Empowering A Generation of Climbers - An Interview with Lynn Hill

Lynn Hill is a legendary rock climber who influenced generations of female climbers. She'll be our special guest at our upcoming gala. Get a preview of her presentation, and join us on April 14!
Kristina Ciari Kristina Ciari
Mountaineers Communications and Membership Director
March 13, 2018
by Kristina Ciari, Mountaineers Communications and Marketing Director

I don’t watch much television these days, but I had a TV in my bedroom growing up. It was a 13” set with a built-in VHS tape player. Weighing in at a svelte 27lbs, it fit perfectly between the two front seats of our minivan, plugged into the to the cigarette lighter to provide entertainment for my sisters and me on road trips. When you live in Montana, everything is a long car ride away. 

Like teenagers do, I used to stay up late watching TV, and I loved Letterman. In 1989 Lynn Hill appeared on the show after a successful climbing competition. In it, she stands in front of a fake rock wall next to David Letterman, who is wearing a climbing harness over his suit pants. Dave introduces her as, “The best rock climber in the world.” Clad in purple Lycra tights, Lynn explains the basics of climbing, then the two take turns scaling the wall. It’s probably the first late night talk show segment dedicated to the sport of rock climbing.

Watching this a few years later when it was on a summer rerun, I felt transfixed by Lynn’s calm presence and the idea that you could climb sheer, vertical cliffs. I started following Lynn after that, as much as you could before the internet. I was so excited when I learned The Mountaineers would be hosting Lynn as our special guest for the 2018 Mountaineers Gala: Adventure with Purpose, on April 14. 

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Lynn empowered a generation of women to tackle an unconventional sport — one historically dominated by men — and inspired a community of strong, capable women to get out, get after it, and take things to the next level. I spoke with Lynn (a dream come true for this fan-girl) about where she’s been, where she’s going, and what she sees as her legacy with climbers. I was taken by her unending passion for the sport of climbing, and for her dedication as a mother, an adventure she entered as a “second phase mom” at the age of 42. Today, Lynn is 57 and still climbing hard, and she remains committed to making this world a better place for her son. She is inspired by good people doing good things, and believes the story that you tell yourself is the most important one of all.

I was always surprised when people who weren’t climbers knew my name. Because we have the internet and social media now, you can follow people to the most remote parts of the world. When Tommy Caldwell posted about the Dawn Wall, it became a global phenomenon and inspired the international community. Back in the day I met people through climbing competitions, and it was fascinating for me to learn about climbing around the world from my fellow competitors. Being part of this community of sharing has always been an important part of climbing, and it’s evolved today at an exponential pace.” 

My intention on The Nose [famous El Capitan climbing route] was to show that women could do amazing things. We had underestimated ourselves for a long time. The only way to make change is to be an example and say, ‘Look, this is possible.’”

2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the first free ascent of The Nose. I’m going to go back to Yosemite with one or two other women and we’re trying to organize a documentary film of the trip. It’ll be challenging to lead for that amount of time. Obviously, since I’m 57 now and heading up to El Cap, I want people to be able to say, ‘Wow, you can still do that?’ Well yeah! I never stopped climbing!”

Girls are really good at climbing. It’s the perfect sport for girls. It’s very empowering. It teaches us that we can push ourselves and not give up. Those internal dialogues of doubt go away and we learn that if you want to climb hard you have to try hard. Climbing taps into what women and girls have naturally, which is a graceful approach — going with the flow so to speak. It teaches you a lot of life lessons that can pay over to other parts of your life in any challenge.”

Every day I’m pretty much full on mom. I run an Airbnb out of part of my house, and I chose that business rather than being a sponsored climber so I could be around for Owen. It’s very stressful to be away from home when you’re a single mom. He’s 14 now and a good athlete. He likes to go to the skate park, though he’s not a climber. If anything I’ve erred on the side of ‘if you don’t want to climb that’s okay’ and I haven’t pushed it. I think we need to accept each other and embrace our qualities and not try to make people what we want them to be.”

Being involved with reputable organizations can help us drive real change with public lands policy. Local groups like The Mountaineers and national organizations like the Access Fund work with politicians. We have to stand up for what’s right, and we must work together to accomplish those goals.

Climbing is a metaphor for the rest of life. It helps us realize our strength and it empowers us to continue along the high road, almost literally. It pushes us forward to do the right thing.”

Adventure’s a great place to learn how to keep your cool under pressure. It’s exciting to be fully engaged in life and that’s one of the things I like about climbing in general. It involves complete engagement in all levels of being, and there’s no thoughts about what you have to do later on that day. You’re just really present. That’s why I call climbing a ‘moving meditation’. It allows me that peace and that connection to my inner self. It reinforces a lot of the good, strong qualities and reminds me of what’s real as opposed to the stresses in the external world.”

Climbing is still a big part of my life. In my 50’s I wanted to do some hard routes. I had a period of time where I could go out to Rifle for five days at a time, which is about three and a half hours from my house in Boulder. It’s probably the best place for hard sport climbing. I tried this route for a season, and it was really hard at first. It’s called Living in Fear (5.13d), and at the very end of the season in October before it got cold I had a single day free, so I got up early, drove out, warmed up, and did the route. That was a great moment because it was really hard, and it was really nice to be able to put together routes that I wasn’t sure about that required being on and feeling strong. Then I got back in the car and drove back to Boulder. My happiest memories come from being successful on climbs that have taken a lot of effort and investment.

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Meet Lynn Hill in person and hear her talk about her life as a climber she is our special guest at The Mountaineers annual gala on April 14. 

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This article originally appeared in our Spring 2018 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.
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