My Summary of Climbing Free by Lynn Hill

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Lynn cruising up Tar and Feathers 511d Suicide Rock
Lynn cruising up Tar and Feathers, 5.11d, Suicide Rock.

Climbing Free by Lynn Hill with Greg Child is an amazing book and a must read for any climber. Lynn takes us through her life from growing up with six siblings to winning climbing competitions around the world.  This book shows her passion for the dance called climbing and is a spectacular demonstration of what can be accomplished when you ignore “the limit”.

Lynn was a talented gymnast
Lynn was a talented gymnast.

Lynn was born in Detroit in 1961 as the 5th of what would be seven children. After a brief stint in Ohio, her family soon settled in southern California (Fullerton). Lynn was a total “tomboy” she loved animals, especially snakes, and played a lot of sports. She felt as though she was a part of a perfect family and they frequently went on family trips to Yosemite, or sailing, or long drives around the country in their station wagon. At eight years old she began gymnastics at the YMCA which gave her the ability to mentally visual complex physical sequences. She enjoyed the sport but didn’t understand the showmanship aspects such as smiling all the time and being “cutesy”. She quit gymnastics at age 12 but continued in high school and became a top gymnast in California. In 1975 her sister’s fiance, Chuck Bludworth, took her to Big Rock, a small climbing area near LA. She sport led a 5.5ish route as her first ever climb, which speaks to her mental fortitude. A few weeks later she lead Trespassers Will Be Violated (5.10c) at Joshua Tree National Park, an amazing feat for such a new climber. The next year she climbed Temple Crag (10 pitches, 5.9) in the Sierra Nevada with Chuck. It is an alpine route requiring snow and ice travel on the approach; during this ascent Lynn realized she didn’t like mountaineering, a feeling that would stick with her for the rest of her life.

The Old Woman formation at Joshua Tree National Park
The Old Woman formation at Joshua Tree National Park

In late 1976 Lynn’s parents separated and the perfect family she thought she had fell apart. Lynn used climbing as a sort of therapy, spending as much time as possible out on the rock at Joshua Tree with her new family of climbers. This group included John Bachar, John Long, John Yablonksi, and Dean Fidelmen. Lynn impressed and humbled these seasoned climbers with her ability and destruction of gender roles. At this time John Bachar was soloing 5.12a (Leave it to Beaver).

3000ft El Capitan The Nose route roughly follows the line between shadow and light
3,000ft El Capitan. The Nose route roughly follows the line between shadow and light.

Lynn eventually made her way into the Yosemite climbing scene in the late 70’s. She was deeply affected by Chuck’s death on Aconcagua in 1980 and she continued to find solace on the rock. In this portion of the book Lynn retells a lot of history of Yosemite climbing from 1940-1970. Its amazing what these men accomplished in those times. “True pioneers” Lynn calls them. The Nose route on El Capitan (31 pitches, 3000 feet) was established by Warren Harding with others in 1958, a feat equatable to reaching the moon. She also tells us about a plane crash in 1977 at Lower Merced Lake in Yosemite. The plane was FILLED with bales of cannabis, climbers caught on and were quickly bringing loads of wet weed back to Camp 4 before the NPS realized. These efforts funded a lot of climbing gear and even house payments for the dirtbag climbers; however, in the coming years these folks faced a lot of bad karma including multiple deaths (read more about this fascinating incident here).

Lynn Hill with John Long AKA Largo
Lynn Hill with John Long AKA Largo

In 1978 Lynn and John Long AKA Largo became an item. John was an excellent climber and a passionate storyteller who would eventually pursue writing. Together they moved to Las Vegas and John urged Lynn to do multiple TV appearances which largely funded their adventures. He also introduced her to weight lifting which Lynn seemed to have a natural ability for. When she tried to break the world record for bench press (150lbs for her weight class) she choked at the competition although she had succeeded in training. This is interesting to me because she always seems to be able to focus her attention and stay calm, but she explains that the hectic environment of the competition; with the huge sweaty dudes and musky air, was opposite to her normal performing environment on the rock. In 1982 they moved to Santa Monica, near Hollywood, and Lynn did multiple stunts for money while attending Santa Monica College (SMC). Stunts included; The Survival of the Fittest competitions (she won all of them), climbing a rope up and over a hot air balloon (with no protection), and rappelling 1,800ft off of a helicopter (during which the friction caused the rope to melt). Her time in “show biz” made her realize how demeaning it all was and she soon stopped all the acts.

John Yablonksi on Wheat Thin 510c in Yosemite
John Yablonksi on Wheat Thin (5.10c) in Yosemite

Lynn continued climbing often during these years including a trip to Yosemite with John Yablonski AKA Yabo. Yabo was desperately in love with Lynn and frequently threatened taking his own life if she didn’t indulge him. Together they did a first ascent on Fairview Dome in Tuolumne Meadows called The Scariest of Them All. They didn’t report the route because it was far too dangerous and not worth doing. Lynn wondered how many more such adventures Yabo would live through, as he was becoming more and more reckless in attempts to get attention (mostly from Lynn). Lynn introduced Yabo to a troubled girl on the SMC track team and they hit it off. Lynn’s relationship with Largo was not going as well. They grew apart as John focused on writing and Lynn on her studies (biology).

