Lynn, her puppy Derp, and I are passing a terrarium with a coiled snake entering a simple office room with a view of the Rocky Mountains. I take out two cans of coconut water and a package of blueberries. I am offering this snack and turning on a voice recorder…
LAYBACK IT LIKE LYNN HILL!
I used to stare at that lean, muscular and tanned girl in a purple tank my whole childhood. My dad – a climber, found her poster somewhere and hung it up in my bedroom. Based on this poster, he taught me how to master the layback climbing technique. I could not have asked for a better template role model.
When my dad and I climbed one of the classics at the Czech sandstone climbing area called Bohemian Paradise, a pristine curved crack Kouřová, seemingly resembling the poster line, the Pancake Flake, my dad’s beta wasn’t “Climb it as a Layback,” but “Layback it like Lynn!”
Yes, indeed. Underneath the elegant and brave poster lady in my bedroom was written “LYNN HILL – freeing the Nose.” This image of the mighty, laybacking Lynn Hill was forever impressed into my mind since then.
I remember the glow radiating from that female climber, the glow of an absolute concentration, the complete calmness and impressive self confidence. Lynn was plugged in the state of flow, an unimaginable feat considering that below my childhood heroine sprawled a massif of blurred rock. A lot of blurred rock actually. For the little Eva, Lynn was a fascinating inspiration.
Twenty years later, I am standing at a climbing gym in the town of Boulder in the United States. I am talking to my friend when unconsciously, I step on someone’s rope. “Oh, sorry,” I answer mindlessly and look up to see whom I may have offended with this climbing faux pas. In front of me stands a tiny and ripped female climber. She smiles, waves her hand, and climbs into a steep overhang route.
“Oh shit!,” I exclaim. That was Lynn Hill!
In disbelief, with a tilted head, I stare up to the roof where, to my pure astonishment, I see my childhood role model moving up smoothly through the sea of the colourful plastic holds. Although Lynn did not use the layback technique then, her style kept emitting that poster-like concentration, calmness, self confidence, and last but not least, vertical elegance.
Two weeks later, I am standing in front of a family house at the foot of the Rockies. The doorbell says Lynn Hill.
“Whoa! I am really ringing the bell of Lynn Hill,” I say to myself and for my pure personal excitement, or perhaps a reassurance that this is not a dream, I press the bell one more time. The attic window opens and there I see my childhood legend smiling. “Eva! Come in!” Lynn waves at me, and I shyly enter.
THE FREE FLIGHT
To strive for the impossible is an unique devotion of humankind. The opposite is to say “It is hopeless.” These two antagonist attitudes clash within a human being and the whole human society since the beginning of time.
To sail around the world, to fly, to walk on the Moon. All these historical events were initially just dreams, until the moment when someone with a personal aspiration showed up. A visionary – a butterfly in manacles who made a lunatic idea a reality.
In September 2018, it has been twenty five years since the American climber Lynn Hill free climbed the iconic route “the Nose” on El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley as the very first person in the human history.
The belief that she could have accomplished her goal was the essential drive to pursue such a commitment for Lynn. “It is important what story you tell yourself,” Lynn says, sharing the essential beta in her office. The year after, in 1994, Lynn kept the same committed mindset when she free climbed the Nose within 24 hours. Then, she became one of the mightiest climbing visionaries ever to put on climbing rock shoes.
“It goes, boys!” this small woman of big dreams said boldly on the summit of the El Cap.
Lynn, what does the statement “It goes, boys!” mean for you and for the whole climbing community?
It means “It is possible, guys.” It was really interesting to be a woman and do the first ascent of something so historic and noteworthy. First of all, this sentence came up when John Bachar and I talking. We were doing a photoshoot on the top of the El Capitan and we were just joking around. Usually, somebody says “Yeah, some guy can free climb that.” That’s what you would usually hear. I have heard the narrative “that some guy will do that” all my life. The progress and first accents have always been referred to in male terms. My summit statement back then was a sort of spin on that thinking pattern.
“It goes, boys.”
The choice for boys was sort of a funny encouragement for men. Young men.
Where does your inner energy to strive for impossible come from? To break the limits and challenge the existing social and gender conventions?
