The rivalry that changed climbing
The rivalry that changed climbing (Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

And the Best Woman Sport Climber is…

For years, virtually no one could beat Lynn Hill to the top of a climbing wall. Then along came Isabelle Patissier, and beyond a shadow of a doubt things are changing.

The rivalry that changed climbing

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On a Friday afternoon in the southern French town of Serre Chevalier, Isabelle Patissier stood at the base of a 70-foot aiguille of concrete and fiberglass, where she chalked up her fingertips and studied the route. Her straight blond hair, gathered in a ponytail, was tied with a black scarf. She wore the obligatory black maillot of the competition but had chosen white shorts, a purple chalk bag, and turquoise climbing shoes for counterpoint. The television cameras doted on her while the crowd roared for its favorite.

Twenty-four years old, Patissier stands five feet, seven and a half inches tall and weighs 108 pounds. Her long, long arms point. The television cameras doted on her while the crowd roared for its favorite.

Twenty-four years old, Patissier stands five feet, seven and a half inches tall and weighs 108 pounds. Her long, long arms and legs, bare on this sunny day in late July, rippled with sleek muscles. As she stared at the matrix of fiberglass holds bolted to the wall, her baby face with the Bardot moue remained impassive.

Then she began climbing. As she reached high for a fingertip cling or swung a leg far to the right to toe a fiberglass rugosity, her movements were fast and aggressive, but also balletic. Midway up the wall, on a dicey sequence where her predecessors had grimly labored, Patissier cruised. Everything she did was smooth. In fact, the purposeful economy of her effort was so elegant, it almost looked affected—a woman dancing rather than struggling up a climb. On the hardest moves, the faces of the other competitors had winced and twisted with strain. Patissier's serene mask never wrinkled. With more than half of her allotted 15 minutes still to go, she topped the summit overhang and clipped the last carabiner, automatically qualifying for Saturday's final. The crowd thundered; Patissier raised a fist and allowed herself a smile.

Some time later, Lynn Hill came forward and tied in at the bottom of the wall. The reception from the grandstand was polite. “Some applause for Lynn,” the announcer cajoled in French. With her black maillot, Hill wore black knee-length Lycra tights and black shoes. Her blond hair, shorter than Patissier's, hung loose around her face. Though Hill stands only five feet, one and a half inches tall and weighs 103 pounds, her muscles look bulkier than Patissier's, particularly in the shoulders. At 30, she was the second-oldest woman in the competition.

As she calculated her moves, a different sort of impassivity—inward, focused, almost hollow—claimed Hill's face. The gray eyes never blinked. She started up the wall and almost immediately faced a problem. She backed down a move, studied the sequence, then solved it with a hand change. Much slower than Patissier, Hill worked out her route like a chess master exploring a dubious opening. To reach several holds that were beyond her grasp (and that Patissier had clasped easily), she resorted to short leaps called dynos. The effort seemed immense, but with 20 feet to go, not a quiver of calf or biceps betrayed fatigue. With a remarkable last dyno Hill flew past the overhang and held on to a green blob of fiberglass, even as her legs swung free. The crowd cheered unprompted, and a moment later Hill was at the top.

It seemed likely that the women's competition at Serre Chevalier would once again come down to a showdown between Hill and Patissier. They were, at the moment, the two best women sport climbers in the world. By now, however, winning is old hat for Hill: Throughout the sport's six-year history, she has stood at its top level. No other competitor, male or female, can claim even half so long a reign. The case can be made that Hill is the best woman rock climber ever.

And she is climbing as strongly as ever. Last spring, after nine days of working out the moves, she solved a route at Cima in southern France called Masse Critique—the hardest rock climb ever made by a woman.

But at Serre Chevalier, many observers wondered whether this was the last gasp, however magnificent, of Hill's career, and whether Patissier, who had been on a meteoric rise for the past two years, would eclipse her. In the early days of competition climbing the two who usually vied for first place were Hill and Catherine Destivelle, a Frenchwoman who has since turned her attention to her original passion, mountaineering. The question now was, how much longer could Hill hang on? And just how good could her younger French opponent become?

