Carolynn Marie "Lynn" Hill is an American rock climber. Widely regarded as one of the leading competitive sport climbers in the world during the late 1980s and early 1990s, she is famous for making the first free ascent of the difficult sheer rock face of The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, and for repeating it the next year in less than 24 hours. She has been described as both one of the best female climbers in the world and one of the best climbers of all time. One of the first successful women in the sport, Hill shaped rock climbing for women and became a public spokesperson, helping it gain wider popularity and arguing for gender equality. Hill has publicized climbing by appearing on television shows and documentaries and writing an autobiography, Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World. Hill was a gymnast early in life, nearly broke a world record lifting weights, and ran competitively. She took to climbing at a young age, showing a natural aptitude for the activity, and became a part of the climbing community in Southern California and Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley.
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I've been climbing for 40 years.
You could call me a pioneer in women's rock climbing, and in climbing in general.
When the sport became competitive, I was right there in the very beginning, and now it's taken off on its own little tangent. And I am the first person, man or woman, to free climb the Nose of El Capitan. It's the most iconic "big wall" rock climb in the world - there are 2 iconic rock formations in Yosemite, El Capitan and Capdome. And it's one of the iconic visuals of Yosemite Valley. The route that I climbed, many people tried to do it, but weren't successful in doing what I did, free-climbing from bottom to top, without using any equipment to get past the difficult section of the climb. Free climbing is when you use the natural features of the rock to climb up, rather than using the aid of your equipment to get to the top or the end of a section.
And I'll be appearing in "Valley Uprising," airing on Discovery on April 25th at 8pm ET/PT, a film that's premiering as a part of Discovery's Elevation Weekend (http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/elevation-weekend/).
I'm here to answer your questions. Victoria's assisting me over the phone today. AMA!
Update: Thank you for your interest in asking me these questions. It's very kind of many of you to say such flattering things. And I hope to come back and answer more of your questions tomorrow. Be safe, have fun, and follow your dreams!
Are there any scars you got from rock climbing? Any cool stories or lessons attached to some of these scars?
Well, I do have a scar from a very intense fall. I was in France.
And I had JUST come back from a competition, and I won a car, and prize money, and I was relaxing, and at the end of the day, I went out climbing with my husband, and I got distracted when I was tying my knot, I went to get my shoes which were about 20 feet away, and I was talking to a visiting climber, and forgot that I didn't finish my knot.
The rope was still in my harness, and I had a jacket on.
And so, I didn't see that I didn't finish my knot. I climbed to the knot, and I still didn't feel any tension on my harness, because of course the knot wasn't tied, so I pulled on the other side of the rope to pinch in the slack, and instead the rope came out of my harness and I had no rope at all.
And fell to the ground, me and the rope. 72 feet to the ground.
And a tree branch saved my life.
I dislocated my elbow, and I have a scar on my upper pec, from (I guess) the tree branch that impaled my pectorals major - there's a little scar from that.
But it's really not much, considering the fall that i took.
I heard someone ask Hazel Findlay how important it is to her that many of her achievements are significant because she's a woman. If I remember correctly, Hazel said that these things don't really matter to her, she's just concerned with climbing hard and is happier to be the second ascensionist than to be the first female ascensionist on a route that many men have done.
I want to ask you a similar question: How do you perceive the relationship between your gender and your achievements in climbing? Like when you sit back and think about the things that you've gained notoriety for doing, what makes them significant for you? Are they significant to you because they represent pioneering events for women? Because it was a great personal challenge that you overcame? Because it was just a pioneering event in general?
Also, I'm curious if you think the situation for young women climbing today is any different than it was for you when you started. Do you perceive that men these days treat female climbers differently than they once did?
Also, thanks for AMAing. I think you're totally rad. Happy climbing!
Well, I think that for me it's about the challenge itself.
Midnight Lightning, when I did it, hadn't been done by a woman, and that wasn't why I wanted to do it necessarily. I wanted to do Midnight Lighting because that boulder itself attracted me.