It is who I am. Who I have always been. I have embraced this attitude as a young girl. They used to call me a tomboy when I was small. I thought that label was kind of insulting because it was taking away the fact that I was a girl and a woman. Calling girls a tomboy makes it seem that you are less of a woman just because you have athletic skills.
I just went ahead and followed what was true for me because it was sincere. I figured out that people were wrong judging me. The inner authentic choice I made was to follow my passion in this way. Very early on, I realised that I should not assume that the judgments, culture, or even traditions are right for me. If you start with a premise that you are going to question everything, then you will probably be more objective when it comes to possibilities.
Could you please tell us what preceded your two historic free climbs of the Nose in 1993 and 1994?
I first attempted to free the route with Simon Nadine. I first met Simon at a World Cup competition in 1989 and later shared with him my desire to free the Nose. We came to the valley in 1993. However, we did not achieve it completely, to free climb the whole route. Repeatedly, we had some challenges at the Great Roof. I eventually managed to free that pitch but it was exhausting. After multiple tries, we got tired and hungry. The crux of the route was the section above the Camp 6, the Changing Corners, where we failed to free the boulder problem move. We had neither any food left nor more time at that point, so we just returned to the Valley. Simon went back home and I took a week off to visit my mum in Idaho. I decided to come back with Brook Sandahl later that same summer.
I’m curious about your mindset after you came short on the El Capitan. How did you manage to bounce back after this setback and got excited for the next attempt?
At first, I was tired and discouraged because it looked impossible. Then I took this week off in order to hang out with my family, relax, and reflect. At that point, I decided that it was worth checking it out again because after all, the Changing Corners is a corner and logically, it should be possible to climb it.
I look at things rationally. If you can find an opposition between sizes of a corner there is a chance you can do it. I figured it would involve creating opposition in a very unorthodox way. However, I was very interested in seeing if I could come back with a solution.
THE FLEXIBILITY OF THOUGHTS
Is it your analytical way of thinking that helps you calm down your doubts? To shut down the screaming monkeys in your head? How do you control the negative inner talk which is capable of weakening the confidence of a human being, a climber?
I recognised it for what it was. I observe my performance in many different sporting activities and even public speaking. During these moments, I need to be both spontaneous yet organised in my thoughts. It is two different sorts of mind, just like climbing itself.
The more you prepare before you start, the more you will be relaxed. You have to recognise that you might be scared, you might be stuck, not knowing what to do. You might feel uncomfortable. You might get distracted by something in the audience. Mostly, I just accept that if that happens I am not going to try to resist it. So I am scared, pumped, not sure what to do. If that happens, I take a very quick pause, a sort of a reset button which I call a mental shift. I stop. I make a quick assessment.
Maybe the solution is to change my body position, to turn the other way. Maybe I am so pumped that all I have to do is to look at the next hold. Focus on it. Go. Or it could be that I should downclimb to shake out. Maybe I should do something different, hold the hold a different way.
There is always a possibility to stop. Regroup. I try to take a breath. Try to relax. Because when you are at that point of fatigue you tend to over grip instead of under grip. You are losing it. I guess what starts the whole panic is oftentimes the overgripping.
I just remind myself to hang on as much as possible, shake out, breathe. Reassess. Make a good choice. If you are afraid and it is a serious situation, you might want to downclimb. You might want to see where to jump if you have to fall. You know your body and you know your body would not be able to hang on for that next move. Your best option then is to control your fall. I never really had to do that. I have always kind of figured out the next move or… Yeah, pretty much… Or sometimes, I fall.. Yeah. Haha. Usually, however, it is not a terrible situation.
I do not climb to put myself in real danger like that. I climb because it is a lifestyle. It is fun. If I had to risk my life every time I climb, I would not think that would be fun.
When you free climbed the Nose as the very first person in the climbing history you gained acknowledgement from the entire outdoor community. The next free ascent was done ten years later by Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell. Why do you think the next send took such a long time?
During my career, there were a lot of male climbers within the climbing community. Moreover, the competition climbing was emerging and it attracted many of the climbers. It was an opportunity to travel to Europe, explore the new crags, and compare oneself with the locals. That was actually one of the most exciting aspects of being part of that generation – to discover competition which is very different now. Perhaps, there was not enough time and opportunity for big walls.
