - we get bored easily perhaps.”

Lynn hill has written an autobiography called Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World and is in to New Zealand  to speak at two sessions in this years NZ Mountain Film and Book Festival.