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Rock climbing is changing — and not just because it’s heading to the Olympics

When U.S. climber Lynn Hill started grappling rock more than four decades ago, it was a different world.

As one of the most widely recognized and successful female climbers, she has been on the forefront of that transformation by pushing the boundaries of climbing and being a spokesperson for women in sports.

“When I first started climbing, people didn’t even recognize it as a sport,” said Hill, 58. “It was just some oddball activity that misfits and nonconformist-type people did.”

Rock climber Lynn Hill changed the perception of was possible in the sport with her first free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, California. (Lynn Hill Climbing )

All that has changed as climbing became more mainstream and accessible.

Indoor climbing gyms have become a staple in cities, the sport is heading to the Olympics for the first time in 2020 and climbing documentaries like Free Solo are becoming blockbusters.

Accessibility is a big part of the changes,” Hill said. “And the media is a big part of it — the fact that Free Solo just won an Oscar is unheard of.”

‘We approach the rock differently’

The other big change: climbing no longer a predominantly male sport.   

When Hill was starting out, spending months on end climbing in southern California and living in Yosemite National Park in the late 1970s and 1980s, she was almost always the only woman in her gang of hardcore climbers.

“Climbing was very highly influenced by a male culture,” she said.

Hill was one of the forces behind changing that, though, with achievements like her free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley — the first time anyone, man or woman, had climbed it unaided.

Now in her 50s, Lynn Hill still climbs — at levels most merely dream of — and is very active in the climbing community. (Lynn Hill Climbing)

She’s in Vancouver, B.C., this week to be part of the conversation about women in adventure sports for the She Summits festival and to teach a women-specific climbing clinic at The Hive bouldering gym

“It’s a very different feeling to be in a roomful of women,” Hill said.

“We approach the rock differently. We have different physiques, with different strengths.”

For Hill, succeeding in any sport ultimately comes down to strength of mind and tenacity.

“You have to stay focused and believe in yourself,” she said.

Hill is one of several athletes participating in She Summits, which covers other sports including surfing, running and mountain biking.

‘She Summits’ features several movies about women athletes. Carla Cupido says part of the focus is to showcase role models and inspire people to try different sports. (Submitted by She Summits )

Encouraging adventure

Carla Cupido, the director of the festival, believes creating community around sport is the first step to breaking down barriers.

“More people are jumping into adventure sports that didn’t traditionally feel comfortable doing so,” Cupido said.

“There needs to be safe places for women to try adventure sports because often the intimidation factor is high [in traditionally male-dominated sports].”

She Summits focuses on women and outdoor sports like mountain biking, running, surfing and climbing. (Submitted by She Summits)

It’s not just about gender, Cupido acknowledged, and other factors from race to economic background can have a role.   

“Access to adventure sport is still quite limited and it’s a very privileged place to play,” she said.  

“I have more questions than answers, but I would love to find out how we can create more inclusivity.”

She Summits runs from April 5 -7, 2019.


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