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Lynn Hill: What I’ve Learned

Lynn Hill: World Cup champion, first to free the Nose. Boulder, Colorado.

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I started climbing when I was 14 by tagging along with my older sister and her boyfriend. My sister eventually married him, but sadly he died while climbing Aconcagua. That tragedy affected my feelings about climbing and really inspired me to ask the question: What do I love to do? What I love most is free climbing.

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The most important person in my early climbing career was Mari Gingery. She was my partner for the first time I climbed the Nose on El Capitan in 1979. We didn’t know much about aid climbing. Our boyfriends [Mike Lechlinski and John Long] gave us these pitons and said, “OK, this is a knifeblade, this is a Lost Arrow, a baby angle, etc. … Just hammer the piton into the crack. Here’s a hammer. You can do it. Go for it!” That’s how we learned to climb El Capitan.

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In a way, I didn’t realize the magnitude of free climbing the Nose in 1993. I was just extremely motivated to push myself as far as I could.

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When I came back from competing in Europe, in 1993, I saw John Long and he said, “Lynnie, you ought to try to free the Nose! Your small fingers would be perfect for the Great Roof pitch!”

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It was definitely the right suggestion at the right time because I felt that the Nose represented the kind of climbing that I love—climbing outside on a beautiful wall that has such an amazing history and a variety of styles—and it really did require all of the skills that I’d developed. I felt that as long as I was retiring from the competition scene, I might as well use all of my fitness for a masterpiece climb.

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A few days after making the first free ascent of the Nose with Brooke Sandahl, I headed over to Mammoth to see John Bachar. The next day, Bachar convinced me to hike back to the summit of El Cap and repeat the last pitch of the Nose to get some photos for a Boreal ad. While discussing the concept for the ad, he came up with the phrase, “It goes, boys.” We liked it, so that ended up being the slogan.

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I decided to come back the following year to combine two challenges. I wanted to make a documentary film about the ascent and make an all-free ascent of the Nose in one day. I wanted to climb the Changing Corners pitch in better style, because we essentially had a toprope on the pitch in ’93. After one failed attempt, I managed to climb the Nose free in a single day.

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I believe that my ascent of the Nose is inspiring for women, but often men come up to me and say: “Your ascent of the Nose is super inspiring. I tell my wife or my girlfriend, when she’s having a hard time, ‘What about Lynn Hill? What would Lynn do?’”

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Throughout my life I’ve learned to accommodate for my height [5’ 1’’] by finding variations and intermediates. But as soon as I have an advantage, people say, “Oh, it’s because you have small fingers.” The point they’re obviously missing is that no matter what our body size is, we all have to find our own ways to adapt.

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I consider the Nose to be a kind of “performance art” because I didn’t have to explain the meaning of this ascent. I was the first person, man or woman, to make an all-free ascent of this historic route … I was surprised that the one-day free ascent of the Nose wasn’t matched until more than a decade later.

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I’m also famous for not finishing my knot, and I’m happy to be an example of what not to do. In Buoux, France, I started to tie a bowline, and realized my shoes were off to the side, so I stopped and walked over to get my shoes, then walked back to the base. I had a jacket on that was covering my harness, so I didn’t see the tail of the rope sticking out. When I got to the top, I didn’t feel any tension from the rope so I tried to cinch in the slack by grabbing the other side of the rope while leaning backwards. The rope pulled out of my harness and I went flying backwards, falling about 72 feet to the ground. I fell through a small tree and bounced about three feet before landing face down in the dirt between two giant boulders. I feel fortunate to have survived such a long fall with relatively few injuries; I ended up dislocating my elbow, I had a puncture wound in the upper part of my pectoral muscle, a few minor cuts, and I have a tiny nodule of scar tissue on my butt.

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Since that accident, I make sure to finish tying my knot! I also make sure to check my partner’s knot before he/she steps off the ground, and I always look at my knot before being lowered.

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On some levels, I’m probably a better climber now. But I don’t push myself as hard as I did previously because I don’t have the time, and I don’t want to get injured by not listening to my body.

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Honestly, I prefer climbing at a more enjoyable level. I’ll get on a 5.13 here and there, but really I like to onsight, and I can onsight between 5.12b and 5.12d pretty consistently.

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I’m content with all different forms of climbing. Diversity and novelty are part of what I like.

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I’ve learned that you have to be willing to put your ego on the line. If you’re so concerned about succeeding, chances are you’ll be distracted at the moment of truth. I think in order to realize our goals we have to be motivated for the right reasons. What I’ve learned is that I need to be totally willing to accept the possibility of failure, but also committed to trying my best no matter what.


This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 220 (August 2014).


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