American rock climber
World Cup champion Lynn Hill is the best female rock climber in the world, and in the top five overall. In a sport dominated by men, Hill has accomplished feats in climbing that climbers of both genders marvel at. After winning dozens of competitions—against both women and men—Hill retired from competition to pursue climbs in some of the world's most exotic locales.
Hill was born in 1961 in Detroit, Michigan and grew up in Orange County, in southern California. She was the fifth of seven children of James Alan Hill, an aeronautical engineer, and Suzanne Biddy Hill, a dental hygienist. A natural athlete who excelled in swimming and gymnastics, she began climbing with her older sister at age fourteen in California's Big Rock and Joshua Tree National Park. "Early in my climbing career, a guy once said to me after a climb at Joshua Tree, 'Gee, I can't even do that,'" Hill recalled on MountainZone.com. "That statement was the start of a whole process for me in pursuing my own dreams…." Sexist attitudes in climbing frustrated Hill, whose accomplishments speak for her, regardless of her gender.
Though she is a self-admitted tomboy, Hill is far from strapping or mannish. At five feet tall and about 100 pounds, she is petite. Her arms and shoulders are powerful, and her hands are small, which gives her an advantage slipping her fingers into tiny nooks and crannies to get up a wall. Her size made some climbs more challenging, but was an asset to her on others. She counts Chuck Bludworth, her sister's fiancée, as her first climbing mentor. He encouraged and tested her while climbing at Big Rock, and she was soon leading climbs. At age fifteen, Hill was climbing the "mini-mountains" of the Sierra
Nevada range, and had her first experience climbing in ice and snow. She decided icy climbs were not for her.
What really interested Hill was "bouldering," which she discovered at Joshua Tree and still loves to do. Bouldering is like mini-climbing, literally on boulders, usually just a few feet off the ground, but extremely difficult. In bouldering, Hill wrote in Climbing Free, "I discovered the heart of free climbing movement in its purest form.… Climbing was beautifully free-form and spontaneous, each movement being different from any other." Hill was obsessed with climbing; she climbed on weekends, and trained and dreamed about climbing during the week.
After twenty years together, Hill's parents divorced, and she immersed herself in climbing. In the early 1980s, Hill was one of a number of climbers from America and abroad who congregated in the Yosemite Valley, living in tents and climbing day in and day out. "I felt an urge to climb that was insistent and compelling," she wrote in Climbing Free. Hill became a regular on a route called The Nose up the roughly 3,000-foot face of El Capitan there. At age nineteen, she became the first woman to scale a wall called Ophir Broke in Telluride, Colorado. The accomplishment proved to Hill and everyone else that she was more than just a good climber—she had the potential to be great.
To finance her roving, climbing lifestyle, Hill competed in a TV sports competition, called Survival of the Fittest. The contest was a test of athletic prowess over a series of physical challenges and obstacle courses. The grand-prize money she won four years in a row financed her lifestyle, and she began traveling and competing in Europe, winning cash prizes. She also is sponsored by the adventure gear company, The North Face. All told, Hill has won over thirty international titles.
In 1989, climbing in Buoux, France, Hill made an elementary mistake that almost cost her her life. While climbing with her new husband, Russ Raffa, Hill reached the top of the 72-foot Styx Wall, and called to him to belay her down. When she let go of the wall for him to lower her, Hill kept falling. She crashed through a tree and landed between two boulders. Miraculously, she was alive and had to be helicoptered off the mountain. She suffered only a broken ankle, dislocated arm and a host of bumps, cuts, and bruises. Her mistake? She had forgotten to safety-knot the rope to her harness.
