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Achieving the Impossible: Lynn Hill’s Ascent of El Capitan’s Nose

Lynn Hill seen during her iconic climb of the Nose. 

2,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor with her hands jammed into a undercling, the last thing Lynn Hill needed was to lose her footing.

It was 1993 and she was in the middle of the Great Roof, a taxing 5.13c pitch of El Capitan’s Nose featuring a granite slab that juts out from the wall. To succeed at this technical section, she had to navigate a nearly featureless rock using only a thin crack in the granite for a hold.

Hill now clung to that crack–measuring about a quarter-inch wide–as her foot slipped. Instead of falling, she found stability in the most unlikely of places: her head. Balancing her head on the granite of the Great Roof itself, she was able to regain her composure.

Refocusing her attention to nimbly navigating these cracks, Hill sought to do more than solve this pitch—she wanted free climb the entire Nose. A feat that had eluded so many and deemed impossible by many others. Hill wanted it more than ever.

As she sought to solve the Great Roof, Hill had already defined herself as one of the greatest climbers in the world. As the first woman to climb a 5.12d in 1979, a 5.14a in 1991, and win a World Cup in 1990—she didn’t need The Nose to cement her legacy as a climber. But that wasn’t stopping her.

The Nose route, in all of its glory. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Hill’s motivation to climb the 2,900-foot wall was greater than simply overcoming the seemingly physical impossibility of the route: It stemmed from two main desires–proving to herself she could overcome the inconceivable, and changing the perception of women within the sport.

“It was such a big statement that I really wanted to make it, and I knew I could. I knew if I did it would change things for people,” Hill says, referencing a culture that–at the time–she claims looked like a fraternity. “It would change their mindset about what’s possible—particularly for women. Not just reaching their level, but going out and saying ‘Me too. I can do this.’”

Hill had been told a woman would never climb a 5.14, had experienced the frustration when her boyfriend received credit in a guidebook for a first free ascent she had actually completed first, and through it all remained unfazed in her belief in the mantra her friend and climbing partner Mari Gingery once told her: “the rock doesn’t discriminate.”

With the intricacies of the Great Roof solved, Hill quickly realized that this was not the true crux of the route. 500 feet above Lynn and Nadin waited for the next crux, the 5.14 a/b Changing Corners pitch. Rightfully deemed the most difficult section of the wall, it requires the most bizarre techniques needed for the whole route. Her next partner—Brooke Sandahl—even jokingly nicknamed one of the moves ‘the Houdini’ because of the contortionist-like double arm-bar needed to navigate the corner.

While Hill managed to climb the roof, she wasn’t able to conquer the true crux. Defeated, Hill and Nadin descended back to the valley floor, but this first free climb attempt was not deemed a failure. Instead, it provided the practice and skills necessary for Hill for when she would revisit the route again later that year with Brooke Sandahl to complete the first all free ascent of the route.


A topo map of Mingus, a route at the Verdon Gorge in France that Hill had completed to train for the Nose.

But then, in 1994, she would do it again. Only this time, Lynn would free climb the route in 24 hours—a feat never achieved prior by man or woman—making her one of the greatest pioneers within the sport.

Prior


Before the ascent, Hill made the bold decision to retire from competitive climbing. Visiting France in 1986, it was an introduction to sport climbing that suddenly pivoted her career. While she excelled in the realm of competition—with over 30 international wins and a World Cup title in 1990—Hill felt disconnected.

She wanted to return to her roots climbing outside.

Ready for retirement from competition climbing, and poised for the next step in her life, she found herself in a unique position. By having the opportunity to train full-time and experimenting with all different styles of climbing and types of rock—she was aptly poised to take a massive project.

The question was, what would it be? On a family visit back in California, Hill reunited with an old climbing friend John Long. “Lynnie, you should just try climbing the Nose,” he playfully suggested to her.

The Great Roof—a section on the climb which had thwarted Long—seemed like an excellent challenge for her nimble small hands. Additionally—aside from Beverly Johnson—there hadn’t been many women to achieve any significant first ascents In Yosemite Valley.

Weighing Long’s suggestion, the history of the route, and her own personal love for Yosemite Valley, Hill realized she had found the challenge she was seeking. El Cap’s Nose would be her magnum opus. 

Preparing for the Climb


At the time, a free ascent of the Nose had been tried by many—ranging from infamous climbers to Yosemite locals—but the free ascent remained elusive to all who had attempted it. But Hill had a unique advantage compared to those who previously attempted it: She had been able to train in Europe on harder routes.

“Here in America at that time there weren’t many 5.14s. [the Nose] was one of the first 5.14s That’s how different things were,” she says. Today, that would no longer hold true, with the explosion of indoor climbing gyms.

In the ‘90s, it took a considerable amount of effort achieve the sort of fitness to climb at the level needed for something like the Nose. Climbing gyms were scarce, so traveling to climbing hotspots like Joshua Tree was Hill’s only option.

Hill had been well acquainted with the Nose prior to 1993. She first laid eyes on the impressive slab of granite on a family camping trip to Yosemite as a 13-year-old girl in 1974. Enchanted, she would first climb the route using aid techniques with Mari Gingery and Dean Fidelman in 1979. It took the party three days, with her and Gingery leading the entire route.

Hill snaps a photo of Brooke Sandahl from the ledge at Camp 5 on the Nose. Lynn Hill photo.

Then Hill completed a speed ascent of the route in 1992 with Hans Florine, utilizing aid techniques to complete the route in eight hours and fifteen minutes. Ever the forward-thinker, Hill used these climbs to inspect the route and determine if a free climb was truly possible.

