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Mile High in Her Field : Rock-Climber Lynn Hill, a Native of Fullerton, Is First Female Star of the Sport

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite its air of danger and risk, rock climbing in its pure form is really a sport of grace, discipline, precision and strategy. To watch an expert climber is to witness a blend of dance and the martial arts.

On the indoor climbing wall at Irvine’s Sporting Club at Lakeshore Towers, Lynn Hill is giving a wordless lesson in the aesthetics of climbing. She scales steadily and easily the most difficult route on the 75-foot wall, moving far above the sweating basketball players pounding the floor below. Sometimes, she literally leaps onto footholds less than an inch wide.

A superstar in climbing circles, Hill is in the Southland on a semiannual visit to see family and to make appearances on behalf of sponsors. Born and raised in Fullerton, these days she lives in the Provence region of France, where she is closer to the lucrative climbing competitions on the European circuit.

It was another strong year for the first female star of sport climbing, a competitive outgrowth of rock climbing that takes place on artificial walls made to look, and climb, like real cliffs.

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On Dec. 12, Hill won the final of the sport’s World Cup final in Birmingham, England, and earlier in the year she won the Arcos tournament in Italy. Together, they are probably the most prestigious events on the circuit, which includes about 10 major events with prize money that can top $10,000 at each. Born in 1985, sport climbing has grown to become a popular spectator event in Europe, where crowds of 10,000 commonly gather to watch competitions; it’s finally beginning to take off, albeit more slowly, in the United States. In the beginning, Hill dominated the competition among female climbers, and today remains one of the top four, along with fellow American Robyn Erbesfield and Frenchwomen Isabel Pattisier and Francoise LeGrand.

“They are a little group of four that are a mile ahead of everyone else,” said Alison Osius, senior editor at Climbing magazine and a competitive climber. Besides being “just really good,” Hill has served as a mentor for other female climbers, Osius said. “I always felt like she was a really great role model. She’s very gracious.”

At 5 foot 2 and 110 pounds, Hill is small and lean--and strong. At one point, when she trained more regularly with weights, she could bench press 150 pounds. While her size can be a disadvantage when it comes to stretching for hard-to-reach holds, she has obviously compensated in other ways.

“It’s not like you have to have a big, football player-type build to do well at climbing. In fact it’s pretty much the opposite--you need to be light and strong. Of course, it would be nice to be taller than I am, but I do OK anyway,” she said with a smile and a shrug during a recent interview in Irvine.

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“Climbing is actually a sport that combines beauty and strength, and I think it’s a really perfect combination. Women do quite well in this kind of a sport, especially since strength-to-weight ratio is more important than brute strength.”

Growing up in Fullerton in a family of seven children, Hill tried just about every sport and activity imaginable, starting with a yen for tree-climbing and making her way through swimming, softball, skateboarding and gymnastics.

She is the very definition of a natural athlete: At Santa Monica College, recruited by a track coach when she had no running experience at all, she went on to place third in the state in the 1,500 meters (and fourth in the 3,000) after just a few months of training.

The sport that finally grabbed her attention, though, was climbing.

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An older brother and sister introduced her to the pursuit when Lynn was 14, at Lake Perris. “I was intrigued by it, but I didn’t know that it would become such a passion,” she recalled. Subsequent trips to Joshua Tree, a climbing mecca in the high desert, got her hooked.

“Just being out in the desert is so beautiful and such a different feeling from being in the city that I just enjoyed being out there. The climbing was almost secondary,” she said. The more she climbed, “the better I became and the more I enjoyed it.”

In those days, in the mid-'70s, climbing was largely a pursuit for rebels. “When I started climbing, (it) was not a cool sport. People didn’t think of it as a sport at all, in fact,” Hill said. “I was also involved in gymnastics, and (with climbing) I liked the aspect of being outdoors and not having a coach. . . . I liked the spontaneity of climbing and the natural environment and the freedom. . . . I still enjoy all that.”

As Hill grew more serious about climbing, she tackled more difficult climbs, including the big walls of Yosemite. She moved eventually to the Shawangunk mountains in New York, better known among climbers as the Gunks, where she began to work as a professional climbing guide.

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In 1986, while on a climbing trip in France, she was asked to compete in the second-ever sport climbing competition, held in Arcos, Italy. She won (she’s won five of the six times she has competed there,) and over the next couple of years, gradually began to look on competition as a full-time pursuit.

She has had impressive success, with more than 20 world titles to her credit. She is widely considered among the top climbers in the world, male or female: At the 1989 World Cup final in Lyon, France, Hill competed on the same super-final route as the men, and her performance would have placed her third among them.

Hill has made impressive climbs away from competition and artificial walls as well. She is the first woman to climb a 5.14 route, the highest difficulty rating in climbing. She also has the most difficult first ascent for a woman, a 5.13d route called Running Man in the Shawangunks.

And she has had a brush with disaster. While climbing near her home in France in May, 1989, she became distracted while preparing for her ascent and forgot to complete the knot attaching the protection rope to her harness. It was a “really stupid, absent-minded type mistake,” Hill said. She reached the top of the pitch with no problem, then leaned back on the rope to make her rappel down.

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“That just pulled the rope out of my harness and I went back, I don’t know, about 80 feet, hit a tree branch, bounced and then landed on my face,” Hill said. The fall could have killed her, but instead she dislocated an elbow, broke her foot and had some cuts and bruises.

She was climbing again by summer.

“It’s always an interesting experience to come that close to death. I guess it makes a difference in your outlook on life. But as far as taking anything away from climbing, I don’t think that it had much of an effect that way,” Hill said.

Her performance in the recent years shows that. And last year, she won several major tournaments and came in third behind Erbesfield and Pattisier in the overall World Cup rankings for 1992. The top three finishers were tightly packed and “any one of them could have won,” according to Osius.

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At 32, however, Hill is planning to compete less and focus on other climbing-related projects. “I don’t foresee doing the World Cup next year at all,” she said.

“I’m interested also in finishing this book that I’m writing, and a video that will go along with the book.”

She sees the sport developing in several ways and gaining popularity. Rock climbing originally was just one aspect of the all-around sport of alpine mountaineering, with snow and ice travel and other skills required to scale a peak. Rock climbing as a distinct sport originated in the late ‘60s. Now, with the advent of competitive climbing and artificial climbing walls--several of which have been constructed in Orange County--Hill sees another change.

“I think as the sport develops there’s more and more segmentation, whereas before climbing was all-encompassing,” Hill said. “I think there will definitely be a generation--in fact, there already are some now--that just climb on artificial walls and don’t even climb on natural rock.”

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While Hill will always climb on natural rock, she sees the proliferation of artificial climbing walls as boon to the growth of the sport, especially in areas such as Orange County that have few natural climbing areas.

Artificial walls also provide a safe environment for learning. Hill hopes to someday see rock climbing instruction enter the schools, as has already happened in some countries.

“In France, it’s already institutionalized,” Hill said. “They have climbing walls in schools with children learning. Instead of taking basketball or something, they’ll take rock climbing.”


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