Lynn Hill - The American Legend
Interview by Andy McCue
From her first steps climbing with her brother and sister and sister's boyfriend back in 1975, Lynn Hill was hooked on rock and went on to become not only the most accomplished female climber of her generation but one of the most accomplished climbers full stop, culminating in the groundbreaking first free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite in 1993 over four days, unlocking the crux Changing Corners and Great Roof pitches that had barred previous attempts. She then came back a year later and freed in a single day. Despite many attempts by some of the world's best climbers it was 10 years before the route was freed by anyone else. During the late 70s and early 80s Lynn climbed widely across the US with John Long and others in that Camp 4 Yosemite scene and then travelled to Europe before entering the then embryonic world of indoor competition climbing in 1986, winning more than 30 international titles, including five victories at the Arco Rock Master. Lynn also ventured into TV, taking part in and winning the hit US show Survival of the Fittest. Now, aged 50, and based from her home in Boulder, Colorado Lynn is a single mother of eight-year-old Owen, an environmental activist, writer, speaker, guide and coach, ambassador for outdoor gear company Patagonia - and still loves to climb. We caught up with Lynn during her recent headline appearance at the Kendal Mountain Festival in the UK in November 2011.
For me the turning point on the route was the Camp 6 Changing Corners pitch, probably just because I'd failed three times. I slipped on the last attempt at the beginning and that's where you see your mind start to go because you can either keep persevering or you can kind of mentally give up. And it's easier to do when you're 2,500 feet off the ground and it's really touch and go style of climbing. But I have to say that my belief that this was kind of meant to be, in a fate sense, was such an important thing for me to achieve to make a bigger statement, which is that I thought that climbing was relatively immature in what we were capable of doing and I had the vision to see that a lot more was capable and there's no reason that a woman couldn't do something out there and that to me was an important statement to make because in the history of Yosemite there weren't really that many role models. There was one for me, Beverley Johnson, and a few that had hung with the boys so to speak but I think that it's really important for women, girls to have role models to know that it's possible because it's the mind and belief that drives us. If you don't have any role models then you have even less reason to believe you're going to stand out. I saw that it was possible with the given set of skills and motivation that I had so I just tried really, really hard.
Are you still amazed by the way each generation of climbers, especially on somewhere like El Cap, is pushing things, eg Tommy Caldwell?
When I said I saw into the future and I saw that people would be warming up on 5.13, which at the time I said it that was still pretty leading edge, I just looked at the size of the holds of what people were doing and thought well of course athletes are going to be able to do this. So finally now we are seeing that and I'd say that it's a lot to do with not only just psychological advantage of knowing what's possible out there, what's been done but the actual ease of training. Now you have climbing walls everywhere and honestly it's a much more efficient way of training if you want to get strong than going out rock climbing, especially compared to when I started climbing - the traditional style is not very efficient at all in terms of fitness, it was all about the head. Which was good, it was a great base for me, but I have to say that now climbing looks more like a traditional sport such tahat people are getting closer to that level where it's going to start plateauing or just slight increases. Then you have better nutrition and things that actually make us perform better and people probably get better support too.
What do you expect to see in the next decade in terms of standards, professionalism and money in climbing?
I've seen specialisation in the sport over the years and that seems to be a trend that is leading to you seeing boulderers who only boulder. If you're a sprinter in running it's easier to understand why you don't run a marathon because sprinting is so different to marathon running. You have this kind of specialty because the level is so high you can't afford to do any other form of training, it'll get in the way. So the same is true with plastic versus rock. If you're a competitive climber it's plastic. So that's where the sport is going and I would say that it's kind of a departure from the culture and style that I started with - more than kind of, it's a complete departure. Not that I don't appreciate the plastic climbing because I think it's fun, it's social, it's efficient and as a mother that's something I appreciate and I go to the gym and I feel good because I'm moving in a climbing sense, it's part of my meditation and therapy. So I see that there's going to be a divergence in the kind of climber. I just see more specialisation. Money in the sport? It's never going to be tennis or football because I think climbers are a different kind of athlete. So I'd say it will grow because it's a fantastic sport that does appeal to a lot of people but you wouldn't include mainstream values as such but it is moving in that direction.
Did becoming a mother change your approach to climbing?
