I’d first come to Yosemite to climb 30 years ago, ticking off Half Dome’s NW regular route, DNB, and a host of other climbs that convinced me I had, finally, become a solid 5.10 climber. Every visit since then, dozens and dozens, always ended right here, staring up at this giant.
And now, thirty years later, El Cap still takes my breath away. It’s November, it’s sunny and cool and I see a steady train of teams climbing The Nose. Three cameras next to me follow one of the teams, and I wonder who’s lucky enough to get this kind of coverage.
“Are you Reel Rock?” I ask.
One of them laughs, a silver-haired man with lively, kind eyes. “We’re the anti- Reel Rock,” he says. And then tells me who they’re following.
Lynn Hill and Nina Caprez are free-climbing The Nose. Holy shit. I sit up.
Way back then…
Before I even knew what species of girl I was, I knew that none of the female role models around me fit. A varsity soccer player fresh out of college, recently back from an expedition to Denali, what the hell was I? I didn't see my kind of woman in movies. I wasn't in books. Then I started rock climbing. I found Lynn Hill. I found an article by Rosie Andrews in Mountain about rejecting the idea “She’s good for a woman” in favor of “She’s good, period”.
Badass. Ripped. Competitive. Great at things heretofore reserved for guys. That was Lynn Hill. And Arlene Blum. And, my first silver screen role model, Sarah Conner from Terminator 2. My three muses. I finally had an idea who I could be.
At the Gunks in 1985, I was a new climber gaping up at a 5.8 called Bonnie’s Roof. And there was Lynn Hill, walking past. She looked at me, she looked up at the climb. “That’s a great climb,” she said. “You’re going to love it.” Star-struck, I watched her continue on. My life was beginning to come alive, but I had no idea just how alive…
It goes, boys.
In 1993 Lynn Hill rocked the world by freeing The Nose. “It goes, boys.” was her femme equivalent of “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Yes! I fist pumped. I happy danced. No guy had ever climbed The Nose free. “She’s good, period!” I shouted at my male world. At Smith Rock, clinging to the 5.11’s, my climbing partners got it. A hundred times I’d invoked her name as I tried to repeat a move a taller friend had sent. I’m short. Lynn Hill is short. If I couldn’t reach the hold they did, I scoured the blank face for the smallest chink I could use. My mantra: If Lynn Hill can do it, I can do it too. But climbers were a small fraction of my male-dominated world. In my lab at grad school, among the test tubes and toluene, well... never mind. I'm sure you see how that played out.
And then I panicked. At 32 Lynn Hill had done this thing. Yes, I was inspired. But I also felt a strange mix of jealousy, pressure, anxiety and sudden worthlessness. A role model is the other side of a coin that includes you. At 31 what did I have to show for myself? The pressure was on. Lynn Hill had fought, she’d suffered, she’d succeeded at something huge. What about me?
Makalu and motherhood
Lynn Hill’s cameramen Bryan and Jeff are talking with me. I’m sitting up, intent on their story. Bryan is explaining their idea for Lynn Hill’s film. It will be about climbing, yes, but also a 25-year retrospective about her life and motherhood, her kid, everything that has happened since she’d freed The Nose in ‘93. Now 59, she has a 16-year old son. A woman’s story. The anti- Reel Rock.
There are the parallels again. Now at 58, I also have a 16 year-old. And suddenly a whole world of life between Lynn’s freeing The Nose and this day, watching her free-climb it again, lands in my lap. Those younger ambitions, what I set out to do after Lynn Hill rocked the world, I see from this distance. The innocence, the fucking naivety I had in daring to dream... Tears come to my eyes.
A career in a male-dominated field. Climbing higher and harder, an 8,000m peak. Those were my dreams. I set my sights on academic research and on the Himalaya.
In science I fought hard, I reveled in and overcame challenges, I did field research in Yosemite for years, I was undermined and marginalized by men and institutions, but I pushed on. I gave it so much energy, that I slammed into that glass ceiling really hard.
An 8,000m peak was a stretch goal. I climbed and ski-mountaineered all over the world. I was finally invited on the Polish-American Expedition to Makalu. We didn’t summit. The autumn jet-stream descended early that year and blew us off the mountain. But I came back to the Himalaya the next year and led a team up Ama Dablam, the only woman-led expedition in Nepal in the fall of 1999.
Motherhood was never a dream. But it’s what changed my world-view. In this small act, I became ordinary. It allowed me to be inclusive and empathetic rather than badass and elitist. I reveled in giving instead of striving. For the first time, I embraced being a woman. I mean I really saw women for the miracles they are in everyday life.
So, as I said, twenty-six years of life fell into my lap, there in El Cap meadow. The exhaustion from all the fighting for my dreams, the regret at the dreams I eventually gave up, but acceptance of who I am now was there too, and tears came to my eyes.
The meaning of tears.
Bryan and Jeff see those tears and ask, “So what did it mean for you that Lynn Hill freed the Nose?”
I watch Nina finish the lead under the Great Roof. I see the haul bag swing free, then inch upward. I see Lynn climbing the crack up to the Roof. I see the train of teams behind them, aid-climbing in classic ponderous style, probably not even knowing that history is being repeated above their heads. I think of Lynn’s son, I wonder if – like me – she was changed by motherhood. What else has happened during the years between her 1993 ascent and this 2019 ascent?
So, what did it mean for me that Lynn Hill freed the Nose? Such a simple question. Such a complicated answer. “I was inspired,” I say.
But now I know I have to see this film. I feel like I might know some of that story. Now, my heart sings for Lynn Hill at her return to this amazing accomplishment. I don’t feel like happy-dancing or fist-pumping. And I don’t feel inadequate either. I feel a warmth inside, an appreciation of Lynn that is broad and inclusive, and empathy for the pain she must have endured and is… I laugh, looking up… enduring even now.
And by the way, she's in the El Cap photo above. She's that tiny badass dot under the Great Roof.