Today WanderWomen Club caught up with world legendary rock climber Lynn Hill to talk tackling fear, following your bliss and how to achieve the impossible….all through the lens of her extraordinary and inspirational climbing career.
Lynn Hill is a living legend and one of the worlds' best known rock climbers. One of the first women in the sport, by 1986 she had quickly moved into the top ranks. She redefined what is possible by being the first person (male or female) to free climb the ascent of the most famous big wall climb in the world - The Nose on El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, California. A decade before anyone else. A true wander women she has travelled the world competing and winning over 30 competitions including the “Wimbledon” of the climbing world (Arco Rock Master) five times. In 1999 Lynn led a small team of women to the island of Madagascar to do a first ascent up a steep, two-thousand-foot wall of granite. She’s been a guest at the White House, appeared on the Letterman show and is four time winner of NBC Wide World of Sports Survival of the Fittest competition.
Lynn’s remarkable achievements are featured in the Discovery Channel’s award winning premier of their Elevation weekend series this Saturday April 25th. Valley Uprising explores the evolution of the 50 year old sport from its beginnings in Yosemite Valley, California.
Now 54, Lynn still combines her love of climbing with travelling the world and motherhood.
WW: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today Lynn, its a huge privilege to get to speak with you. I love this quote of yours:
Throughout my life, one of the underlying qualities that has inspired me to pursue my vision of what is possible has to do with trusting in what I truly love and believe in.
That sounds similar to Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss.” I think its great that you believe our success in our chosen field is intrinsically linked to doing what lights us up.
What advice would you give to women still struggling to try and discover what that is?
Lynn Hill: Well fortunately for me it wasn’t a thing that i struggled with, to find what I loved. I naturally gravitated towards that. If someone hasn’t identified that, they need to reflect on what they enjoy because sometimes we have an interest in something and we don’t acknowledge it, a pastime and hobby, but if they have an interest then follow it , explore it and give it the chance to turn into something more. I know that its something younger people struggle with, perhaps because there is so much choice and also that things get obscured by all the other demands of life. But if you really simplify and reflect on what you WANT to do then that's where you can recognise and start developing your passion.
WW: How did you manage to combine focusing so fiercely on your passion and what you love with bringing a baby into the world and the sacrifice or balance that mother hood has required?
Lynn Hill: I consider it a juggle because you can’t do everything all at once, if you have a child you have to prioritise, so once you’ve sent children of to school you can start doing things yourself. There’s a real need to do what I call “me time” and that's something we do ideally for an hour or so on an almost daily basis. I still climb three to four times a week and that’s enough to feed my passion.
WW: I’d like to talk with you about your relationship with fear and how you tackle it. Fear comes in many forms, when we’re trying something new and taking a step into the unknown - what advice would you give on how to manage that based on your experience climbing.
Lynn Hill: I think fear is a good guide to keep us alive, we don’t have it we might not take necessary precautions but its also important to not let fear take over and stop you performing how you want to perform.
So I focus on the solution to the problem. I do a mental shift and do not focus on the fear but doing what I need to do to resolve that situation.
If i’m in a dangerous situation on the rock face, I can either move forward to the next hole or I can move back or down climb (which is precarious.) Those are really the only options. There is a visual process that accompanies this. I imagine my hand going to the next hole and grabbing it. If i see that in my mind very quickly then I know its time to go and that I need to act. If i don’t visualise the next move or if I continue to feel awkward and fearful then I know i need to stop, relax, re evaluate the solution and look for another situation.
WW: So you’ve become very in tune with your instincts, about the timing around when its right to pause and evaluate and when its time to act quickly also which I could definitely apply to decision making process in my own life!
You’ve described your rock climbing as a kind of moving meditation, to what extent has the sport become (or was it always) a type of spiritual practise for you?
Lynn Hill: It could be called a spiritual practise but its not a religious experience, there’s no traditional praying or doing it for a higher purpose. But I am tuning into a universal truth, that’s my idea of spirituality.
As a human being we have our interpretations and our perspective of a situation and that determines how we see it, and if you take your ego out of it and see the reality of the situation as it is then you’re better able to manage yourself in that situation.
Climbing is a practise that makes me feel good and centred and I think that when you feel good and centred we’re better human beings; we feel better about our lives and relate to others better. I think climbing reinforces that kind of honesty and willingness to look at the truth. There’s no hiding on the rock. Your direct action will determine whether you get to the top or not.
WW: Let's talk about one of your amazing achievements; being the first person to free climb The Nose (El Capitan in Yosemite). In other interviews you’ve said that everyone in your peer group and the climbing community was telling you it was impossible.