I don't think my objective is to be the "first woman." That's not one of my criteria. It never was. When I started pushing myself through climbing, I was really around mostly men, but I did have one friend named Mary Gingery, who would climb more similarly to the way I climbed because she wasn't as tall as the men - she was taller than me, but not that tall - so we had a different approach, not only because of our size, but because of our personalities, the way we used more flexibility. So we used our strength as people, as women, either way I don't like to distinguish only by gender. I think it's more based on your specific qualities as a person. I am a woman. But I'm also small, which gives me a disadvantage in some situations where there are big reaches. But it gives me advantages in other situations that are hard to quantify - I weigh less, so each hold feels a bit bigger to smaller hands, so you get better leverage on the holds. BUT when you have to make a long reach, and I'm in a position of an iron cross, that's very strenuous. My strength to weight ratio has to be higher, I have to be stronger for my body weight, to make up for that.
So my simple answer is: because they're pioneering in general.
And because those objectives personally challenge me, and I think it's fascinating to try to optimize in every way possible, because that's part of being a living creature. We always try to do it better and optimize for our own survival. It's natural.
And thank you. The answer to the question is YES, it's changed a lot. Because first of all, I didn't know anything about climbing when I started. There weren't very many women involved in the sport, therefore there weren't very many role models. I think that now we see a lot of really strong women, and also young girls, like Ashima Shiraishi, she did in a very quick time the hardest route done by a woman today, and she's only 14. So Ashima is one of those that I enjoy watching as a climber for a number of reasons (in regards to who you like to watch to climb). But I also think she's got a great attitude. She's a hard worker. She believes in herself obviously because she's proven it time and time again that she's capable of doing things nobody thought were possible. When she did some of the things that were record-breaking as a ten-year old, she was making BIG moves, and I don't know how she was able to do that. I think she had to jump a lot. Because when you're small, and you can't reach something, you don't have many options. You either jump, and sometimes jumping creates too much force and you swing off anyway, or you try to find an alternative sequence, a different set of handholds that go in a slightly different direction, or maybe you find an intermediate handhold that's just enough to find you leverage to get beyond it - like big people wouldn't even look at it as a handhold. But if you're small, you can use an intermediate hold to get past it. But sometimes there just isn't one.
I think that who you are and what your level of experience is affects how male climbers treat you. If you're going with your boyfriend, and you've never climbed before as a woman, then men will probably cater to you more so than if it was a man. So men that climb for the first time don't climb as well as women, typically. Why? Because men rely more on their upper body strength, and they don't use their feet as well as women. So a lot of times women have a more graceful and efficient approach - they aren't just hauling themselves up with their arms, they're using their feet in a more technical manner.
And they're more graceful to watch.
Where is the most beautiful place you've climbed as far as the scenery? I imagine it would be hard to beat Yosemite.
I would say that is one of the few exceptions - when people ask me my "favorite" or most beautiful. I usually don't have one. But in this case, I think Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, especially the high country, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. That includes Yosemite to Tuolumne Meadows. It's still a very wild place. There's all kind of animals that live very free. It's a huge park, so it still has this "pristine" beauty.
In the book Women Who Dare, you talk about your 72 fall at Buoux that put you in the hospital for 3 days. Was that the worst climbing injury that you've had or just the closest call? How do you mentally get yourself past the frustration that can arise when recovering from an injury?
I'm sure you hear this a lot but thank you for breaking stereotypes just by being awesome. I know you said that you always felt support from the climbing community but having really talented women like yourself (and all the others in Women Who Dare) in the spotlight has made it so much easier for normal women like myself to take up climbing as a sport.
Well, thank you to the person that wrote that. I appreciate your feedback.
And your question has to do with how I came back to climbing after that fall, essentially? So anyone who's had a dramatic accident like that - especially when you hit your head - I don't know if I hit my head, but when you fall like I did, your brain kind of deletes the memory because it's so traumatic and intense, probably for survival's sake.
So I don't remember that part.