I think it was probably difficult for anyone to come to the Valley and to put yourself on the line and say “I am gonna free it.”
Do you think they, the male climbers, were concerned they would be compared with you as a female climber? Concerned they would fail?
There will always be the little voice in the back of your head telling you “What if I cannot do it.” There is also the feeling that you are going to be compared and not be as good as others. But I do not think one climb really defines your overall ability as a climber.
The Nose is a very particular free climb. It is very hard. Also, it is getting very popular. There is a logistical aspect as well. Back then when we did it, I do not remember any issue with people complaining about fix lines in their way. Having said that, I had the fixed line on the wall just for three days. Just for the upper part, the Changing Corners pitch. Comparing how long it takes people today, I am actually really surprised we managed to climb it. Recently, when I went back with Nina Caprez in 2018, I was surprised how difficult it felt 25 years later. Although you know – if it was not that hard, I guess I would be disappointed. (laughs)
To free the Nose is a very challenging project. It requires all the different skills, traditional style climbing and sport climbing. I think that is why I was so far ahead as I had been practicing all of that long before people were going to Europe or here.
Also, it is important to mention my climbing career was before the internet, before we had much of an exchange of information. Somebody had to carry a climbing magazine from a place to another one. You had to subscribe to European magazine to even see it. Climbing accomplishments spread through oral history.
Since your beginnings you have roped up with many strong and experienced climbers and some of them became more than just your climbing partners (Lynn Hill dated John Long and married Russ Raffa). Have you ever felt you had to climb hard just to prove you are a part of the climbing tribe?
I was just strong. I did not have to prove anything. It was an organic situation. We hung out with all these people. I started climbing at the age of 14 with my sisters and brothers. By 16, I already had a car. It was not a good one. It even crashed once when I went to Joshua Tree.
I would be going out and meeting people on my own. At first, I took my younger brother or friends but then, I really quickly hooked up with people who became my long life friends. It was a really good group of like-minded people. We all loved climbing, the adventure. We played by the rules of the day and the tradition.
Can you describe it?
The rules were simple and strict – your climbing style had to be clean. No dogging, no taking, no shaking off. You fall, you are lowered off. It was fun! We teased and motivated each other. We created a community that stuck together and had a single vision. We all lived in Los Angeles back then. I went to school and the others worked there. Joshua Tree was our refuge from reality. Today, all of us are retired and live full time in Joshua Tree or other climbing areas.
„No dogging, no taking, no shaking off. You fall, you are lowered off.“ Those were the beginnings in the Joshua Tree.
SMALL FINGERS CRUSHING THE GREAT ROOF
From Joshua Tree back to the Valley. The mainstream popular media assign Alex Honnold’s current success to his big hands and small amygdala. Ironically, your success was assigned to your small hands. Does this mean you have a big amygdala?
Haha. I would say I probably have a pretty normal amygdala. I respond to fear but I can control it. I do not let the fear overtake me. When they did the amygdala test on Alex, his reactions were signalled by a flashing light. In my case, the light perhaps would not go crazy to lit up but it might be engaged, it is managed.
As far as the relationships are concerned, which were also highly discussed in the case of Alex, I am more on the empathy side, inclined towards people than anything else. Yes, I would be on that side of that spectrum.
How about those highly discussed hands?! The common narrative is that small fingers could be an advantage for that thin roof crack of the Great Roof. Do you think your petite body structure was convenient to fit in that sequence?
Actually, it is weird. When I was on the roof, it seemed it was harder for me than it was for my partner. He could stand on the footholds lower down and I had to be all scrunched in this really horrible position. I did not enjoy that. I did not even try. I thought it was awful. There are two finger pockets. They are not even pockets, just openings in the crack. You are just like that. (Spreading arms and showing beta) Very uncomfortable. Like that. (Lynn is stretching her arms even more) Really uncomfortable. Small fingers but long reaches. So there is really no advantage.
You are showing this beta for the Great Roof. Can you still remember the sequence?