Lynn and Russ sharing vows on the cliffs at the Gunks
Lynn and Russ sharing vows on the cliffs at the Gunks.

In 1983 Lynn got invited to New York City for an interview and she took the opportunity to visit the Shawangunks, an area with significance to East Coast climbers similar to Yosemite on the West Coast. She was shown around by local climbers including Russ Raffa, and found the new environment and challenges stimulating. She decided to move to New Paltz, NY (near the Gunks), at the same time Long was heading to Borneo and developing his writing career. The two broke up but remained good friends. While climbing at the Gunks Lynn made the First Ascent of Vandals (5.13b) the hardest route in the East. To succeed on the route she hung on the rope after an attempt in order to get the necessary information to make the ascent. In her words: “In one moment I had, to some degree, thrown out years of climbing philosophy … The subtle advantage of hanging on the rope to figure out the crux moves gave me the added information that helped me learn and eventually succeed on the route. The old style of climbing suddenly seemed rigid, limited, and contrived.” Hangdogging, as it was disaffectionately called, became a huge subject of debate in 1986 at the American Alpine Club’s annual meeting. It was a passionate debate: “clean”, leave no trace, traditional ascents versus bolting routes, and hangdogging (sport climbing). Lynn felt that sport climbing was the future and would allow immense advancement in the sport.

Lynn was invited to go to France by the French Alpine Club to experience their climbing culture which included the wide use of bolts. During this time she met two important people, one was Jibé Tribout who was the first person to climb 5.14a in the U.S., Jibé was quite sexist and claimed a woman could never climb 5.12d on their first attempt (a “barrier” Lynn would shatter). She also met Marco Scolaris who was organizing the first ever climbing competitions. When he saw her climb he was amazed and invited her to the next competition. And thus, in 1987 in Arco, Italy, Lynn was introduced to the world of climbing competitions. The competition was held on real rock and the rules favored speed over technique. Lynn came in 2nd behind Catherine Destivelle because she was able to climb the route faster even though she fell. Destivelle was somewhat of a goddess in European climbing and frequently was favored by judges and competition officials.

After Russ Raffa and Lynn Hill got married in 1988 in New Paltz, NY Lynn continued competing  at the first U.S. competition at Snowbird Resort in Salt Lake City, UT. She rushed a lunging move and fell before reaching a hold that Destivelle was able to grasp before falling herself. By 1989 Hill was ranked as the #1 female climber and in that same year she would experience a miracle that saved her life.

Limestone Cliffs of Buoux France
Limestone Cliffs of Buoux, France

On May 9, 1989 a 28 year old Lynn Hill was climbing in Buoux France with her husband of seven months, Russ Raffa. While standing at the base of Buffet Froid (Cold Buffet 6b+, 5.11)Lynn began tying into the rope the same way she has thousands of times, she began talking to another climber, put on her jacket, and sent the 85 foot route no problem. Alas, she had not rewoven her figure eight knot after getting distracted by the other climber and as she sat back to be lowered she fell. She fell 85 feet through the air slammed into a tree and ended up on the ground. Death. Death is what you would expect, death is what would happen all but once in a million, but Lynn did not die. She didn’t break every bone in her body either. She dislocated her elbow (badly) and fractured a bone in her foot. A miracle. “The Perfect Fall” she calls it. During her recovery (6 weeks till she was back on the rock) she had lots of time to think, to doubt, and to question. She struggled to explain her reasons for climbing and asked herself if she should be doing something less self serving.

Some months later in January 1990 Lynn became the first woman ever to climb 5.14a (Mass Critique in France). She lived with female American climber Robyn Erbesfield in France during the 1990 World Cup season. They trained together and played footbag on rest days! (I thought this was awesome because I’m a big footbagger myself) Towards the end of the season her foot slipped off the starting hold and she was disqualified. When asked why she fell during a televised interview Lynn responded “I’m having problems in my marriage.” Even with the disqualification Lynn tied Isabelle Patissier for the World Cup Championship. Patissier felt she should have won and refused to stand on the podium. Hill became frustrated with the “petty nationalism, bad sportsmanship, rule bending, and ego” (paraphrase) involved in competition.

