She’s the type of person that you can invite to your family gathering, cheese platters and all, even if you’ve never met her in your life. You’d think you were talking to your long, lost cousin.
She is the forgiving type. The only reason I know is because my phone call brought her out of her hot shower on a cold Colorado morning and she didn’t get TOO frazzled with me.
She’s the type of person that would cordially hold open the bathroom door for you. I know because that’s how I first met her.
Lynn bouldering at Flagstaff Mountain, Colorado
Photo courtesy of John Dickey
“Awww…you’re starstruck.” teased a friend as I watched Lynn Hill active in her training after my momentously, memorable pee break when I had first contact with her. And I don’t get starstruck. I have worked in the entertainment world with the likes of everyone from Diana Ross, Leonardo DiCaprio, Roger Federer… but THIS is Lynn Hill.
To me, anyone can take acting classes or make a connection or two but there are VERY few people that exist or have ever existed that have the fierce, mental discipline and undying stamina to successfully freeclimb 33 pitches within 23 hours on a route that has never seen it done that way in its existence. El Cap never saw it coming; its conquerer? A petite and lithe California girl who, at fourteen, forgoes her gymnastics training after becoming purely smitten with the sensation of translating those familiar, acrobatic moves on rock.
It’s a mesmerizing action-packed artistry when she climbs. We don’t even need to bring up all her other accomplishments as an Ambassadress of the climbing world and of women period because if you love climbing, you should have heard by now. OH why not, I’ll go ahead: she was the first woman ever to set a rating of 5.13 in 1979 (Ophir Broke, CO), she onsighted the first ascent of the route Yellow Crack (5.12R/X – The Gunks, NY), she was the first woman to redpoint a 5.14 in Masse Critique in France and in many of our minds, we know her as one of the world’s top sport and free climbers. For you newbie girls, Rock Climbing 101 is starting now.
So as I stand there at The Spot in Colorado just watching; observing every placement of her foot, every grip of her hand – ‘ooo…’ I’d think, trying to capture and record it all in my mind like “that move” was the key. I have to admit. it hasn’t worked for me. But hey, it’s okay. There is only one Lynn Hill in our lifetime and these are her words….
Lynn walking out after climbing on the Diamond, Longs Peak, CO with Craig Leubben Photo courtesy www.lynnhillblogs.com
RRRG: What are the winters like for you out there in Boulder, Colorado? It’s snowing out there right now?
LH: Yes, there’s snow. Well, next weekend, I am going to go to Hueco (Texas)..and that’s kind of warm, I hope. It was actually snowing down there a week and a half ago…but for the most part, I am training in gyms. Also, down at the park, there is a Nordic team that grooms the park so I go there to skate-ski and that’s right in my neighborhood. Otherwise, I would drive up to a place called Nederland and go ski. I like to skate-ski for the aerobic fitness. I do my own form of yoga and have taken yoga classes but I just like to stretch and do my own thing.
RRRG: You just got back from Moab…. how was that?
LH: My trip to Moab was for a design meeting with Patagonia but I did get in one tower while I was there. We went to go climb “Fine Jade” which is a classic; I think it’s 4 or 5 pitches but there was so many people out there, even midweek. It’s pretty popular ..so we ended up climbing something else…we didn’t know what it was, it was just to the left of “Fine Jade” I think it was called “Fine Shade”.
RRRG: Do you ever climb in Red Rock Canyon anymore? I just have to ask since I’m biased and I live here. I know you used to live in Vegas and you helped develop the area with some fantastic routes – including the first free ascent of the uber classic route, Levitation 29 along with Joanne Urioste and John Long.
LH: I don’t get out to Red Rock..not so much. When you have a six year old, things change a LOT. I can’t get away like I used to.
Lynn leading pitch 4 on the west face of Leaning Tower, Yosemite, CA – photo courtesy www.lynnhillblogs.com
RRRG: Did (your son) Owen go out with you to Moab?
LH: No, he didn’t come. I had the good fortune of my mother coming into town that week and so she looked after him. I thought I was going to be home and relaxed after a trip to Europe but the Patagonia design meeting was last minute. Even if Moab was a climbing trip I don’t bring my son climbing very often.
One time I brought him to Rifle and initially, I wasn’t going to bring him along because we had a babysitter that was willing to take care of him and his little, new buddy, who is Hans Florine’s son. However, Hans wasn’t comfortable with that so I said okay, we’ll bring them then. But during the trip, my son was throwing rocks and he accidentally threw a rock and hit someone’s car and broke their windshield. That’s the kind of thing that happens when I take my son climbing. Yeah.
RRRG: Oh my gosh…oh no..
