Revisiting a Groundbreaking Climb of El Capitan

Lynn Hill's meticulous ascent from 1980

El Capitan
El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
99Trojan, CC BY-SA 4.0

Standing 3,000 feet tall, El Capitan is a memorable sight for visitors to Yosemite National Park — and a memorable challenge for many experienced climbers. It’s been immortalized in the annals of the sport numerous times, and appeared on screen in the documentary Free Solo.

Lynn Hill is a rock climbing legend whose achievements include free climbing the Nose on El Capitan — and being the first person to do so. But that’s not the only record she set there; in 1980, she and Mari Gingery made what editor Lauren DeLaunay Miller describes as “the first all-female ascent of what was, in 1980, one of the most difficult aid routes on El Cap.”

Miller edited a new anthology, Valley of Giants: Stories from Women at the Heart of Yosemite Climbing, in which Hill looked back on that landmark ascent.

“If Yosemite Valley is to the world of rock climbing what the Himalayan Range is to mountaineering, then for us, doing El Capitan by a route like the Shield would be the equivalent of tackling Everest,” Hill recalled. This included making one’s way by meticulously hammering pitons into the cliff face and sleeping on portable ledges, among other methods. “Sleeping, eating, climbing, even answering calls of nature, would all be done in an overhanging environment,” Hill writes.

Going up via such a sheer route was neither quick nor easy — Hill and Gingery’s climb of the Shield took a total of six days. It’s an impressive achievement. Miller wrote that “women are, and have always been, central to the heart of Yosemite climbing” — something Hill’s impressive career eminently showcases.

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