What was the motivating impulse that took you from hearing everyone saying it was impossible to thinking “right i’m going to do that!” and taking the first step.
Lynn Hill: I figured that my experience and my vision might be unique and that I had a chance of being able to do it if I kept an open mind and had a lot of persistence. I had lots of experience on that climb and different experience with other types of rocks and at a higher level from my climbing in Europe.
I felt like I had a unique combination of skills and vision that others did not have and that gave me the confidence to find a solution, and that's what I did. I think that’s a very important point. If you want to do something, if you prepare yourself appropriately and believe in the possibility that you are going to find a solution then that approach in itself will give you the best chance possible of actually succeeding.
WW. Wonderful. Believing that your own unique mix of skills, talents and experience will create a possible solution where others have failed or haven’t gone, I think thats a perfect thought to align with when summoning the courage to venture out and do something new.
WW: Did you have any female role models when you were starting out?
Lynn Hill: I had a good friend that I climbed with that i’m still friends with, there weren’t that many role models when I started. There was a woman named Beverly Johnson who passed away in a helicopter accident in 1994. She climbed El Capitan in 1978 by herself for 10 days. You have to take all the equipment you need, supplies, sleeping bag, drinking water, its hard to manage by yourself. She was an amazing person, very happy go lucky, very approachable and a nice person; but she was about the only female rock climber that I knew.
WW: I know that gender equality issues have been important to you over the years in such a male dominated sport, how has that changed (at least i’m hoping its changed) over the last 40 years!
Lynn Hill: It has, there are a lot more women climbers now, young girls and its a sport for people of all ages. Two people climbing together don’t have to do the same climb you just need followers and rope, you don’t have to climb at the same level. I love that aspect, that everyone brings their own style and we all have different dimensions to our bodies, small, large - and we can create our own route.
WW: You’ve spent such a large portion of your life in the outdoors, what is your relationship with nature and how has it heightened your sensitivity to environmental concerns and changes.
Lynn Hill: I respect nature and to me that has a spiritual side. Its the truth, its the way the world works and you have to observe it. So obviously I want to protect nature and the large companies that are robbing the earth of all the oil and natural gases… I would like for those companies to be more conscientious about how they are getting the energy out of the earth and what we are doing to our earth, air and water or else we’ll be extinct in a few years time.There is already global climate change and i’m very concerned about future generations and would like to see more laws regulating large companies and their actions.
WW: The documentary "Valley Uprising" airing on the Discovery Channel this weekend is an homage to rock climbing from its inception in the 1960s through to the present day, focusing on Yosemite. She’s the grand dame of the piece, how have you seen her change over the years with regards to the impact of humans on her environment.
Lynn Hill: I’ve seen the direct affects of global warming. California right now - I was there in January and there was hardly any snow, three years running they haven’t had enough water, and so i’ve seen climate change. Its getting warmer and we don’t have enough water, we need water to survive. Clean water! I’m also concerned about all of the things that get flushed into the sea that should be treated first. The effect of the birth control pill is changing our fish because of too much oestrogen entering the water. There are lots of problems.
WW: How do you manage your own health these days, do those concerns follow through with your diet?
Lynn Hill: I believe strongly in supporting the organic food industry even if it costs more, its the right thing to do for my body. If I buy meat its organic and eggs are free range. Its both healthy and I make ethical choices on how the animals are raised.
WW: And to keep fit, you still rock climb and do you do any other kind of exercise?
Lynn Hill: I like to ski, alpine ski, running, mountain biking, yoga to stretch - I like to keep up my stretching as I was a gymnast when i was younger. I also surfed once in the last year!
WW: Your climbing has taken you all over the world do you still enjoy travelling? what do you get out of it now that you are no longer travelling to compete?
Lynn: Yes i was in France on my last trip, its great to see friends and I speak French and Italian. I do enjoy speaking in another language, I feel like a different person. I enjoy meeting new people and seeing different places and cultures and that gives me a better perspective. Travel allows me to have a different perspective on my life as an American woman and to reflect on my own values.
WW: Has what motivates you in climbing changed over the years? Is it all about the highest peak, beating other people or how important is the journey to the top?
Lynn Hill: At this point, yes, its become more about the process. Its my medicine, my moving meditation and my way of connecting with people. I climb with friends more and more and when I climb I feel like a child. Even though i’ve been climbing for 40 years it doesn’t ever get boring to me.
Lynn thank you so much for your time its been wonderful talking to you. Lynn stars in Valley Uprising this weekend on the Discovery Channel, April 25th 8pm ET/PT - the award winning premier of channel's Elevation series.
Watch a sneak preview here...