Lynn Hill: probably the greatest athlete you’ve never heard of*

*I sort of like ending a sentence with a preposition, but, when I do, I am always aware that I am breaking an old rule and sort of pride myself on being au courant; but – I know, I know,  but again – ending a heading with a preposition is very difficult.

Anyway, back to Lynn Hill. Back in the mid to late 60’s I fell in love with Yosemite and went there alot. Earlier, in the late 50’s and very early 60’s I had a fantasy of being a Mountain Climber (or Mountaineer as they were called: nobody – at least nobody I knew – was a rock climber), I think, primarily, because I had met and even spent a couple of weeks in the Sierras with a couple of well known climbers. Jules Eichorn, and through him, Norman Clyde.

We spent alot of time in the Sierras with ropes and other climbing paraphernalia thinking about climbing but, usually, we just went up mountains we could hike or scramble. At one point I was involved in rescuing a climber who had fallen on Mt. Banner and I watched a doctor (and fellow rescuer) amputate a couple of the resuee’s fingers with a pocket knife. That soured me on anything more than a class four climb.

Anyway, back to Lynn Hill. While we were mostly hiking in the High Country, we kept hearing stories of these crazy guys who were camped at camp 4 in Yosemite Valley. They were starting to climb all the unclimbable walls in The Valley. As an aside, strangely, several of them became interested in outdoor clothing: Doug Tompkins who founded North Face and Esprit, Yvon Chouinard who founded Patagonia, and Royal Robbins. I have no idea of the connection between first class climbers and first class clothing. End aside.

When we would pass through The Valley, we would occasionally even see them trying El Cap or inching up Half Dome. These were climbs that would take the better part of a week and we would watch from the ground for, say, an hour, and it would seem like nobody moved more than an inch. But the climbs got faster and the climbers got better until The Nose was first climbed in 1958 in …47
days using “siege” tactics: climbing in an expedition style using fixed ropes along the length of the route….the second ascent of
The Nose was in 1960 by Royal Robbins, Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost, who took seven days in the first continuous climb of the route. (From Wikipedia)

On September 19, 1994, Lynn Hill free climbed El Capitan in less than 24 hours.The greatest climbing feat – by anybody – ever. El Cap is 3900 vertical feet – by any reasonable standard, it is impossible. In 1954, Roger Banister ran the first sub-four minute mile. Now the world record is about 17 seconds less. About a 7% improvement. Lynn Hill’s feat was a 98% improvement – and she free climbed it. Up until, everybody climbed El Cap by hanging onto their ropes and hardware; she climbed it using the ropes and hardware as a safety backup. Anybody who thinks women can’t compete with men should watch Lynn Hill climb. A great athlete and the greatest climber.

4 thoughts on “Lynn Hill: probably the greatest athlete you’ve never heard of*

  1. After receiving your email (first version), I searched on her name and read all about her. Amazing and amazing that I’ve never heard of her. OK I won’t get started on that topic.
    Very cool to read and isn’t something (I don’t just what – envy, jealousy, admiration) that you were there when something big was taking root? I’ve had a similar but different experience and wonder why I didn’t follow suit? Guess no one ever performed an amputation in front of me!

  2. Lynn Hill is such a graceful, strong climber.
    I would love to hear about your meeting with Norman Clyde. I always think about him when we’re on the east side and see the Minarets (including ‘Clyde’).

  3. Laura – with all the climbing walls around, it is amazing that she isn’t a household name. At the time, it didn’t seem like anything big was taking root – but it did seem like these guys were having a good time. The big thing I remember about the amputation was that I could smell the gangrene.

  4. Gina- I would love to tell you more about Norman Clyde over a drink. When I was 16, I spent about four weeks backpacking with a group in the High Country that he joined at Rae Lakes – it was my first spiritual experience. At the time, I had never spent a night outside. I am embarrassed to admit that I showed up at the trailhead wearing motorcycle boots. Clyde carried a huge pack – like 115 pounds – that included everything including a shoe repair kit that he used to repair my boots and a cast iron skillet.

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