Lynn Hill looks at the camera while belaying

Lessons From a Legend

Photo: Coutesy of Lynn Hill

How climbing great Lynn Hill empowers women, kids and non-traditional athletes to see past limits by embracing nature’s challenges and rewards.

Lynn Hill, arguably the best-known female climber in the world, is no stranger to struggles of diversity, equality and equity in the vertical world. Hill started in the 1970s when women who climbed were a rarity. At first, she tagged along with her brother and friends on their jaunts to the granite rock of Joshua Tree National Park. A former gymnast just shy of 5-foot-2, Hill quickly adapted to climbing’s movements and exposure. Not only did she succeed in what was primarily a man’s world, but she flourished. In 1994, Hill and her partner, Brooke Sandahl, made history by securing the first free, one-day ascent of the Nose, an iconic route up the El Capitan monolith of Yosemite National Park, ascending more than 3,000 vertical feet in just under 23 hours, with much of the climbing done in the dark by headlamp. (“Free” means that Hill and Sandahl were the first climbers, male or female, to ascend the route without using aid gear for pulling or stepping up the rope, which was only there to protect them in a fall.) Not only did this accomplishment secure her position in rock climbing history, not just as a female climber, but as one of the all-time best, regardless of gender.

These days, Hill is focusing on climbing and teaching all that she’s gained from such a dynamic sport. She offers private coaching in Boulder, Colo., gives talks to groups about diversity and inclusion in climbing around the globe, and is launching a new instructional video called The Fundamentals of Climbing. Available at, the 70-minute film breaks down critical elements of outdoor rock climbing visualization and technique, focusing on classic moves and featuring cameos with some of the sport’s brightest luminaries. Hill’s intent is, “to help people have a conscious understanding of movement, from low-angle slabs, to vertical faces, corners, aretes, overhangs, mantling, and ultimately overhanging faces, which often requires the use and coordination of dynamic and physically demanding techniques.”

Beyond that, she’s developing a camp in the West Texas climbing mecca of Hueco Tanks, where Hill hopes to educate kids of all ages about not only climbing, but living in nature, pushing one’s limits, and being a part of a larger community.

Lynn Hill on the last pitch of the nose from 1993

PUBLIC LANDS: When you started climbing in the 1970s, did you ever feel like you weren’t welcome in what was primarily a male-dominated sport? 

LYNN HILL: In terms of climbing not being inclusive back in the day, people have that part wrong. Men were happy to see women on the rock. I always felt very welcome in the climbing community, but I’d say we didn’t get away from stereotypical assumptions about what a female should or could climb until later. There were the assumptions about what women could do—like, ‘Don’t try that route or boulder problem, it is too hard for you.’ Fortunately, the #MeToo movement has made people aware that those types of discouraging or self-limiting comments aren’t helpful. Back in the day, having Mari Gingery, who was open-minded, not jealous, and not into some of the ‘cat-fighting’ that can happen in a competitive environment, made a real difference. We supported each other, had similar desires to progress as climbers, and had fun. We were not women rock climbers; we were women, and we were rock climbers. 

After so many accomplishments on the rock, and as a female athlete, what are you most excited about for the future?

I’ve always loved Hueco Tanks, Texas for its great bouldering and climbing opportunities. In 2006, I bought land there, and have been developing it as a sanctuary for climbers, especially kids. I’m planning on hosting youth climbing camps and training for kid’s climbing teams. I’ve always been impressed with Hueco Tanks State Park’s environmental and preservation ethics, and it’s a place that welcomes climbers from so many backgrounds, from all over the world. 

My inspiration for the property is to provide kids with a solid outdoor experience. I have a son (Owen, 19), and I know that so many kids these days don’t have the same outdoor climbing experience that I did. I’m hoping that my property will be a haven where they cannot only climb together, but camp, eat, and interact positively together. 

Why is it important to get kids outside? 

[Gingery] and I have conversations all the time about how much we learned, as very young women, hanging out in Joshua Tree. There was a lot of independence and self-reliance. Those are things people still want and need. Kids need to be outdoors and to appreciate nature, it is a real thing. The harshness and deprivation of nature changes people. It may sound so simple, but being cold and eating a nice bowl of oatmeal in the morning, with nature all around you, is awesome and empowering. It is the simplest thing in the world, although living outdoors is not always easy. It is not like you are suffering, but something that is out of many people’s comfort zone, especially nowadays. And you learn to really appreciate comfort when you are uncomfortable.

What elements of being in nature made a difference to you when you were starting to climb?

It was the social interaction, the community. We were never bored. We talked, we told stories, we didn’t have technology at our fingertips. We learned to be inventive and creative—climbing, camping, and surviving. We’d spend time with our friends, explored, discovered, learned and challenged ourselves. 