But when I first started climbing after I recovered from my dislocated elbow - I didn't climb for about 6 weeks. And when I did get back on the rock, when I started lower down (which is what happened when I fell - lowering down) - when I was at the top of the route and lean back and about to trust the rope - I had a shot of adrenaline in my gut - just a WHEEEEEW - and I had to use my intellect to talk to my subconscious, and explain to my subconscious that it was fine. I knew it was happening, that i was afraid because of what had happened. So I had to recondition my mind that it was okay. And it took about a month. But I'd have to say it's lasted since 1989 - so every time I lower myself to go down, I look at my knot. Before I lower myself down to the ground, I look and double check.
So I had to go through a period where I reconditioned my mind to accept that everything was safe. And once I got past that period, I never really looked back, and it's not a problem.
The only thing that has lasted is that I always look at my knot before I lower down to the ground.
follow up question: will the mainstream media ever be able to understand climbing or will they forever view it as dangerous and something that no one without a few screws loose would ever do?
It's always been a challenge for me to explain why I love to climb, and what is free climbing, just the term itself.
People think that free climbing is climbing without a rope. And I really don't appreciate the sensational approach by the media to show people climbing without a rope. I think there's a beauty in rock climbing that is difficult to explain, so oftentimes what you see in the media is the sensational. Like climbing without a rope, or doing something that is clearly dramatic. And that doesn't explain why we climb.
Do they really call climber's poo "Mud Falcons"? Any other cool terminology you'd care to share?
Well, I don't know about this "mud falcon," I've never heard that one.
We have a lot of terminology that's pretty funny.
I used to call what we'd bring up on a big wall like El Capitan a "poop tube." It's just a - kind of like a gigantic PVC pipe that you would fill with a bag that you pooped in, and then you closed it up so you wouldn't have to smell it while you're on the wall.
Let me go back and explain one thing: on El Capitan, a 3,000 foot wall, most people don't do it in one day. It takes several days. There are camps where there are ledges, or if there are no ledges, you bring a "porta-ledge." Or a hammock, back in the day. Anyway, obviously you're going to have to use the facilities at some point on a several day climb.
SO instead of just leaning out on a wall and pooping into the air, where you might actually be dropping onto somebody below you (which might explain "mud falcons") - actually when i was trying to free-climb the nose for the first time, I was sleeping on Camp 4, and somebody was on Camp 5, which is directly overhead, and I woke up with some kind of messy stool on my sleeping bag...
Maybe you shouldn't tell this story.
Anyways, we are responsible for our excrement and trash, so we carry everything with us. And so for that purpose, you can bring a plastic bucket so you don't have to smell it like I said before. But you need to contain that stuff so it doesn't smell, and you're not leaving it on the wall or dropping it down onto other people.
Well, there's a lot of technique terms.
One of the terms that we use to describe a hand position was named after Gaston Rébuffat. And so in a book that he published many years ago, he showed this position of his hand with the thumbs down, so it's kind of like an inverted grip. Normally when you grab something your hand is facing thumb-up, but sometimes on the rock there are times when you want your thumbs down, like on a vertical-shaped hold for example.
And then there's techniques called "the flag" - that's when you drop your foot down underneath you, you're not really using your foot on the rock, you're using your leg as a counterbalance. So it's for balance. You just swing your leg under, and it's called a flag. And I'm actually working on a video and it's going to explain all the different techniques and the process of how you plan a sequence of moves on the rocks.
So hopefully that will be out in the next year. So a lot of these terms will be documented in a way so that people have access to a source. Because right now our climbing lingo is - it's very difficult to show all the different techniques without showing in video, so I'm working on that. It's taking quite a few years.
So there's a lot of little terms that people say like "Grab that tweaker" or "Dime-edge" - an edge so thin, it's the width of a dime - you can use all kinds of words to describe the features.
A "nubbin" would be a little tiny feature, a tiny crystal maybe, that just sticks out from a rock face.
Hi Lynn! Who is your favourite climber?