Not exactly. I’m sure at that time, I had it visually ingrained. I do use visualisation. If I succeed in figuring out the move, I do think about it, remember it, and imprint it into my mind. They say you can get almost as much value from visualising the moves as doing the moves themselves. If you can remember, and this is the thing, if you can remember all of the key aspects to the point you have to have your hips in exactly the right spot when you grab the arete. You are spread like an iron cross. It is a little bit blind when you kick your foot so you are guided by your feeling. And then, you have to have all your core straight. I lost a little bit that after I had my kid and had my uterus removed. That stuff changes when you go surgically there.
THE (IM)POSSIBLE CORNER
You have mentioned visualisation. Did you use it before you freed the Nose in 1993 with Brook Sandhal?
The whole climb was composed of a lot of things. Twenty years of experience behind me. Over in Europe, I had to work out multiple hard sequences and link up the hard moves. That was what it was about. Figuring out the key difficulty, figuring out how to go from the actual bottom through those sequences without resting. Doing it maybe with one or two rests. You eliminate it by your efficiency, by being more smooth, having a better strategy of breathing, clipping. What you bring with you. I was prepared by all of those things.
When I returned back to the Nose with Brook Sandhal later that summer, we were exploring and practicing all the crux moves by rappelling down from the summit. When we committed for the ultimate push, we were already prepared better than last time when I climbed with Simon. We had a better strategy, we budgeted our time, energy, and food better. I did the Great Roof on the first try on it. It took me three times with Nadine, maybe I even fell on my third and did it on my fourth. Brook Sandhal decided he was not going to try. He knew he could not make it that day, and so he was just belaying. Brook looked very well on the Changing Corners, practicing the very left variation, but it is very stretched out. I could not make the reach while stepping on anything.
I spent three days practicing the Changing Corners. However, I did not link the whole pitch because when I was practicing the sequences, it was very hot.
I just figured out that when we are on the wall for the final push and it is a shady day and cool conditions, maybe in the morning, I can probably stick better.
While your feet did not slip during the crux boulder move and you sent the Changing Corners, your partner Brook Sandhal tried the left variation. However, he was not successful. Yet, he still stayed and supported you in your attempt. It must have been very hard and also very generous of him to be happy for you.
The Nose was Brook’s goal as well. However, you have to be realistic and ask yourself: am I going to do this? On a big wall, you do not have a night to go down, sleep, have a nice meal, take a shower. You are there. You have to do it there.
In 1994, it was a totally different thing. In fact, I decided to do it in a day because I wanted to make a film. I thought: „Let’s make it interesting by adding a new element, by making it really exciting, by doing it within a day.“ I was also interested to see if I was able do it.
FILMAKERS ON THE WALL
Could you talk more about this climb in the 1994 and the film you committed to make about it? How did you manage the whole film production behind the project? I heard that a part of your film crew bailed on you as they were scared of heights.
I think the whole filming was even more difficult than people even realised. There were a lot of things going on. Back then, it was very complicated to manage a lot of people and deal with logistics. There was a lot of pressure and responsibilities.
On that topic, I must appreciate Adam Ondra and what a really great ascent on the Dawn Wall he did. He did not even have any of that support or a climbing crew around him. He went from the ground, and in a style he was not even used to. He did an amazing job. He linked it in a week, just like that! Awesome! Adam did not have people sending him shoes moulded to perfection that he would have had requested. He just did what he had to do with the available means. He just brought himself to the climb.
I read somewhere that you talked to Adam Ondra in the past and you encouraged him to onsight the Nose. Adam actually went up there with his dad Miroslav Ondra and was very close to sending it on the first go. However, they were also challenged by the Great Roof and the Changing Corners pitches. What is your relationship with Adam? What climbing future do you think lies ahead of him?
First of all, I like Adam as a person and I think it is always important how you come off as a human being. Of course everybody respects him, or should respect him, if you watch him climb. He is amazing. Adam has had so many different opportunities to climb in very different climbing areas since he was very young. Fortunately, his parents took him around quite a lot. I think Adam has a really good attitude in pushing himself. I guess he screams a lot which is kind of funny. Sometimes, people might perceive that differently than the way I understand it.
