It was 25 years ago that Lynn Hill blew the climbing world away. At a time when men dominated the sport, she free climbed Yosemite National Park's feared El Capitan wall, ascending 900m of slick granite using only her hands and feet, with no rope assistance. Even more impressive was the fact she wasn't just the first woman to scale El Capitan, she was the first person to do it full stop. She believed rock is a great leveller, and her climb proved exactly that.
"No matter what our physical differences, with the right combination of vision, desire and effort, just about any climb is possible," she said. "Short or tall, man or woman, the rock is an objective medium that is equally open for interpretation by all."
Hill has since inspired many others to follow her lead, and cement their own place amongst the greatest climbers in the world. Here's our pick of them, from the legends to the new generation.
Junko Tabei was a mountaineer, not a pure rock climber, but she was making her mark well before Hill's giant wall ascent, becoming the first woman to reach the summit of Everest in 1975. Despite growing up a frail child in a time when gender stereotypes were strong and restrictive, she became a climbing pioneer and founded the Ladies Climbing Club in 1969, because many men refused to climb with her.
She climbed Everest as part of an all-female Japanese team, all of whom escaped being buried alive by an avalanche on the way up. "I didn't intend to be the first woman on Everest. I just simply climbed a mountain," she said. "But the environment around me changed so much, just because I was the first woman."
In 1992, a year before Hill climbed The Nose, Tabei completed the Seven Summits (Messner list), putting her firmly amongst the world's greatest mountaineers.
A pioneer of free climbing in the 1980s and '90s, Lynn Hill was the first woman to really make a mark on big walls, and what a mark it was – the first ever free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan.
"We tried to do routes that required us to make decisions about risk," she said. "I don't actually remember backing off from any climb, I just did whatever necessary to do climbs that I thought I could do."
Hill was 14 when she took up the sport, but in just four years she'd sent the hardest route ever free climbed by a woman to that point, the Ophir Broke in Colorado, rated at 7c (5.12d). She climbed The Nose in 1993, taking four days, and then astonished everyone by doing it again in just one day the following year. These climbs made her a superstar, appearing everywhere from Sports Illustrated to the David Letterman show in the United States.
Learn more about Hill's story of climbing The Nose in this excerpt from climbing film, Valley Uprising, in the video below:
At the same time Hill was doing her thing in America, Catherine Destivelle was hitting the walls in Europe, becoming the first woman to climb the Eiger's North face solo in 1992. And she did so in less than 15 hours.
Destivelle learned her skills bouldering in Fontainebleau and climbing in the Alps, and was one of the most prolific Female First Ascent baggers. Her notable climbs included Chouca at Boux and Trango Tower, but it wasn't until doing the Eiger alone that she gained the respect she deserved.
"After Trango, one or two people said Jeff (her male climbing partner) led all the way," she recalled. "It wasn't true, but back then people still said 'you’re a girl so go second'. For the Eiger, I climbed alone so there could be no doubt."
Originally an obsessively organised competition climber, she shifted to the outdoors when she went to Smith Rock State Park in Oregon, USA, to complete a route called To Bolt Or Not To Be and met Lynn Hill, who saw her potential and invited her to join her climbing in Madagascar. When she went back to America, she moved to the walls of Yosemite, met fellow free climbing prodigy Tommy Caldwell and they became climbing's golden couple.
Together they were the first to free climb El Capitan's Lurking Fear in 2000, and then, after being kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan and falling out of love with climbing for a year, she and Caldwell followed Hill as the second and third to free climb The Nose in 2005.
"Doing the Nose was this lifelong dream of mine," she said. "I started climbing the year Lynn did it. Every comp I went into, every gym I went into, had the poster of Lynn saying 'It goes, boys'. Before I even knew what El Cap was, I was like 'Oh, I want to be like her'."
In 2008, Rodden sent Yosemite's then toughest climb, an 8c+ (5.14c) that had defeated many climbers, including Ron Kauk. She named it Meltdown, and nobody has climbed it since. For more of Rodden's story, check out how she's intrinsically linked to Tommy Caldwell's The Dawn Wall attempt.