LH: Yeah and it’s not safe because he almost got hit by a rock another time on a Petzl rock trip. The whole day I had him safely off to the side swinging on a rope underneath an overhang and at the end of the day the very last out of twelve people started up on this route and they pulled off a giant flake that split into three pieces and barely missed hitting people. And that’s why I don’t take my son climbing! It’s dangerous and I can’t focus on climbing.
RRRG: It sounds like having a child was a compromise…either being a full-time climber or a full-time mom. And of course, Lynn Hill’s child would be a little Hercules. hahaa..I can picture this.
LH: Well, you know I had Owen when I was 42. I’ve traveled all around the world; I’ve had a lot of great experiences. I feel like I could have continued to just follow the path of being a full-time climber and continuing to travel but I also wanted to be a mom. It’s not that I don’t love climbing… I am just not able to do it as often as I would like. I feel that right now, it doesn’t have to be all about me and my experiences. I was ready to begin a new role; to face new challenges and adventures as a mother. It’s a good learning experience adjusting to the sacrifices that need to be made.
RRRG: Does Owen like to rock climb?
LH: He likes to climb on just about anything but because he’s so young, rock is not particularly his thing yet, it’s a little bit too subtle. He’s only six years old. He likes to jump…he’s very fast and enjoys scrambling up everything. Recently I signed him up for karate and he really likes it. He needs it.
(we go off on our conversation about an incident that happened to me in Saudi Arabia where I was kicked out of the gym of the Marriott hotel because I am female)
Photo by Christian Witkin (for Outside Magazine)
RRRG: You’ve actually proven that women can be stronger than a lot of men….but do you think that there is a conditioning that occurs in our society that teaches us that girls aren’t stronger than men? Besides the obvious biological factor.
LH: Well, I think there are two elements that come to mind when you say this and I’ve given it a lot of thought. One is the social influence and one is the genetic temperament, the physical attributes. Women are perfectly capable of being excellent athletes. We all have this potential. When it comes to the strength to weight ratio like in sports such as gymnastics, climbing, swimming…these are activities we are almost built to be good at and I do think we could do more if we were given equal opportunity. That’s why what happened to you at the gym is a good example of something that makes me annoyed. We’re not even giving the women proper tools to develop what they could develop. That’s undermining our potential and telling us that we’re not good and creating low self-esteem and other negativities. The world would even be a better place if more women were given more say in issues like war; some of the biggest problems in our world are initiated, in my mind, due to male traits…aggressiveness, wanting to conquer, the testosterone factor.
RRRG: But because it’s such a different culture, how do you kind of….inject that thought with being respectful to the culture. Like, how do you go to the Middle East and just start to change things by saying, WOMEN SHOULD HAVE THESE RIGHTS!
LH:I think you have to say, okay, this is where they’re at, this is their perception, this is how women function in their society and you have to do it in steps and empower women in a way that gives them confidence and awareness that they are capable in things that they might not have thought before. Put them in roles of responsibility and show them what they are capable of. It’s a very hard thing to be an underlying source; a gentle force that’s not out to conquer and not a threat but it’s there to support and there for wisdom. And now if you go in and say, “I’m an American woman!! I demand such and such!”..they are going to look at you like a threat and say, “See the crazy American Woman??”…and they are not going to want to listen to this. And a woman might even reject what you have to say. It’s so foreign to their culture, so it has to be done in a covert way. I don’t know what the answer is exactly but I’d say that it can’t be done from an American perspective, it has to be done with the idea of their culture in mind.
RRRG: It’s just such an irony that as women, we are physically the “weaker” ones, yet can be seen as such a threat.
LH: Women are very strong. We can endure a lot of pain; look at childbirth..we are able to deal with it better than the men. Men, when you think about it, they have certain strengths that are obvious…physical strength, but on other levels, they are not as strong as us, I believe. That’s where the fear comes, the domination, and some feel the need to be in charge of us because they are afraid of us. Deep down, I think that is why they obviously feel the need to control us, so they do. But they also seek after us. You think about romantic love; men are just completely gaga over women; we DO have power over men in that way too. So why not control us and dominate us so then you can have your cake and eat it too?
But the conclusion I wanted to make was I think the ideal human being has a mixture of masculine and feminine qualities; that’s what I think the future is and where we are evolving as a species. We shouldn’t have these definitions that say a man who is more emotional or expressive is “feminine” and therefore a guy should not be like this because he’s supposed to be “a man” so “be a man and don’t cry!” and on the other hand, women need to welcome the male side. You’re not less of a woman just because you’re strong – physically fit; that doesn’t mean you’re masculine or feminine, it just means you’re a better person because you have a balance of those qualities.
RRRG: What do you think about climbing as a safe sport? Unfortunately, we just lost another climber, Guy Lacelle, on Thursday…. yesterday.
