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In addition to being perhaps the breakout star of women rock climbers, and the one most often credited with opening mountaineering to women competitors and dreamers alike, Lynn Hill also holds the distinction of surviving one of the most ill-fated climbing accidents anyone ever lived to tell about.
During her sport climbing phase in the 1980’s, Hill made history for winning a score of international competitions. It was around then, in 1989, while training in Buoux, France, that she forgot to tie in before climbing on a top rope. When she reached the top of the cliff, some 80 feet above her belayer, she leaned back to be lowered and plummeted to the ground.
“My scream,” she writes in her autobiography, Free Climbing: My life in the vertical world, “was even heard by Pierre, the mayor of Buoux, who sat in the library of his house half a mile away.”
Sometimes people achieve mythical status by actually doing mythical things. In Hill’s case, she fell eight stories and bounced, and then days later had little more than a sore foot to show for it. Six weeks later she was climbing again.
Talking about climbing virtuosos over the 80-ish year period that recreational rock climbing has been a thing, names like Harding, Robbins, Chouinard, Bridwell, Potter, and Caldwell come to mind. But Hill is one that stands out, even from this crowd, for her longevity as a climber (she started in the 1970’s) and the range of her accomplishments.
The crux of Hill’s climbing career was her free ascent of The Nose of El Capitan in 1992. Freshly retired from the sport climbing world, The Nose was a celebration of her roots and a return to home turf. She had cut her teeth climbing in Yosemite with the Stonemasters, who introduced America to free climbing, and this effort represented a culmination of her skills. Up until this point, no one had climbed the entire 34-pitch route without using aid. After climbing The Nose, Hill was considered by many to be the best climber in the world.
Hill’s greatest contribution to climbing, though, may have been her role in opening the sport to women. One of only a handful of prominent women climbers at the time, Hill was a natural role model for a generation of female athletes. “It goes, boys!” was her statement upon summiting The Nose. She may just as well have been referring to the World’s misperception that a five-foot-two, 100-pound woman couldn’t pass anything, and anyone, on her way to the top.
By Brian Gruters
Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, briangruters.com. He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.