How did you learn to connect with nature?

In many ways, we were early environmentalists. We would recycle aluminum cans; that is how we ate. It was a pretty direct correlation between working and getting food. We were trying to do the least that we could get away with in terms of consumption and climbing style; we knew we didn’t want or need excess, in life, and with leaving protection on climbs. We wanted to do more with less. That was our style of climbing (free versus aid), and our style of living. It’s a great concept that I think is valuable to teach upcoming generations.

In addition to not believing in consumption beyond what we needed, we made money to have adventures. Our values were based in adventure, not in material comforts. I still believe that a natural way of life is important. I’ve stuck to my guns with that concept, but also have watched the world change. I believe the way you live your life is really important, as is what you believe in and how you make a living. We used to call it ‘selling out’ when people talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk. But I’ve supported my son and myself in a way that still holds true to those principles I learned in Joshua Tree in my teens.

I think that the core principles of a climber, the whole ‘clean climbing’ ethos we worked so hard on, is all about living and making a living that respects nature and people and community. It is all about dignity. And living a life of adventure, with a solid ethic, is something that not only kids can learn from. It is fun too. I see and speak with people all the time who are trying to move from wealth to experience. I think that maybe we can teach kids the values of experience as their first priority.

Are there other ways that people can gain those values or get involved with outdoor activism?

Climbers and outdoor people can support public lands by donating money and time with their labor in activities like trail building. Experienced climbers can help with re-bolting efforts. And people shouldn’t be afraid of speaking about these issues in public forums.

What drew you to climbing in the first place?

The whole reason I did it was to be out in a beautiful place. My experiences in Joshua Tree made me feel connected with the [American] Indians who had lived there long before the white settlers. It made me think of dinosaurs and geology,and opened my imagination to the past. I remember looking at the stars and appreciating how small people were in relation to the universe. Living and playing outside reminds you of forces of nature, and the development of human culture. I think that is important to pass on to kids who are growing up in a materialistic world.

What lessons do you want to pass along to future generations of climbers?

What makes climbing unique are your friends. If you do a climb, and no one is around to appreciate what you do, what does it mean? What is important are the stories about the experiences, the challenges and emotions they evoke, and how to relate to that level that’s required to achieve your goals. We were not on social media; we would understate, not overstate things. It was bad form to brag about what you did. We weren’t overtly trying to self-promote other than the connection you would have with friends. We were pure in our approach and tried to do everything in the best style possible, with minimum alteration of rock. 

One focus today is to make climbing welcoming to people from non-traditional backgrounds. Has it been your experience that climbing is inclusive?

The first thing I think of is my direct relationships with people from different backgrounds, cultures, races and religions. One of the great things about climbing is that climbers tend to be curious people, and that is part of the draw of going to different places in the world to climb. It is my experience that climbers embrace diversity. You meet people who are different; travel is a lens into different cultures, and a mirror to observe how one’s own life and culture must look. I consider us to be a very welcoming community. I was called a tomboy when I was growing up, and I walked to a different drum than many other people of my generation. I knew I was different than most. I think it is the same for many people who got into climbing. 

Climbing is a shared experience, in spite of cultural differences. I’ve been fortunate to have climbed in many countries: all over Europe, in France and Italy; Japan, China; South America, Bariloche, Patagonia; Madagascar and Morocco. I find Muslim countries and places such as Morocco to represent some of the most dramatic contrasts between our respective cultures. Traveling there, I remember trying to get something out of the car and seeing a woman in a veil standing near me. Our eyes met, and there was a real curiosity on both sides. I felt a universal connection, as a woman and person, and a curious human being. I wondered what limitations she might have to deal with.

In many places, women don’t have the same rights as we might, but as an American, you realize we don’t even get equal pay. There are always stereotypes, and it is not to the advantage of men to give up power. Women have to work harder everywhere. We are lucky to some degree but have not won all the battles that need to be fought, in other cultures and countries, and right here in the U.S. It is an ongoing story. Individuals (meaning women) can have a positive impact not only for themselves but for others around you if you live by example and true to your principles. Climbing is a great vehicle for showing the way.

How’s that? Has climbing helped you set an example?

When I set out to climb El Capitan’s Nose, a friend who was going to photograph and film the route said to me, ‘Do you really think you can do this?’ But he had the opportunity to be a producer for an Everest expedition, so he wanted me to postpone my attempt on the Nose. He didn’t really think I’d be successful, so he bailed. I guess that is the same limiting stereotypical thought that has haunted female climbers for so long: It is discouraging vibes. People don’t understand how to look at a problem with a solution, it is all in the perspective. 

You have to look at what’s available to you in your particular situation, your personal strengths, as well as history and prior examples of what is possible, regardless of gender. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.