After four months of rehabilitation, Hill was back on the competition circuit, and finished 1989 with more wins than any other female climber. At a World Cup competition in Lyon, France, Hill finally silenced sexists by scaling the same difficult course as her male competitors. In 1990, in Cimai, France, she became the first woman to complete a grade 5.14 climb, the toughest in the sport. She lived and climbed in France in the early 1990s.
|1979||Becomes the first woman to scale Ophir Broke in Telluride (5.12/13)|
|Mid-1980s||Becomes a rock-climbing guide|
|1985||Begins competing on the World Cup circuit|
|1988||Marries Russ Raffa|
|1989||Suffers potentially-fatal fall in Buoux, France, on May 9|
|1989||Garners more major wins than any other female climber|
|1990||Becomes first woman to complete a grade 5.14 climb, in Cimai, France|
|1991||Becomes first woman to scale a grade 5.14 climb, Mass Critique in Cimai, France|
|1992||Ceases climbing competitively|
|1992||Climbs The Nose on El Capitan|
|1993||Achieves first "free" ascent of The Nose on El Capitan|
|1994||Achieves first free ascent of The Nose in one day|
|1995||Climbs Peak 4810 and Peak 4240 in Kyrgystan (both 5.12)|
|1999||Climbs Tete de Chou in Morocco (5.13b)|
|1999||Accomplishes first ascent of the 17,500-foot wall of the Tsaranoro Massiff in Madagascar with all-woman expedition team (5.13)|
Hill gave up competition rock climbing in 1992 to concentrate on often-remote climbs in exotic places like Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, Thailand, Scotland, Australia, Japan, South America, Italy, and Morocco. In 1993, she became the first person to complete a "free" ascent of The Nose on El Capitan. A free climb is one the climber completes climbing only on rock, using only the hands and feet. Hill was allowed to rest at belay stations, and had a climbing partner to catch her when she fell, but she led all the way and managed to climb sections that had never before been completed without the aid of equipment. Hill returned to The Nose in 1994 and climbed it in less than one day. A free ascent of The Nose has not been accomplished by any other climber.
Though no longer competing, Lynn Hill continues to climb extensively. In 1995, Hill traveled to Kyrgyzstan and made the first free ascents of two 5.12 walls: The 4,000-foot west face of Peak 4810 and the Peak 4240. She established Tete De Chou, rated 5.13b, the hardest climb pioneered by a woman in Morocco. In 1999, she lead an all-woman climbing team to Madagascar to accomplish a first ascent of the 17,500 foot granite wall of the Tsaranoro Massiff. Rated 5.13, this route was the most difficult multi-pitch rock climb ever established by a team of women. She is a member of the elite North Face Climbing Team. Her global climbing expeditions are the subject of many a film crew. After ten years of recording anecdotes about her life, Hill published her autobiography, Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World, in 2002. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.
After twenty-six years of climbing, Hill seriously considered the question, "What do we conquer in a mountain?" "Certainly, we do not 'conquer' anything by climbing to the top of a rock or peak," she wrote in Climbing Free. "For me, climbing is a form of exploration that inspires me to confront my own inner nature within nature. No matter where I am in the world or what summit I've attained, the greatest sense of fulfillment in my life is connected to people."
Awards and Accomplishments
|Won more than 30 international competitions, including five times at the Arco Rock Master, the sport's most elite contest.|
|1990||First woman to complete a grade 5.14 climb, in Cimai, France|
|1991||First woman to scale a grade 5.14 climb, Mass Critique in Cimai, France|
SELECTED WRITINGS BY HILL:
(With Greg Child) Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World, W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Hill, Lynn, with Greg Child. Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Johnson, Anne Jeanette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996.
"Lynn Hill: Climbing Free." PlanetMountain.com. http://www.planetmountain.com/english/special/people/hill/ (January 15, 2003.)
"Lynn Hill: Climbing through the glass ceiling." MountainZone.com. http://classic.mountainzone.com/climbing/99/interviews/Hill/ (January 15, 2003.)
"Profile: Lynn Hill." Outside online. http://web.outsideonline.com/disc/guest/hill/profile.html (January 15, 2003.)
"Welcome to the Lynn Hill Foundation." Lynn Hill Foundation Web site. http://www.djfoundation.org (January 15, 2003.)
Sketch by Brenna Sanchez