Fly on the Wall

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The question, of course, is why? Why spend days clinging to a rock face, ripping skin and sweating blood? Because it's there? Because she can?

Maybe. But Hill is humble and matter-of-fact about her reasons-more down-to-earth than most world-class climbers. 'I think it really comes from having a low tolerance for boredom,' the 36-year-old suggests. 'I like to be challenged. If I'm not trying hard at something, I get bored. So I have to keep finding things that interest me.'

For almost 20 years, Hill has eschewed boredom to the nth degree, making a name for herself as one of the world's greatest sport climbers. From the time she first hit the rocks in the mid- '70s to her exit from competitive sport climbing in 1992, Hill chalked up more than 30 international titles. From 1988 to 1992, she had a lock on the Rock Masters Invitational at Arco, Italy-the 'Wimbledon of rock climbing.' In 1990, she won the Climbing World Cup, and in the same year, she became the first woman to make a grade 5.14 move (read: crazy hard, impossible for most mortals, male or female).

But 1993 brought Hill's crowning achievement: That year, she stunned the vertical community by becoming the first person to free-climb Yosemite's Nose. With her broad smile and sun-bleached hair, Hill has been profiled in Sports Illustrated, Time and the New York Times. She's been sponsored by Nike, Boreal and Scarpa climbing shoes and Chouinard Mountaineering Equipment.

Now, under her own banner, with regular backing from the North Face Climbing Team, Hill travels the world, pioneering routes up woolly, big-dog walls in Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, Scotland, North Africa, the U.S. and Europe.

'My mother used to say I marched to the beat of my own drum,' says the 5'2', 100-pound Hill, who grew up in Orange County, California, one of seven children. She began climbing with her older sisters at the age of 14, and by her early thirties had redefined the genre, using her size and her childhood skills as a gymnast to find alternatives to routes frequented by much taller and seemingly much stronger athletes-most men.

'No one told me I couldn't,' she declares. Being small was simply a factor, not a barrier, for Hill, who is fascinated with 'the process of things.' She learned long ago to turn disadvantages into assets, using her strong legs to launch her up where the reach was too far, allowing her to slide her small frame into tight cracks and corners where a bigger body would falter.

Hill was encouraged by early partners like John Long, a remarkable endurance climber who was the first to suggest that she attempt her legendary Nose-in-a-day free ascent. But she only bit if there was fun, not just sweat, involved. 'There are some climbs that I never bothered to throw myself at because it just wasn't enjoyable-maybe it was too reachy, or maybe so challenging that it would be more frustrating than fun,' she admits. 'Most of the time, I'm able to find a way.'

That philosophy has been a constant in Hill's life. Early on, she excelled at sports, particularly solo sports where the focus was on technique, process. She competed in gymnastics, swimming and track. But when she first hooked a rope through her harness and scrambled up a route at Big Rock, with her sister and soon-to-be brother-in-law belaying her, Hill sensed that she had found her passion. A year later, she was addicted.

'Part of it was getting out of the city on weekends and being with my older sisters and their friends. I liked the beauty of places like Joshua Tree and Yosemite,' she recalls. 'But I really enjoyed the movement and the push-pull forces, being completely absorbed in being a shape on the rock face.'

By the time she was 20, she had moved to New York to study physical therapy at the State University College at New Paltz. It was during her New York days, guiding in the Shawangunks, that Hill began to attract the attention of competition organizers and sponsors. Soon she was paying for school with her prize money from Europe and the U.S., where climbing took hold in a big way in the early to mid-'80s. She became a fixture on the international climbing circuit, holding her own with legends like Long, Jim Bridwell, Bill Westbay, Patrick Edlinger, Mari Gingery, Brooke Sandahl and Catherine Destivelle.Hill was one of the coterie of climbers who helped spawn the current pop notion of extreme sports. But as climbing morphed into a more mainstream sport-and a more lucrative one for sponsors and competitors-it underwent massive philosophical changes. Slowly the raw outdoor experience gave way to rock-gym life, where a climber can practice his or her moves with little risk. The sport, or at least its competitive arm, became largely relegated to synthetic environs. 'It has become a plastic world,' Hill laments of the pro circuit.

'I know people, really good climbers, who've never climbed on rock before. Almost all of the training is done indoors.'

It was at the dawn of this new, plasticized era that Lynn Hill began to reevaluate her goals. But a near-death experience actually may have kept her in competition longer than she'd planned-a proverbial get-back-on-the-horse scenario. In 1989, while climbing with her then-husband Russ Raffa, Hill free-fell 80 feet. And lived.

The couple was climbing on Styx Wall in France. With typical aplomb, she made a perfect ascent, never putting tension on the rope and never noticing that her harness, covered by her jacket, was unbuckled. After topping out, with Raffa waiting just overhead, Hill sat back in her harness, ready to rappel down; she encountered no friction and plunged backward while Raffa looked on helplessly. Miraculously, a tree slowed her fall, and Hill landed between two boulders. Her only injury was a dislocated elbow.

No one had to tell Hill how lucky she was. 'I guess it just wasn't my time to go,' she says. 'I still had things to do.'

It's not that Hill takes the dangers of vertical sport lightly; she knows the possibilities all too well, having lost her earliest mentor, her brother-in-law Chuck Bludworth-and, 20 years later, her good friend Hugues Beauzile-to South America's 22,834-foot Aconcagua.

Hill speaks of the deaths with obvious sadness. 'That's why I've never been motivated to do alpine climbing. My brother-in-law and Hugues pretty much died in the same spot. Hugues died of exhaustion. He'd been up there without food and water for several days, and he was trying to go solo.' She pauses, then resumes. 'I actually had a premonition about Hugues. I had a dream, I felt him going away. In the dream, I was lying down on top of a snow-covered mountain, and I saw a cross glowing in light, then I felt this release. I realized the next day what it meant, and . . . it turned out he died that same day.'

It has occurred to Hill that she, too, could die with a wrong move. She's known as a methodical climber who shuns unnecessary risk. But the deaths, and her own close call in '89, did not dampen Hill's passion for the feel of skin on rock, for the thrill of suspended animation as she labors upward, the world reduced to tiny specks of color below.

Precisely because of that sensation, she opted out of competition after winning the world title at Arco, Italy, in 1992. 'Climbing had started to feel like work,' she says, citing the unnatural feel of training and competing indoors. 'It felt like you had to be there, and I wasn't growing as a human being. I'm glad I got out when I did.'

Today, Hill is her own judge. And like many free spirits with the courage of conviction, she finds herself in an enviable position. She travels the world, climbing and documenting her experience on film, occasionally giving lectures and presentations. She's working on a series of video postcards-postcards from the edge, she might call them, based on climbs in Vietnam's Halong Bay and the Aksu range of Kyrgyzstan. Her documentary, The Nose, was screened at a women's conference in Grenoble.

'I feel pretty lucky to do what I do. It seems like my lifestyle and my job and my passion all go together,' says Hill. I'm able to be free in a way that a lot of people are not.'

A lot of people would balk at such a path to freedom. Too risky, too extreme, too close to the edge. But for the Oregon-based globe-trotter, life on the rocks is the ultimate high. 'Climbing enhances my life,' she says. 'It gives me life.'

FromEscape(Nov., 1999.) Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.