Hill pays homage to the women who pushed the limits at the genesis of American climbing and inspired her most.
As far as the number of female climbers involved in Yosemite’s early history goes: “It’s a short list,” Hill says. “There were women around, but only if you ask the right person. There were so few of us that some people just didn’t realize we were there at all.”
Today, the ranks of women crushers have swelled in size and certainly in publicity.
“We’ve come a long way in a short time,” Hill says, though she points out that, both in terms of equal treatment and equal pay, women still have a long way to go to reach true gender parity, within climbing and in mainstream society.
She was stoked to highlight the women climbers who were most influential to her so that they may also inspire the next generation.
Gingery and Hill became fast friends during long summer afternoons in Joshua Tree in the late 1970s, spent wiring beta until dusk. Hill said she admired Gingery for her way of being a woman in what was really a man’s world, but if you ask Gingery, she’ll give you a different take.
“I don’t think it was a man’s world—there just weren’t very many women in it,” she said. “It was always available to women who wanted to step up and make it happen. Climbing’s very mainstream now, but back then it was pretty fringe, and fringe people are pretty accepting.”
Gingery was known for keeping a low profile, aid climbing and bouldering at a high level, and writing one of the first guidebooks dedicated exclusively to bouldering, called Joshua Tree Bouldering: Joshua Tree National Park, published in 1993 by Quail Springs Publishing.
While she was a student, and later working as a research biologist in California, Gingery established a number of classic routes in Joshua Tree, was part of the first female-only ascent of The Shield (5.8, A3) in Yosemite, and filled every free weekend she could with rock.
“Back then, we couldn’t not go climbing,” she said. “To miss a week would be like pulling your eyeball out or something. You had to go. People would show up at 2 a.m. on Friday night after working all week and climb straight through the weekend.”
Now retired, Gingery spends her free time seeking out unclimbed trad lines in Joshua Tree National Park.
Hill has called Bev Johnson one of her first role models and, in her book (Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World), remembers Johnson as a kindred spirit in adventure with an “abundance of positive energy.” Perhaps best known for her involvement in the first all-female ascent of El Capitan via the Triple Direct route (VI, 5.9, C2-) with Sibylle Hetchel in 1973, Big Wall Bev was also the first woman to climb the Dihedral Wall (5.8, A3) solo at age 31, a climb that deeply impressed Hill at the time.
In her American Alpine Journal account of the pair’s historic ascent, good friend and partner Sybil Hechtel recalls the struggle of carrying a 120-pound haul bag between them across the Mammoth Terraces.
“We’d stagger a few feet, drop it, and get ready for the next lap,” Hechtel wrote. That tenacity was a hallmark characteristic of the pair and Johnson in particular.
Raised a high-society navy brat before leaving college to be a cross-country ski instructor and later a member of Yosemite SAR, Johnson was also famous for her wit. She’s notorious for responding to an interview question about how many 5.10’s she’s climbed with, “It’s not how many 5.10s you have led, it’s about how many 5.10 leaders you have laid.”
She later became a filmmaker and wandered the globe from Antarctica to the jungles of South American with a camera at the ready. Johnson died in a helicopter crash while heli-skiing in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains in 1994, in pursuit of adventure to the last.
In terms of climbing grade, Erbesfield-Raboutou spent a long time on top of the world. After learning to climb at age 18 and building what was probably one of the very first woodies in her boyfriend’s parents’ garage in 1981, she was hooked. For years, she and Hill were the only women (that she knows of) who climbed in the high 5.13 range. She became the third woman in the world to climb 5.14 in 1993 and still redpoints 5.14a at age 54. She also holds five US Champion and four World Cup Champion titles, including a win at the first-ever World Cup in 1989.
Today, Erbesfield-Raboutou has risen through a different sort of rank, ascending to the top of the climbing business world with her gym, ABC Climbing, where she coaches the nation’s top youth out of Boulder, Colorado. “A lot of things have changed over the years, but plenty is still similar to the way it was at the beginning of American climbing,” Raboutou said. “There’s still a small group of really strong females. It’s a larger pool now, but it’s not that much larger.”
In years to come, she hopes to see an uptick in the numbers of high-performing women leading the pack. Fortunately, her position as a top coach of young climbers puts her at the forefront of fostering that kind of future.
For now, though, she’s focused on a more immediate goal: training the first crop of climbing Olympians.
When Lynn Hill returned to the ground from her first ever outdoor climb—a lead of The Trough (5.5) at Big Rock in southern California—a woman greeted her with congratulations. That woman, Maria Cranor, became one of Hill’s closest friends. “From the first day I met her, she was a source of inspiration and encouragement to me, as she was to all her friends and colleagues,” Hill wrote in her book.
“Maria was the first person I ever saw climbing really hard,” Gingery said, recalling the day she first saw Cranor. Gingery had just met John Long—fluorescent green pants, no shirt, rope tied around his waist—at Suicide Rocks. He’d recommended a route for Gingery.
“It rounded the corner, and there was Maria Cranor doing this route called Valhalla,” Gingery said. “Maria had her little shorts and sunglasses on, looking like she’s from Newport Beach, and all I could think was, ‘Holy crap. That’s how it’s done.’”
Valhalla was the route the original Stone Masters had to climb as a rite of passage to gain admittance into the elite, and the climb Gingery witnessed was an onsight; Cranor unexpectedly nabbed a FFA on the route after her three male partners failed to lead it. She’s since established a number of first ascents in Joshua Tree and currently works as a professor of physics at the University of Utah.
When Underhill started leading some of the most fearsome routes in the Alps, guideless climbing was newly reputable, but only for men.
“The essence of guideless climbing consists in taking upon oneself the entire responsibility for carrying the climb through to a successful finish,” Underhill wrote in a 1934 National Geographic essay. “This is a lot of fun, and I saw no reason why this pleasure should be closed to women.” So, she decided to undertake a “climb sans hommes” of one of the most striking mountains in Chamonix, France: The Grépon.
When Underhill and partner Alice Damesme returned from the summit, French climber Etienne Bruhl famously shook his head and said, “The Grépon has disappeared. Now that it has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it. A pity, too, because it used to be a very good climb.”
Undeterred by the insult, Underhill went on to complete the first manless climb of the Matterhorn, an undertaking friends planned a reception to celebrate. In typical style, Underhill skipped her own party to go climbing.