I scream too when I climb but not as much. There is screaming like a karate chop. Like “PASSAT”. That helps. It gives you power. Then, there is screaming because you are upset that you did not make it. For a moment, you can be unhappy. However, I think I am at the stage of my climbing life where I do not that wrap emotionally around my fall. I do not scream if I do not climb well. I am silently not OK because I am not able to do my dream right then. However, you have to shake it off and just work towards your dream. Adam actually shows he can do it as well. He works very hard and very long on his climbs till he accomplishes them. That is the only way you can be on such a level and make progress into the future. For him, Adam knows how he can get to another level. He just has to find a climb that is going to make him rise to the next dimension.
CHIT CHATTING UNDERNEATH A CRAG
In 1989, you had a scary climbing fall in France. What happened back then?
Details might not be as interesting. All week, I was threading the anchor and my partner, Russ Raffa, would just clean the draws and lower off. Finally, when he was doing it he wasn’t doing that. I had to clip in and tie. The very last day, we decided to go climbing at 6 in the evening in Beux before taking him to the airport to fly back to NY to do some work. He led the route and threaded the anchor. He actually did what I did the whole week. Everything was set up. It was an easy climb and I had a light jacket on. I thought: “Should I take this off? Nooo. I guess I’ll just climb with it.”
I started tying my knot when I realised my shoes were on the side. I stopped tying, thinking that the rope would not reach over to where I was going. It did and I was not paying attention to the rope anymore because I was talking to somebody. I walked back over to the base of the climb and I saw my partner Russ and he already had me on belay and that’s what I thought “Well, I don’t need to take off my jacket.” I brushed my shoes off and started climbing. It was a top rope, so I did not feel the weight of the rope was not being pulled away from me. It was going up with me. When I got to the top, the same person was talking to my partner and I thought he was not paying attention, so I pulled the other side of the rope which pulled the rope out of my harness. And then, I saw the leaves of the tree jingling. I thought I better rolled towards the tree. I grabbed the branch of the tree and that’s how I dislocated my elbow. I landed pretty hard on my butt and bounced landing face down between two rocks, big boulders. I was very lucky. Now, I look at my knot.
This fall happened to you when you lived in France. Besides Europe, you traveled and lived all around these climbing meccas, California, the Gunks, France. Now Boulder, Colorado. What made you move here?
Boulder is centrally located in the middle of the country, it has good vibes and places of climbing, and it is a town which is fun and progressive. It has a left wing side, even spiritual side. There are a lot of people who appreciate nature and its conservation, who are efficient and work on new technologies to change the way we produce energy and contribute to climate change in a good way. There are a lot of reasons. Here in Boulder, there is also the largest population of professional climbers in the country. It is because of all that. I can walk my dog without a leash right out of my back alley. It is a pretty nice lifestyle. I have a kid, a dog, cat, lizard and a snake.
As you have mentioned, there are a lot of climbers living in Boulder. For instance, the young and talented Margo Hayes, who was even born here. In 2017, she was the first woman to ever climb 5.15a (9a+), La Rambla in Siurana, Spain. You know her and you have seen her climbing progress. Can you talk about Margo and her evolution?
I climbed with Margo before she did La Rambla, at the 3rd Flatiron but it turned out to be too dangerous. Too much loose rock. She is a really amazing and talented climber and driven to try her hardest. I do not know anyone who could run up her effort. She has 100% commitment. I think that is also one of her challenges that she is so committed to. She does whatever is necessary to train.
When I was living in France, it was a kind of vacation climbing. It was fun. The rest days were about going to the farmers markets and learning to speak French and interact with people. I got used books from schools and learned geography and learned French. It was just super fun to me to be a part of the whole community and learn about the world and different cultures.
I think when you are very committed at the highest level, an Olympic athlete, you do not really have the same time to commit to that sort of level. Even though Margo was there in France, when I asked her at an event in Italy, where I saw her, who she was climbing with, she said: “I do not know, I am just climbing in the gym of my university in Provence on my own.” I was like: “Yeah. That is so solo.” That is completely different from my experience, my vacation climbing. I said that to Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou (Lynn’s former competition climbing rival and Margo’s coach) and she answered: “Well, Lynn, we were also climbing hard. We were hard. We were training.” I guess so. At that time, it was considered very hard but I feel we were more relaxed.