She determined it was. 

The 1993 Ascent


After her first unsuccessful attempt with Nadin a few weeks prior, Hill returned to the Nose with partner Brooke Sandahl. The two had connected at a trade show and Hill asked Sandahl if he was interested in doing the Nose. Sandahl eagerly accepted—he had previously attempted to free the route himself a few different times.

The two started up the route, and Hill managed to send the Great Roof first try.

With the Great Roof redpointed, the Changing Corners crux and its intricate set of moves followed. Masterfully utilizing cross-stemming, arm-barring, arête pinching, and pin-scar jamming—Hill moved through the hardest section of the pitch.

“That ascent was really ideal—very relaxed. We knew going into it if it didn’t go the first attempt or that day, we could just hang out on the rock, relax, and try again the next day,” she explained.

When asked how it felt reaching the top and finally freeing the climb, Hill confesses she at first didn’t grasp the magnitude of what she had accomplished.

“I can’t say I was imagining the explosion of climbing that’s happened today and the magnitude that it now would be received with, but I was certainly happy,” says Hill. “Climbing was my life—it still is. It’s my culture and my tribe, so it was important to me. It was obviously important to communicate this message to those who cared to listen.”

The goal was to redefine what was thought possible for women. It was about empowerment, and while things didn’t suddenly change for the better overnight, Hill understood what her achievement meant.

Revisiting in ‘94


In 1994, Hill was approached by a French film team to make a documentary. Instantly she knew that she wanted to revisit the Nose, but this time she wanted to up the ante. Previously she had completed the Nose in four days. Now, she wanted to do it in one day.

To step it up even further, she would be climbing with a film crew in tow. With the equipment available in 1994, that as no easy task.

“Everything about that ascent was so much more difficult than today because we now have better cameras that are much easier to use and don’t cost nearly as much,” she explains.

The new challenge was exactly what she wanted.

“That was the whole exciting challenge for me, the mindset of having to conserve energy and to not second guess myself about it. The climbing felt like pure intuition—you just had to trust yourself,” she says.

Her speed attempt was far from perfect. She fell on Changing Corners. That fall did not spell failure, it only amplified the psychological stress surrounding the climb. She fell two more times—minor incidents that compound mentally. Success meant she needed to ignore the little hiccups and focus on her intention.

“You have to stay true to yourself and be accepting of whatever comes,” Hill says. For the 24-hour ascent, she knew that success–or failure–would ultimately be a valiant effort. But it didn’t mean she wanted it any less.

“It was really hard to be sitting at the belay resting and thinking ‘Wow it’s all down to right now.’ It’s a lot of pressure,” she recalls. This tense pressure was coupled with a style of climbing that demanded extreme precision. Every move, hand, and foot placement mattered.

Despite the circumstances, she couldn’t afford to feel panicked or tired; finishing the route meant she needed to be confident. She said her greater goal of making a statement for female athletes helped her succeed in her mission.

“I can be a leader in this way. It was a very positive motivation which gave me confidence and even energy to put towards this goal,” she explains.

Moving Forward


A quarter-century after her achievement, Hill's ascent of The Nose continues to influence the current generation of female climbers.

"Lynn paved the way for female climbing," climber Emily Harrington told TGR. "First woman to climb the grade 5.14, and her ascent of the Nose in a day were huge leaps forward for females in the sport and even today her Nose ascent is one of the most incredible achievements in climbing history for males and females. She was ahead of her time in many ways and showed climbers - male and female - what’s possible when you care and are passionate enough."

"She was the only women among many men during her time, but she didn't seem to act like it," Harrington continued. "Her Nose achievement would still be considered remarkable if someone did it today - that’s how phenomenal it was. She had the confidence and audacity to do something no one really thought was possible, and still to this day is considered incredibly elite and notable. That’s the very definition of a pioneer... By her example she created an environment in climbing for women to push themselves in a way that wasn’t so prevalent in other sports at the time. She broke barriers for all of us. "

Now, more than two decades after Hill's iconic climb, female climbers are becoming increasingly more visible in the industry. When Hill first started, the sport existed as a boys club. Women like Margo Hayes—the first to climb a 5.15a—are now prominent within the sport.

“I watched [Hayes] grow up here in Boulder—she’s incredible. She’s always had an outstanding attitude and is a super high achiever,” says Hill.

Simply put, climbing is changing.

Hill (right) videotaping climbers in 2006 in Hueco Tanks, Texas, as part of her Lynn Hill Climbing Camp. Wikimedia Commons photo.

“Now the big explosion is coming out of the industry itself. For example, there’s a basketball court close to most communities—which lends to the accessibility of the sport,” she explains. “With climbing, that same kind of accessibility is starting to happen with artificial walls—they serve as an entry to the many different disciplines of the sport.”

For a pioneer of the sport, that evolution is exciting to witness.

“This is part of the natural progression, but I’m proud to see that climbing is appreciated by more people,” she continues.

The 57-year-old Hill–who now calls Boulder, Colorado home–is still as busy ever, balancing the demands of raising her teenage son as a single mother and launching her very own climbing video series. Even with this juggling act, climbing has remained a cornerstone of her life. In fact, she relishes in sharing the details of an upcoming weekend climbing trip in Rifle, Colorado over the phone.

“I don’t often take off for the weekend since I’ve been a busy mom for the past 15 years,” laughs Hill. “This will be a desperately needed two days for me.” 

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