My favorite climber? Well, when people ask me my favorite ANYTHING, I usually respond that what I like about climbing is diversity, what I like about life is diversity, so I don't have a favorite climber. So to answer that question, there are people who I enjoy watching because they are beautiful climbers, but there are so many, to pick one name would be unfair. There are just so many beautiful climbers to watch.
Have there every been any times where you where like, "Oh shit, I think I might die?"
There have been a few moments when I wasn't sure what would happen if I fell.
And instead of focusing on that, I focused on what I needed to do to NOT fall.
What is the most difficult climb that you have done and what made this one particularly difficult?
Well, in recent past, I did a climb called "Living in Fear." It's in Rifle, Colorado. And so it was really overhanging, with big moves that required precision and a lot of strength. And there really wasn't a place where I could stop and relax. So I had to be really fit to do it. For the amount of time that I had to train, just a 3.5 hour drive one-way. The day I did it, I drove out and back in the same day, because that's all the strength I had.
But I would say the Nose was a more difficult claim. It's gotten a higher rating. And it's a much longer climb, and required a lot more mental skills as far as keeping my cool, not feeling too much pressure, relaxing so I could listen to my intuition. So the Nose is the most difficult climbs that I've done. But there are harder technical climbs even on smaller boulders that I find challenging.
Like Midnight Lightning (also in Yosemite). When I first looked at it, as a young climber, i didn't think it was possible for me because there were some big reaches, and I came to Yosemite in 1998 to do the first free ascent of another route, but it was the year of El Nino, and actually that's the name of that climb now, is "El Nino," and we couldn't climb it because it was too wet. So I went to Camp 4 where Midnight Lightning is, and I had the time to try it more than just a passing try. I tried - i spent a day there, and I finally did do it.
It was very strenuous. It involved jumping to a small edge that looked like a lightning bolt - that's why the name is Midnight Lightning - and I had it where one foot came off the rock, and it was very difficult because it involved power and precision at the same time.
So that was an example of something that I thought was difficult as well, but on a different scale.
So that's the boulder, and Living in Fear is a rock climb that's maybe not even 100 feet long, but it's difficult for every move. El Capitan is even longer, and the difficulty is varied. But the rating of the hardest section is 514A.
Hey Lynn, did you ever get Letterman out on real rock?
Yes, actually my hotel is right across the street from where it took place in 1989! But no, we were in NYC in a studio where he did his show back then. And no, he didn't go outside with me. But Tom Brokaw, who was in the same building, came and climbed a few moves on the wall in his nice dress shoes - he heard I was in the studio, and came down to say hello because we had some mutual friends.
How big are your hands?
Well, in my book, there's a picture of my hand on the back cover, on my paperback book, and if you want to order it, it's on http://lynnhillclimbing.com
I don't know how to decide how big my hands are? If you measure from tip of the middle finger to the base of your palm... I guess you could get a measurement? I have small hands. They're not small for my body, they're just small because I'm small.
Lynn, what do you do besides climbing?
I like to go skiing, downhill skiing, I do a little bit of yoga, I like to watch movies actually! I like to sing. I like to dance. When I'm by myself, or I'll dance if I'm doing out. But the singing part I usually sing in my car. I have a son who's 12, and I like to hang out with him. He's into Parkour. And it's fun to watch him. He's really creative. In Parkour they don't linear flips like in gymnastics. It's like sideways spinning, and I like to see him be creative and do cool moves. Let's see, what else do I like ? I really do like to travel. I haven't done as much as I would normally but, but i enjoy seeing other places in the world. I think it allows us a chance to ask ourselves questions about our own culture and our philosophy toward life. I think it's interesting to get out of our comfort zones. I like to create mosaics. I did one in my kitchen made out of stone, modeled after Venice - I bought a book in Italy, and took a picture and made a backsplash in my kitchen out of mosaics. I also like to read & speak foreign languages. I speak French and Italian and a little bit of Spanish. So i enjoy the process of learning to speak each language.
And I like to read about philosophy.
