The first time Hill climbed a rock face was at age 14, and she excelled immediately. She spent the early ’80s traveling the U.S. and climbing increasingly difficult routes while setting records for first female and first overall ascents. Hill discovered competitive climbing during a visit to France in 1986. For the next six years she dominated indoor and outdoor competition, winning more than 30 major international titles.
In 1992, with nothing left to prove, she returned to her first love—rock climbing. She quickly set the audacious goal of becoming the first person, male or female, to free climb The Nose of El Capitan, considered the Holy Grail among climbers worldwide.
El Capitan is the most famous piece of rock on the planet for big-wall climbers, and The Nose is the iconic slab of granite rising nearly 3,000 feet straight up above the Yosemite Valley floor. For years, the best climbers in the world had been making a steady pilgrimage to Yosemite trying to achieve what was considered unachievable. No one had come close.
In 1993, Hill stunned the climbing world when she made the first successful free ascent on The Nose. The climb took four days. Amazingly, she returned the next year and did it again in less than 24 hours. No one, man nor women, was able to repeat her successful climb for over 10 years. She was that far ahead of everybody else.
“The Nose was so sheer and so blank that people couldn’t see how to hang on,” Hill says. “It took very intricate sequencing, body positions and strength to do it.”
Hill is, without question, bold, daring, ingenious, clever and strategic. But she’s not crazy.
Free climbing is defined as using your hands and feet with no equipment to help. There’s a rope for protection in the event of a fall, but it can’t be used for assistance. A free solo climb has no rope and therefore no safety net. A single mistake typically results in death. It’s the kind of climbing made famous with the recent release of the National Geographic documentary film, Free Solo, a stunning portrait of Alex Honnold’s live or die quest to scale El Cap without a rope.
“That’s not what we do,” Hill says. “Rock climbing is the sport that people practice when they go to artificial climbing walls. They’re not using their rope to get to the top of the wall. The whole point is to climb the wall on your own because it’s fun to climb. There’s something innately satisfying about using your body in that way. It’s a little bit like a ballet routine and the rock itself is the choreographer.”
Hill had no role models to show her what was possible, and she had to overcome a climbing culture in the early ’90s that all but scoffed at the notion that anyone, especially a woman, could climb The Nose.
“I had to motivate myself,” she says. “I was empowered by doing, and I think that that’s the way life is. If you want to do something, just go after it. That’s how you discover what you don’t know so that you can start learning it. There’s no rulebook. It’s just really an attitude.”
When Hill conquered The Nose, many who had said that it was laughable for her to even try quickly suggested that she had an advantage because her smaller hands could fit into more cracks on the wall face.
In truth, the constant reaches required in big-wall climbing, strongly favor the tall. Hill is only five feet tall. “Climbing is all about adapting,” she says. And she proved it at The Nose by “inventing” techniques to successfully negotiate the most difficult pitches.
She also proved that rock climbing is not about gender, finger size or even height. It’s about strategy and execution. If you don’t make the right moves, if you don’t position yourself properly, the wall will win.
To this day, 25 years later, you can count on one hand the number of climbers, male or female, who have succeeded in making a one-day free-ascent of The Nose. And you can count on one finger the number of women who have done it.
Hill, now 57, lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she’s raising her 15-year-old son, Owen. She still climbs regularly, produces climbing videos and occasionally guides for climbers of all ability levels.
“I had a 65-year-old client who had just gotten into climbing three months earlier and was having the time of his life going to some of the classic climbing areas across the country,” she says. “It’s never too late to start. The lower levels of climbing should be accessible to just about anyone.”
Hill still thinks she has what it takes to conquer The Nose and is planning a return trip to El Cap to do it again.
“I still remember my mother asking, ‘When are you going to retire from climbing?’” Hill recalls. “I just smiled because there’s no retiring from climbing. Climbing allows me to feel good; to touch base with myself and process what’s happening in my life. It keeps me involved in a passionate community and plugged into nature. Why would I ever give that up?
Hill had to overcome sexism. Now, by remaining active in what some might call an extreme sport, she’s also defying ageism.
“Stay true to what you want to do,” she says. “Why would you listen to somebody else’s negative limitations on what you can or can’t do? The more I ignored the naysayers, the more empowered I became. You can blow through stereotypes if you have the right attitude. It doesn’t matter if others don’t support or believe in your dreams. What you believe is way more powerful.”
This article originally appeared in Growing Bolder Magazine. For more great stories like this, click here to subscribe to the digital or print editions of Growing Bolder Magazine. All past issues of GB Magazine, including the one that features this article, are also available to read online exclusively on the GB Portal. Click here to find out how to become a member!