What’s most relevant is what goes in your head and how you perceive that 5.12c or 5.12d to be. It also depends on the style of the rock. A 5.12d can be very, very hard on small edges or bumps you can barely see. On the other side, another 5.12d can be an overhanging sport climb with chalk marks and pockets; then you know where to go. I do not know. In any case, it depends on you, on what you think and the story you tell yourself.
DON’T STOP THE CRUSHING MAMMA
Boulder has become not only your new homebase but also the home for your teenage son Owen. How much did your maternity change and influence you and your climbing?
Coming back after pregnancy was easy. I climbed very hard while still breastfeeding. Being a professional, being a mom, that is a hard juggle. Mothers take the most responsibility for the domestic chores. For a professional athlete, the value goes down because sponsors do not like when a woman gets pregnant. I just read this article in the New York Times about the runner Alysia Montano: Nike told me to dream crazy until I wanted to have a baby. Woman can work very hard and achieve some amazing goals, but it doesn’t mean that she will receive that same opportunities as her male equivalent. „The squeaky wheel man… gets the oil“. It is not that you do not want that, it is just not being offered to you. Now it is the time to speak up and do something about it. Like the #metoo movement.
As far as my personal motherhood is concerned, it is a matter of juggling time. Having a kid who has needs, you have to put your needs behind theirs because they are vulnerable. They are little human beings. To be a mother is a whole new adventure. Obviously, I had a lot of experiences in the world and I felt it was the time to give back and be present for another person. In my younger years, however, I was busy and traveling. For me, it was good to wait and have that time. Even though things have not slowed down and I still have a lot going on.
Owen loves skateboarding. Does he like climbing?
He also loves parkour but not that much climbing. He also got into basketball because of one of my friends. We have a trampoline in the backyard, so he is also good at doing all kinds of very interesting movements. He could be a very good climber but he is just not interested.
One of the most recent climbs of yours that gained media attention was a technical climb in the nearby Boulder Canyon, the Orb, graded 5.13b. After you sent it, you have made a funny use of the situation and said your trademark play-phrase again: “It still goes boys.”
It was just fun. I was kidding around with Kyle who was filming it. He likes to make jokes about that. I said it just almost for him as much as anything else. It wasn’t much of a huge deal for. I wasn’t trying to show off: “Look how strong I climb.” I should be able to climb harder than that. Although it was still a hard boulder problem, a hard move. It is not a very long climb but still, you have to do it right. It was pretty intense, so I was psyched.
And it still goes. Boys. What goes next, for Lynn?
All sorts of projects. So many things that go around. I have a household to run, videos to prepare for my projects, I have clinics to run, summaries for photos to be sent, people who would like to interview me and actually, I cannot do everything for everyone. It is hard for me to manage all the things all the time and still go climbing. Also, I would like to finish some of my ideas for my climbing wall. I am thinking about starting a clothing line. Things I have been thinking about for a while and just need to have the right team of people to pursue it.
There are a bunch of things on my “to do list” that I even have to leave at this very moment to manage all these assignments.
Lynn Hill was born January 3rd 1961 in Detroit, Michigan (USA). She graduated from University of Santa Clara, majoring in Biology.
Lynn Hill lives together with her son Owen, their dog, lizard and a snake in Boulder, Colorado (USA). Hill was married to a climber Russ Raffa, father of her son is Brad Lynch.
In 1993, Lynn free climbed the legendary route „the Nose“ (5.14a/b, 8b+/8c) on El Capitan as the very first person in the climbing history. A year later, Hill repeated this ascent within 24 hours.
In the ‘80s and the beginning of the’ 90s Lynn Hill participated in then-rising climbing competition scene. Hill was one of the most successful athletes. She became the World Cup champion and won various times the Arco Rock Master comp in Italy.
Lynn Hill was the first woman to redpoint 8b+. Lynn’s best onsight is 8a.
Lynn Hill authored her autobiography, Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World. She participated in the making of the movie Lynn Hill On the Nose capturing her climb of the Nose within one day. Currently, Lynn Hill works on her multimedia climbing coaching online platform.