Hi Lynn, huge fan! I've got two questions:
1) As a shorter climber, how do you compensate for your lack of height on routes that might require large moves. I love climbing because there is no single 'best' body type, and would like to know how you make your body type work to your advantage!
2) I'm curious to hear about your perspective as a professional female climber. Do you feel that women get treated differently then men in the climbing community, or get the same recognition for their achievements? I'm interested because climbing to me seems like a sport where the innate physical differences between men and women matter less then they might in other sports.
1.) One very common way to get past a long reach is to use your flexibility. So you have to be flexible in order to bring your feet up high. One foot at a time, usually. So to make a high step helps when making a long reach. Another technique that i use is - besides the intermediate holds I talked about earlier - I use them as a way to reposition myself so I can make small adjustments, and I break the long move into 2-3 moves. So sometimes if there's a possibility of using an undercling hold, you can make a much longer reach, almost a full armspan, just because of the position of your hand. And another technique is to practice jumping or lunging. Because sometimes the only way to get past a long stretch is to jump! And if it's a big hold, you can actually catch the hold. But that's when you have to control your swing, and that's when it becomes difficult.
2.) True. I believe that is true. Women are able to come much closer to what men have achieved, and in some cases do better than men. But I wouldn't say it's a blanket statement across the entire sport. Each route has a particular set of hand & footholds. And even though we all have our own style, some routes are going to favor a big person, and some routes are going to favor a small person. So whether you're a man or a woman, it's less important than your body type. However, I guess your question was more about the professional side, do women get as much attention? I think it depends on who that person is. Certain people get a lot of attention, because they have a lot of support around them, and there's interest in promoting that person. But there are a lot of really really good climbers whom you've never heard of. They're just doing amazing things that you don't hear about. So the media will follow certain people more than others just because of their particular situation. And that's true in a lot of different activities - sports, politics, and more. I don't think it reflects the gender issue as much as other aspects of our sport and financial aspects and other elements. There are many elements that have to do with who gets attention and how they get that.
How do you prepare before a climbing ?
Well, I've been climbing for 40 years. So my preparation has been long. But before a specific climb, it really depends on what I'm climbing, and what needs to be prepared. In general, I come with a good attitude - it's the right state of mind that's the most important. What's the best way to get there? Positive affirmation - it's important to relax, because you don't want to be overly excited, or anxious because there's so much excitement, or overstimulation, and in the state of being under-motivated, you're not as prepared to rise to the level that you need to be successful. So being under-motivated is really not putting out enough energy to be successful in your objectives.
I do yoga sometimes, but otherwise I stretch, so I maintain flexibility. I climb consistently. I make sure to warm up really well before something that is very challenging - so being well-warmed up, rested, I make sure I have plenty of water and enough food to keep my blood sugar level at the right state. And then you have to make sure you've picked all the right equipment before a climb - the right safety protection, you don't want to waste energy finding it on your harness if you put it there - so there's a strategy even in how you clip your equipment on your harness. Sometimes I take an extra breath of air! I noticed that when I was running races, i would take almost like a yawn - and it allowed me to fill my lungs with a lot of oxygen. So sometimes I do a kind of yawn that gives me a little extra oxygen.
If it's a harder climb, I might visualize the movements I might be doing. If I don't know the climb at all, and I'm trying it for the first time, I try to mentally reinforce my spontaneity and listen to that little voice of intuition that tells you the right way to do it the first time.
Do you hope that someday instead of a female being the "first female" to do something grand, a female will be the "first person" to do something grand?
I was the first person to free climb the nose on El Capitan.
And I am very happy to say that.
Not just the first woman, but the first person.
Hi Lynn! What's your favorite route in the southwest?
Hmmm. I haven't been there in a long time. The only place I've been really is Turkey Rock, and I remember it being interesting granite climbing - thin cracks and interesting edges on the wall. So I intend to go to the southwest soon!
Have you read ted the caver? If you did wouldn't you be scared od climbing after?
No I have not read that book.
And I'd probably still be a climber. I nearly lost my life climbing and I still climb. If somebody else wrote a book - that's not going to affect my choice to climb.