LH: Oh really? Oh no..he was such a nice guy….and a great ice climber. That’s terrible….
RRRG: Yeah, we lost many in the climbing community this year…what are your thoughts on the safety of the sport?
LH: I clearly state what I feel about mountains in my book (Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World) and I think that mountains are totally different than the realm of rock. Because of the onset of global warming happening at such a fast pace, I think mountains are extremely dangerous and have become more unstable for exactly the reason that Guy is sadly no longer here; they have become too unpredictable. We also lost wonderful people like Johnny Copp, Micah Dash and Wade Johnson – the young men on the expedition in China to the unpredictability of that environment. People aren’t able to interpret the conditions of the mountains like they used to. I also feel another factor is that the media is responsible for putting more pressure on people to capture “exciting” expedition footage when the experience should really be on staying focused on their judgments and staying intuitive about what’s happening in the moment. What are the current conditions? What does it feel like? Does it feel like this is a good decision or are you doing it because you have a camera rolling or people are expecting you to come back with a good report that you “did it”? Are you doing it because you love it? These are all questions they should be asking themselves.
Lynn bouldering in Estes Park, Colorado – photo courtesy www.lynnhillblogs.com
RRRG: So you mean question why you are climbing?
LH: Yeah…staying with your passion and the reasons why you’re doing it have to be based on how you feel not how you think you SHOULD feel…and that’s a really difficult thing for a lot of people. They don’t know the difference so they’re not used to checking in that way.
RRRG:But how about rock climbing then….the safety of rock?
LH: Rock climbing is relatively safe if you stay very aware and develop safe habits. But you know, I almost died..in the first Chapter of my book I write about the Perfect Fall. I didn’t tie my knot; I was distracted.
RRRG: Yes, I remember that…unbelievable. You are very lucky.
RRRG: I wanted to ask you about how you maintain yourself. Do you have a special diet?
LH: I think I have a pretty healthy diet…I’m actually in Whole Foods right now. I like to buy good food; organic food. I don’t agree with the poultry industry, the way that they raise chickens (cheap quality chickens) with the light treatment, injecting them with hormones and antibiotics. You’re eating that. I spend the money to buy food that is not tainted.
Lynn laybacking on “Tar and Feathers” . Photo by Greg Epperson
RRRG: Yeah, I’ve seen documentaries on that. We are what we eat. Will you be running your climbing camp next year?
LH: I’m not sure. I’m still finishing this video that I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. But like I said, I don’t really have full-time to do anything, not even to train. I’ve got from 8:30AM until 2:50PM and I have to get everything done within that time and that’s providing that there is school. Snow days, holidays or sick days I have my son all day so I have a limited schedule.
RRRG: What is this new video you’re working on?
LH: It’s a climbing technique video slash story, but this is where it gets more complicated. I’m trying to show the process of how I think, how I look at the rock and my climbing movement and tricks that help with the different factors involved such as efficiency, timing, momentum through body movement… but within that, the story is the evolution of technique. I have some of these old shots I am using, say when I was slab climbing, I’m looking at my heels and they are really high; I’m not fractioning with the right technique and that sort of thing.
RRRG: That sounds like a great video…you’ll have vintage footage on there?
LH: No, no, I couldn’t even afford a camera then, much less afford money for climbing trips. As a teenager, I worked at Carl’s Jr. and would also clean houses, babysit and do what I had to do to make money for climbing trips. I didn’t even have a tent! But as far as the older photos, fortunately, various people took some, so whenever possible I will refer to my own personal history but the new video is primarily footage that I took with a really nice camera….an HD cam…on specific routes from low angle slabs, to overhanging arêtes, corners, everything; every dimension… I’m showing the different approaches on these kinds of rock. It’s about technique…the theory, the evolution but along the way, there is a psychological component I talk about; risk-taking, I talk about everything that I think is interesting in the context to the approach of climbing.
RRRG: Lynn, you have a fantastic attitude in climbing some of the most challenging problems…fearlessly. How do you control the very human trait of feeling fear or of wanting to give up if something is too difficult or seemingly impossible? How do you control these demons?
LH: The purpose of why you are doing what you are doing is important. Why are you doing it? Is it because you want to learn and grow? And you know you can do it and you just need to figure out how? That’s a great motivation. For free climbing The Nose, it was like performance art in a certain sense because I wanted to make a statement that with the right attitude you can solve these great mysteries that people would say, “oh no, that can’t be done, that’s too hard or that’s too blah blah blah”. But the idea was you can blow through those stereotypes if you have the right attitude. And so that was a huge motivation for me. I think that helped me access more energy and ability than I would have. The meaning of it will give you extra inspiration. If it’s just someone dared you to do this very dangerous climb and you’re up there and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is really dangerous, maybe I could die” that’s not a good thing to be doing. Maybe you should back down. So there are times that you need to look at what you’re doing and think, ‘Is this reasonable?’ If so, keep trying with all your capacities; it just really depends on what you’re doing and why. And if you’re scared, there are different ways of approaching that kind of a challenge. If you are in a risky situation, you have to either climb past the danger spot to the next hold you’re looking at or maybe the best thing to do is down climb and retreat. You need to really make a clear decision there. If you’re scared, it’s okay to acknowledge that and it’s a good thing to know you’re in a dangerous situation but you have to keep it together, focus on what you need to do to survive and not be distracted by the fear.