Wolfgang Gullich on Action Directe the worlds first 514d
Wolfgang Gullich on Action Directe the worlds first 5.14d

Russ and Lynn separated in Spring 1991, they had grown apart both physically and emotionally; afterward Lynn moved to France full time. Lynn took a heavy emotional blow when she got word that Yabo had killed himself after his girlfriend tried to break up with him. He felt as though the sport he devoted his life to was moving beyond him and he tried his hand at competition climbing to get back in the center of it all. His emotion driven climbing was negatively effected by the crowds and he performed poorly. The next year (1992) another famous climber, Wolfgang Güllich, was killed when he lost control driving on the Autobahn. Güllich was a spectacular climber, he was the first person to ever climb 5.13d, 5.14a, 5.14b, and 5.14d. To commemorate his death Lynn succeeded in an onsight attempt of Simon 5.13b in Frankenjura, Germany. This would be her hardest ever onsight (meaning she climbed it on her first try with no previous information on the route), and would quite Jibé Tribout who said a woman would never onsight 5.12d.

Lynn heading into the Great Roof
Lynn heading into the Great Roof
The Changing Corners houdini moves
The Changing Corners “Houdini moves”

1992 was Lynn’s final World Cup season. She wanted to push the limits in climbing not by increasing technical difficulty but by climbing bigger walls in better style. Good friend John Long suggested she attempt the First Free Ascent of the Nose route on El Capitan, North America’s biggest wall, a feat thought to be impossible. She first attempted this in 1993 with Simon Nadin a fellow competitor,  she was able to free climb the Great Roof but not the notoriously hard Changing Corners pitch; they resulted to aid climbing the final pitches to the top. One week later after a family reunion in Idaho, a determined Lynn returned to El Cap with Brooke Sandhal. The purpose of their visit was two fold: get pictures for sponsor Beal, and free climb the Nose. Their strategy included rappelling from the top of El Cap to take pictures on the Great Roof and to study the Changing Corners pitch. They returned to the valley and attempted the free climb, Lynn was able to flash the Great Roof (succeed first try) and with cool weather (and thus, good friction) Lynn was able to free the Changing Corners which she rated as “once in a lifetime, maybe, twice.” Brooke was unable to free these two most difficult pitches and therefor after 4 days of exertion Lynn became the first person to ever free climb the 3,000 ft Nose route. On September 19, 1994 Lynn would return to Free the Nose in 23 hours.

After these spectacular feats Lynn felt that alpine walls offered the next great challenges. However, Chucks death in 1980 and a new a friend, Hugues Beauzile’s, death both on the south face of Aconcaqua caused Lynn to fear and respect big mountain environments. Nonetheless, in 1995, Lynn joined the North Face team in Kyrgyzstan for some high altitude big wall climbing. The team consisted of: Alex Lowe, Conrad Anker, Jay Smith, Dan Osman, Kitty Calhoun, Greg Child, and photographer Chris Noble. During this expedition she completed many First Free Ascents and felt as though she got her fill of the “high altitude, cold stuff”. Instead of climbing higher and bigger walls, Lynn focused on climbing broader with trips to Morocco, Vietnam, Thailand, Scotland, Australia, Japan, South America, and all around Europe.

Lynn Hill is an amazing person and an absolute inspiration for anyone, whether or not your a climber or a woman. Lynn’s accomplishments remain as some of the greatest in the sport and she will forever be one of the best. Lynn was blessed with a good physical condition and quickly learned the importance of mental focus and control through her gymnastic training. These two factors, along with increasing technical abilities, allowed Lynn to progress to the highest stage in climbing. I’m sure that Lynn’s actions have inspired a wave of female climbers such as Sasha Digiulian and Ashima Shiraishi. This book has given me a great respect for the history of climbing, women on the cutting-edge, and the beautiful dance between climber and rock. It has also made me more aware of the importance of mental calm while climbing, Hill always seemed to climb well when she focused and wanted to. Too often do I find my mind wandering when I’m on the rock, I must practice this moving meditation.

Thanks for reading, I would truly love to get your opinion in the comments on this summary, the book, or anything Lynn Hill/climbing related. Climb on!

7 Responses

  1. After more than 35 years of climbing, on and off, I recently read Lynn’s book and appreciated the summary, especially the photo of the awesome overhang. I recently began climbing again after a lengthy hiatus and I believe reading her book was the stimulus I needed. Her climbing accomplishments are awe inspiring.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the summary and are getting back into climbing. There is something so simple about it yet so fulfilling. Moving meditation for sure.

  2. It is really a great and helpful piece of info. I¦m satisfied that you just shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Something is wrong on dates of Chuck Bludworth’s death on Aconcagua. I walked Appalachian Trail south to north in 1977. I can’t quite recall when I headed to Yosemite and Joshua Tree from living in Wisconsin (climbing at Devil’s Lake) I met Chuck in Joshua Tree. He became my very best friend and my climbing partner and we would engage in substances and run around the canyons all night. He was hysterical attempting to follow 5.9 in his rigid mountaineering boots. I know for a fact Chuck did not die in 1977. In fact, I was sitting at kitchen table in Madison WI when I read in a climbing mag of Chuck’s death. It was absolutely devastating.

    1. I’m so sorry for your loss. You are correct, it appears he passed on January 8th, 1980. I updated the post. Thank you for your comment and story, sounds like a great pal!

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