Of course. But I would say that I was never a reckless person taking unnecessary risk. Because of my origin and the kind of person I am I learnt how to manage to risk and therefore I know that climbing can be risky and even unforeseen objective things so I don't look for risk but I manage risk. So being a mother of course I don't even go to places I think are going to be dangerous. Even though there's always element of risk you have to kind of accept that's what keeps you happy and balanced as a person and without that you're not going to be the best person that you could be so adding a little bit of risk or accepting a little risk is okay. That's one thing being a mother, especially a single mother, I'm busy so it's a lot to manage. I don't have the same approach as when I was competing or what have you. I had time and rest days I can spend learning to read French and speak French and Italian so I had a lot of time to develop myself, and now I don't have that luxury to do those things for this period of my life. I look at my time in a different way. It's more important to be efficient in my climbing.
What would your job description be now if you had to put it on a CV today?
Well I'm still a climbing ambassador [for Patagonia] so that means I field many different requests for people, that would be anything from advice to speaking arrangements to clubs where they want to inspire young women, that type of thing, writing - the magazines still ask me to write things so I get requests from all different types of people, outdoor organisations. I'm also a rock instructor certified through the American AMGA and I work with designers at Patagonia so that's one small part of what I do. I do some environmental work. Recently Boulder decided to take energy utilities into the city council's hands so more locally instead of corporate monopoly. Xcel Energy spent a million dollars trying to combat that but people like me stepped up to the plate and said we should do it better. We don't have the pressure of shareholders who are investing coal and coal is obviously not good. We need to find a better solution. Even more could be done just in the realm of trying to change politics so that there's less corporate monopoly and this whole idea of the corporation having the rights as an individual is a very bad thing it turns out because they have a lot of political power but they have none of the social responsibilities. A corporation's responsibility is to give money to shareholder. Even if it's at the expense of humanity or the environment they, by law, have to do what makes them more money so this needs to be changed and I'm thinking that part of my future may have something to do with being a spokesperson on behalf of the environment and humanity. So my job description is quite varied and of course being a mother - that's the one that you pay money for, you don't get paid for that.
Do you think it's gotten any easier or actually harder for women to make it to the top in what is essentially still a very male dominated activity and industry?
No in the sense that because there are more strong women it's more competitive so it's harder to stand out. But I think there's still a need for women as far as like sponsorship goes. If you are a very strong woman climber then you will get picked up but it is just harder to stand out. But it's harder for anyone to standout just because of the sheer numbers and there are just so many really good climbers now. For me it was easier to stand out because number one I was one of the few women that was climbing near the standards of the top men, I was climbing first ascents with a lot of them side to side. But I think the classic women's temperament is to stand back and let the men lead
Are we losing the traditional climbing adventure/challenge to the pure fitness and physicality of bolted limestone and bouldering?
I think it's possible to still find adventure, I just think that it's harder now because most have been done that are accessible and most people don't really have the time or money to just take off and to some obscure remote climbing area and find the adventure that we found in our local areas. Which brings up the next point about why it's become much more of an athletics pursuit is that there's so many climbing gyms and you know people can go there as much as their schedules allow or their bodies will allow. I think it's normal for a sport to mature. When I said people would be warming up on 5.13 it's because I felt like for a real full-time athlete what we were doing back in the day was just really not that tough. It was tough mentally because we didn't know it was possible and it actually was quite dangerous because we didn't have the protection that people have today.
Photograph - Lynn Hill in an iconic Patagonia catalogue cover shot. Photo: Rick Ridgeway / 2011 Patagonia
In the beginning of competitions they weren't really well organised and the format was the most challenging thing - how do we decide who is the best? What are we judging? And still I think it's difficult because they don't really have a consistent format for difficulty even. It all comes down to who is setting routes and what's their style. I talked to the route setters at the World Cup here in Boulder [Colorado] and they said the American route setting is very powerful and shouldery, not so complicated. But the Italian Arco Rock Master competition favours someone like Ramon [Julian Puigblanquehe] who has won it like six or seven times and it's because they use more crimps and they don't make it completely discriminatory as far as height. He's pretty small but does have a +6.5 ape index or something ridiculous but if you throw a jump in, like here in Boulder, it was really far and the two people that were the shortest in the competition did not stick that route. I don't consider that great route setting if you're going to make a move that makes it so much harder for the smaller people. I think we need to have a level of professionalism in our sport with the route designers and a consensus about what is the best route design - clever route designs where you have to think, imagine how your body's going to be in a certain configuration and how many moves. There should be really specific parameters in my opinion. We need to have more standards and we need to make it clear what we're judging. Speed's easy, people understand that and it's kind of interesting to watch but it's something I would never do. It's a whole different animal. How would the Olympics affect the sport? I think that the mainstream would understand it more and there might be some more money in the sport but I don't think it'll be quite as big as something like tennis for example, because climbers are a little different. We aren't quite the same as other athletes and I'm proud of that because we actually respect nature. Nature is a big part of it and we are adapting ourselves to the natural environment, natural shapes and we tend to be not so conformist, we're more out of the box thinkers and those are really great qualities, society needs all those types.
