Lynn Hill rewrote the rules for what’s possible in rock climbing

Lynn Hill, photographed in Joshua Tree, is the first person to free climb the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Lynn Hill has been the definition of a woman reaching new heights for years.

The professional rock climber is widely known as the first person to free climb the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, proving that women and men belong in the same arena. The 3,000-plus-foot climb is one of the most famous in the world, and the fact that it hadn’t been scaled as a free climb before was just another challenge for Hill — who has been climbing since she was 14 years old — to cross off her list.

She climbed the Nose in 1993 (on her second attempt), and upon completion, she uttered a phrase that has followed her throughout her career: “It goes, boys!”

Lynn Hill has long been an advocate for gender equality in sports, seen here photographed in Joshua Tree, Ca.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

“My entire career, a lot of things were there to be done for the first time,” she says.

In 1999, Hill led a group of women to do the first climb of a steep wall of granite in a remote region of Madagascar. (“I still don’t know of a more difficult first ascent ever established by a team of women,” Hill wrote on her website.) It was, she says, a new level of achievement for her as a leader and she takes pride in the fact that one of the group members, Beth Rodden, who was 19 and relatively inexperienced at the time, went on to become a successful climber afterward.

Hill, 59, admits to facing adversity throughout her career (some people have tried to insist that she owed her success to her small stature). But she has persevered — as a top-rated gymnast in high school, as a climber and as an advocate for gender equality in sports. “It wasn’t like I was arrogant in saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’m right, and they’re all wrong,’” she explains. “It was more about discovering what I could do having an open mind and not just listening blindly to what people said.”

Nearly 50 years after Congress passed Title IX, female athletes are still scrambling for a fair shot in the male-dominated world of sport. In hockey, top Americans and Canadians train with their national teams part-time; the rest of the season, they have only a small pro league that offers twice-a-week practices, weekend games and thin salaries.