RRRG: How do you feel about changes in climbing from the technological advancements in gear? It seems there are people who get a hold of every piece of new and fancy gear yet become frozen on a climb or don’t even climb to their full potential because their head wasn’t prepared and they had put all the faith in their climb in their gear.
LH: See that’s an interesting point because when I first started climbing it was all about the first rule, “Do NOT fall.”. It was a very basic rule. Do not rely on your gear because you never know if it’s placed well or if it’s a good piece. Maybe you can’t even get gear in so we learned to trust OURSELVES and be responsible for our own judgment. All this fancy gear will not help you climb; you have to be able to climb the route. You need to be able to see what you’re up against and trust in your own ability. That’s actually way more important than all this fancy gear that one might have.
RRRG: Are you projecting anything? I know it’s winter there and you have limited time but just wanted to know whether you were working on any specific goals right now or had something new in mind?
LH: Not right now..but I think that when Rifle season comes back in Spring and it’s warm enough, I’d like to get on something harder than I’ve ever tried just to see because I’m almost 50. I have a year to prepare for being fifty and I want to make that a goal to try and do something harder, without getting hurt – that’s the one thing that can thwart the whole plan and then you’re set up to never really do what you could have otherwise. I’m trying to be smart about doing something difficult…just to prove another point that if you take care of yourself and you listen to your body, you can do amazing things. I haven’t found “the route”…the one that I want to do yet.
RRRG: That’s awesome! I hope we can be there to document this when you do it. The last question I have is in light of the Climate Summit going on in Copenhagen; what are your views on global warming? You love the outdoors obviously, as do most climbers but how do you feel about what’s happening to our Earth?
LH: I think we should do everything we can to find alternative energy. As a human species, we just keep consuming, consuming..we find something that works and we just use it. We’re not thinking about the consequences. I grew up using a car all the time, I still use a car and we’re dependent on the car and I never really considered that it was bad when I was a kid. It was just how our cultures developed. We should come up with a better system than what we have. I think we will and I have faith that we will..it’s just a little discouraging seeing that we’ve already gone over what some would call the tipping point. I don’t know if you know what www.350.org is but the site talks about the tipping point being 350 particulates per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere…up to that is considered a sustainable level..but we’re at 387 and climbing and so if we continue at this level, our Earth is going to suffer hugely. And we’re down to 50% of the species in the next 100 years. That’s a lot. I think we can do better. We have all the technology, we just need politicians that will make this a priority and people need to make the right decisions as well.
RRRG: Yeah…this might be the one thing that would possibly bring all of us together; hopefully. Lynn, I just want to say thanks for this interview…you are an immense inspiration and when I picked up your book, I consumed it all in just a few days.
LH: Oh nice! Thanks! Another thing I wanted to mention was you know my brother-in-law that died on that expedition in South America?
RRRG: Yes…you mean on Aconcagua?
LH: Yes. That was his first mountaineering expedition. So I’ve seen this story being repeated and I know that people get sucked along on this whole idea that they can be invincible and it’s cool to be this well-rounded mountaineer that can conquer everything but I have a pretty realistic approach based on those experiences with a lot of people disappearing….I’m not saying don’t go out and take any risks but I’m just saying that you really need to make sure you’re making the right decision or at least feel it in your gut that you’re making the right decision.
RRRG: Very good point. Yes. The best part of rock climbing and mountaineering is being able to live another day to partake in the adventure….. again and again. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your amazing accomplishments to the world, Lynn. Happy holidays!
Lynn Hill’s book; a must-read for anyone who loves climbing or just loves to be inspired!
“Climbing Free -My Life in the Vertical World” Autobiography
Watch Lynn and Katie Brown make the first female free ascent of the West Face of Leaning Tower, Yosemite, CA (V 5.13b/c A0) – courtesy Patagonia
If you’d like to see more, check out this fantastic video – early footage of Lynn:
Part II of the video – some great history and information pack in here. Check it out…
Lynn on The Nose, El Capitan, CA – Pancake Flake pitch. Photo by Heinz Zac
Interviewed and written by Christine Cauble, Dec. 11