What goals, dreams and ambitions - climbing or otherwise - do you still have in life?
Doing a good job raising my son and giving him the guidance that he needs because he's pretty challenging - he doesn't like school, he doesn't like class but he's got tons of energy so I've got to help him along there, that's a huge job especially now because he's eight so it's pretty crucial period of his life for the next 10 years. As far as my climbing one thing I can say up to this point I'm really proud and happy that climbing is still the thing that I love to do. You'd think I'd get sick of it and a lot of people do and stop. I want to keep doing it for as long as I can and I want to do it at a level that is healthy and doesn't injure my body. I'm a person that's more of an under-trainer rather than an over-trainer, which has been good. As far as climbing goes I just want to keep getting smarter and more efficient and I like to try things that are challenging for me but I also like doing things that are just fluid and fun I think it's good to mix it up. As far as my career, once this video is done I have a lot of different ideas. Like helping other parents that have children like my son. I'd like to focus on starting a programme that welcomes kids that have high energy and try to help them learn. Along the idea of education I've been thinking for a long time about exercise structures things that can either be used outside in parks for people of all ages not just kids. It would be nice if people could play together. Something designed really clever so that it was like moving meditation so you could keep your body limber and somewhat tonic and keep that mind body connection. And I teach climbing on occasion. I keep up my guiding qualifications so this last weekend I did the wilderness first responder. I might also do some workshops, I've been thinking about doing some things more in a business community combining some of the things I've learnt from climbing and applying it to 'normal' people and using it as an example of that process that I call dealing with fear.
Lynn Hill is a rock climbing ambassador for Patagonia
YOU ASK LYNN HILL
We invited Climber readers to submit questions for Lynn Hill. Here are three we picked out and put to Lynn:
Ceridwen Hutchinson: What would the itinerary for your dream climbing holiday be?
I'm not sure if it actually exists but my dream holiday would include surfing and a beautiful beach with waves that aren't too difficult because I don't really get out surfing much. But it would be great to go in warm water, beautiful surf and then within not too far either hike or ride your mountain bike into the inland where the temperatures are not quite so warm and its dryer rather than humid and you can do some great bouldering or climbing on limestone or sandstone, whatever has a lot of feature and colour. That would be the ideal - climbing and surfing in one spot.
Stephen Reid: How have you prevented massive strain-damages over your climbing career?
After so many years of climbing my hands are pretty good, they don't look deformed and nor do my feet because I don't really squash them into shoes that are way too tight and I don't change shoe models too much. I have had a couple of little tweaks in my fingers. The middle finger of my left hand, the joint's a little bigger than it should be but it's not terrible. It probably has calcium build up in there. I wouldn't say it's painful but I can feel it a little bit but it doesn't get in my way. I've had other little minor things with my fingers but they've all healed up. Occasionally I feel a bit of tendonitis on my medial epicondyle - that's on the inside of your arm - but resting is always the thing that gets rid of it. So with my shoulder right now I've rested, I've backed off. I think it's good to climb a little bit at a low level. Easy movement is actually theraputic and keeps the nerve muscular connection going but it doesn't stress things. So I think paying attention to your body is really, really important. Resting when you feel pain or overuse injury. I weigh right around 100lbs, it's not a lot of weight and because I'm not an overtrainer I'm an undertrainer I'm on the good side of the risk spectrum. I lot of people don't listen to their body, they weigh a lot and if they just make the wrong move in the wrong mechanical position like say for your shoulder that's really easy to do. If you're reaching out to the side and you're pressing down if you're rotating just slightly off you can tear things in there.
Joe Squire: What inspired you to go and free The Nose on El Cap?
At the end of my competition career I felt like things were evolving more towards the indoor format and it really wasn't how I started to climb and it didn't represent the values of climbing in a complete way and so I decided I would do something like this as a retirement gesture. John Long said 'hey Lynnie you should go up and try to free climb The Nose'. So it just happened to be the perfect goal for me and I liked the fact this climb was in Yosemite because I remember going there and just seeing the valley and it was just mind blowing how beautiful it was. I couldn't imagine a more beautiful place anywhere in the world. For me The Nose was much bigger than me, it wasn't about me, it wasn't about my ego, my gratification it was actually something that I wanted to do. I felt like I had a chance and that if I could do that it would be a really big statement to people to think about. You don't have to be a man to do something that's 'out there' as a first ascent. Obviously people tried to do that route and they failed on it and so if a lot of good climbers have come and tried to do it and failed and a women comes and does it first it's really meaningful. That was my underlying motivation.