Flashback: Lynn Hill's Welcome To The Gunks

Rock and Snow’s newest blog series “Flashback” is an interview series of historic ‘Gunks climbers and their best memories of the area. Tune in as we pull stories from nearly 80 years of  material out of the ‘Gunks climbing history vault.

Hill on the hyper classic High Exposure (5.6) first established in 1941. "High E", as it is often called, is known as one of the best routes of it's grade in the world. 


Petite would be the wrong word to use. But at just 5’2” with lean muscles and a strong yet compact frame, Lynn Hill (nicknamed Lina Colina by the late "Icaro" (Corrado) De Monte) is slight but mighty. Brown flowing hair with blue-grey eyes, Lynn Hill has an intense gaze, even-keeled demeanor and a stoic, methodical way about her. To many, she is a living legend. While some recognize Hill as the first person to free The Nose in Yosemite or by her many ascents in Europe, Hill’s contributions to the sport also included many first ascents in the ‘Gunks.


Staring down the crux, Hill digs into two crimps on Graveyard Shift (5.10d). The route was first climbed in 1978 by Russ Raffa and Rich Ross.

Hill showed up on the ‘Gunks scene in 1983 at a young twenty-two years old. At the time, new routes in the area were rolling out full bore. Ground-up style was the name of the game and the era’s ethics relegated a yo-yo, siege-style first ascent tactic. A party of climbers worked a route from bottom to top, lowering to the ground each time they fell and passing on the dream of the first ascent to the next person in the group. It was a prolific time in ‘Gunks history as the early 80’s saw a lot of new routing and significant growth. Climbers were pushing ground-up standards to new heights as routes like To Be or Not To Be (5.11d), The Sting (5.11d), Supper’s Ready (5.12a) and a horde of other climbs in the 5.11/5.12 range were getting ticked on these massive quartzite cliffs.


At the time, Hill has just broken off a relationship with famed West Coast climber and writer John Long. As he traveled to Borneo to further his budding writing career, she traveled across the country from California to New York in 1983 for a magazine interview. She had heard rumors of the climbing at the Shawangunks, but upon arriving was amazed by the area, it’s beauty and the climbing. 


“I love the color of the rock sometime with even a purple hue,” says Hill. “It’s the most solid rock I’ve ever touched.”


After the short preview trip, Hill returned home, but only to pack up her van and rip back across the country to New Paltz where she would settle down for nearly the next decade.


It was here that Lynn Hill would join the barrage of standard-breaking climbers.


Of this time, she remembers two routes as the most memorable: Yellow Crack (5.12b/c R-X) and Vandals (5.13).


“I literally helped get Vandals off the ground,” says Hill.


Hill making the big reach over the lip on Vandals, the East's first 5.13. 


It was 1983, and Hill was fresh off her move across the country.


“We had been looking for steep, beautiful lines,” remembers Hill. And when a group stumbled upon the line at Sky Top, Hill joined Russ Clune, Jeff Gruenberg and Hugh Hurr to work this climb as a joint team ascent that was part of the day’s style.


Lynn got the ball rolling by climbing the bottom boulder problem clean. As Russ Clune later writers in a Patagonia Field Report, “Lynn, the smallest and easiest to spot, bouldered through the start moves getting us to the heart of this proposed route: a thin diagonal crack feature through a 15-foot overhang.”


A few weeks of team effort yo-yoing the rope up, they eventually made it to the top and every one of the team members led the route from bottom to top without falls. With that, Vandals became the East’s first 5.13, and one of the hardest routes in the ‘Gunks at the time. 


Working towards the jug rail, Lynn Hill tick-tacs her way up The Zone, a route variation that joins into the upper roofs of Twilight Zone. Twilight Zone, or "TZ" as some know it, was first ascended on aid in 1963 by Art Gran and Phil Jacobus; Russ Clune and Jordan Mills made the first free ascent of Twilight Zone in 1993.

A year later, Hill approached Yellow Crack (5.12b/c R-X). Yellow Crack was a route originally put up as an aid climb. But in 1984, Hill and her then beau, Russ Raffa, found a direct line up the route that they thought would go free.


“I didn’t know the protection,” says Hill. “It was likely 5.12c/d, which was pretty hard for the time and I felt pushed.”


As Raffa and Hill looked at the line, Hill was feeling the most optimistic about an ascent. So she devised her plan and set out climbing.


The crux, it turns out, was far above the last bit of protection and consisted of a funky move over a bulge and around an arête.


“If I fell I would be falling onto these RPs way down below the bulge,” says Hill, speaking of the tiny brass nut-like protection the size of a popcorn kernel or smaller.  


Not wanting to fall on the gear for fear it would rip out and not wanting to down-climb for fear she would slip and fall, Hill kept going.


“I got to a stemming corner,” says Hill. “There was an arête move around the corner that was awkward and I stayed in the corner stemming and resting and looking.”


She stayed in this position for a while, far above the last bit of protection and with no gear placements in sight. She had no choice but to keep going. She took a deep breath before she committed to the move.


She reached around the arête, found a small crimp and eased herself onto it. With no more protection, she gunned it to the top; luckily, she didn’t fall.


“When I got to the top I finally breathed, woooohoooo,” says Hill.


The ascent marked the first free ascent of the route, and what fellow prolific ‘Gunks climbers and author of The Climber’s Guide To The Shawangunks, Dick Williams, called “one of her most impressive leads during this period.”


An ascent of this route is impressive in today’s standards, but in 1984, it was awe-inspiring. It was a route done in a ground-up style with no hanging on the rope and no top-ropes to check the holds, protection or lack thereof.  It was exemplary of the approach to climbing at the time even as climbers pushed physical limits and limits of what they thought possible (this ground-up only approach would soon change).


The grrr face: Lynn Hill sets up for a move on Artificial Intelligence. This route is in a now closed area. (1985)

Since her stint in the ‘Gunks, Hill went on to dominate the European competition scene, became the first women to redpoint 5.14 with Masse Critique at Cimai, France (ironically, the route’s equipper, J.B. Tribout, had famously said, “no woman will ever climb 5.14”) and also became the first person to free climb The Nose on El Cap, which she later went back to do in a single day. This is just the short list. While Hill might be one of the most well known Gunkies outside of the New York climbing community, she still reveres her days at the ‘Gunks as great times with great friends. Her “tribe” as she calls her friends and climbing partners at the time, is still family. “Lynn,” says lifer and longtime Gunks local Russ Clune, “is like a sister.”