Often touted as one of the best free climbers in the world today, Sasha DiGiulian has made more than 30 first female ascents, and eight significant first ascents.
Inspired by Hill, she started climbing aged seven and by 18 became the third woman, after Spain's Josune Bereziartu and Charlotte Durif of France, to ascend a 9a (5.14d) route in Kentucky's Red River Gorge.
"First ascents and first female ascents are historical benchmarks in our sport," she says. "Both should be highlighted. Clearly, if women can do more first ascents, in general, this is ideal."
Conquering Zahir Plus
American rock climber Sasha DiGiulian overcomes loss and finds reward on a big wall adventure in Switzerland.
DiGiulian has done just that, travelling the world to pick off big climbs, including the first female ascent of Magic Mushroom on the North Face of Switzerland's Eiger in 2015, and the first ever ascent of The Misty Wall in Yosemite in 2017.
Follow American climber Margo Hayes on her quest to make history.
Margo Hayes raised the bar when she pushed the highest grade climbed by a woman to a 9a+ (5.15a), on La Rambla, Spain, in February 2017. She held the record for nine months, before Angela Eiter took it up to a 9b (5.15b).
Hayes competed in national level gymnastics at the age of eight, but discovered climbing two years later, and honed her skills with Boulder's Team ABC. In the year building up to La Rambla, she completed 14 routes of 5.14a and harder.
"When I clipped the chains on La Rambla, the flood of emotion surprised me," she said. "I immediately started to weep. I think it was a combination of joy and disbelief. I will never, ever forget that moment."
Hayes had taken 17 attempts over seven days to complete La Rambla, and quickly followed it up with a send of Realization/Biographie.
Although more recognised as a competition climber, Anak Verhoeven laid a huge outdoor marker last year when she became the first woman to claim a first ascent of a 9a+ (5.15a), on Sweet Neuf in France.
She began climbing with her parents at just four-years-old, but focused on competition climbing, only climbing her first 9a (5.14d) route, Era Vella in Spain, in 2015, having been inspired to try it by Sasha DiGiulian. In total, she's now done 34 routes at 8b+ (5.14a) or harder.
"I really love it that women are breaking barriers, and pushing the limits ever upwards," she said. "There are so many impressive female athletes to draw from, and so many new ones now doing groundbreaking ascents."
Eiter started climbing at school aged 11, won her first world title at 17, and went on to make her first outdoor 8c+ (5.14c) ascent, Claudio Café in Italy, when she was 21-years-old. She stepped up to 9a (5.14d) in 2014, with ascents of Hades and Big Hammer in her native Austria, and Era Vella in Spain a year later, when she first began trying out on La Planta de Shiva.
Angela Eiter breaks new ground in women's climbing
The action-packed story behind Angela Eiter's record-breaking 9b climb on La Planta de Shiva in Spain in October 2017.
The youngest of the new generation, Ashima Shiraishi logged the second female ascent of a 9a/9a+ (5.15d/5.15a) route at just 13-years-old, and is currently touted as the best teenage climber out there.
She began climbing Rat Rock with her father in Central Park aged six, and excelled in bouldering before making a major mark with the youngest ascent of a grade 8c+ (5.14c), on Southern Smoke at Red River Gorge.
"I always thought I had the same strength as guys, and knew I was capable of showing what was possible," Shiraishi said. "That's the beauty of climbing – you can all climb the same routes. It's something girls can show they're badass at."
In 2015, Shiraishi climbed her first 9a (5.14d), on Open Your Mind Direct, which was initially claimed to be a harder grade – potentially the hardest climb ever by a woman – due to a hold breaking near the top, but ultimately was confirmed at its original level. She went a notch better on the same trip, when she became the second woman to scale a 9a/9a+ (5.14d/5.15a) on Ciudad de Dios, and it's highly possible that one day she'll be the one to raise the climbing bar beyond the current level.
For more on Shiraishi's climbing story watch the clip below:
Young guns part 1
Two of climbing's fastest-rising stars face the climbs of their young lives in a legendary Norwegian cave.