The radical difference in the two women's climbing styles adds piquancy to their rivalry. “When you watch Isabelle, it just looks too easy,” says Robyn Erbesfield, long the second-ranked American woman sport climber. “She simply graces her way up the wall. Lynn battles, but she almost never falls. She has this tenacity.”

Erbesfield is not ready, however, to bow to Patissier. “Lynn held the candle for so many years,” she says. “What she's given to the climbing world is written in concrete—it will be hard for anyone else to duplicate it. But this year she can be beaten. I think any one of five or six of us has the opportunity to be Number One.”

At Serre Chevalier, a horseshoe of bleachers hugged the dramatic artificial pinnacle, affording intimate views of every heel-hook and dyno. A giant clock ticked climbing time off by tenths of seconds. The announcer was knowledgeable and glib, the soft-rock background music unobtrusive. The events rolled by on as tight a schedule as a TGV bullet train.

Saturday's crowd of some 5,000 spectators was charged up, even though many of them had to squat in a gravelly parking lot during the four and a half hours it took to determine a pair of winners. As each contestant untied after assaulting the wall, a mob of kids swarmed the barricade, thrusting programs—as ardent a bunch of autograph hounds as ever besieged Mickey Mantle in Yankee Stadium. Nervous that the climbing alone wouldn't pack them in, however, the organizers had added some splashy frills: a pair of absurdly costumed creatures engaging in what they called danse escalade on the lower precincts of the wall; a demonstration by the French national parapente team (pinpoint landings amongst the crowd); and, as the grand finale, a fireworks show during which the pinnacle itself spurted red and blue rockets.

Two years before Serre Chevalier (not a World Cup event, but part of a new climbing circuit called World Masters), at a cliff in southern France, Hill had suffered a nearly fatal accident. Distracted at the base of a wall, she failed to finish tying the rope into her harness—a maneuver so routine that any climber can do it in her sleep. She scaled a difficult route and then, 85 feet off the deck, leaned back on the rope so that her belayer could lower her. The rope flipped loose from the harness, and Hill plunged to the ground. It was her good luck to hit a tree branch on the way and to land on level dirt between two jutting boulders. Her injuries were serious but not crippling. Still, they knocked her out of contention for the first World Cup, which was won by Nanette Raybaud, a tall, dark-haired Frenchwoman who remains one of the five or six top female competitors.

In the fall of 1990, with only two events to go in the second World Cup, Patissier held an all but insurmountable lead. But Hill, having long since recovered from her accident, climbed brilliantly in Lyon and Barcelona, winning both contests. In Lyon she performed what may have been the single finest climb ever seen on the women's circuit. After she and Patissier topped out in the final, they were put head-to-head in a superfinal on the much harder men's route. Patissier fell 45 feet up—a superb performance—but Hill flashed the route, reaching the top without a slip. Only two of the 15 men finalists had been able to do the same.

Despite such sentiments, and despite the swift ascent of Patissier, Hill isn't quite willing to rule out her chances of a few more great seasons, another world championship or two to crown her career.

Barcelona was the last competition of the year. As the dust settled after Hill's victory, officials of the Union Internationale Association des Alpinistes, the World Cup's governing body, went into conference to tally the year's final standings. Their calculations snagged on a single rule, which may or may not have been ambiguously phrased in French or English, depending on whose camp you're in. The rule stated that each competitor could throw out her worst performance of the year; the rankings counted only the five best results among the six World Cup meets. At Nuremberg in early November, Hill had hopped up onto the first foothold, then immediately stepped back to the ground. It was the kind of false start that climbers often make on real rock, but by the stringent rules of the contest it instantly disqualified her. Though deeply dismayed, Hill didn't argue with the ruling. She thus came in dead last, earning zero points.

The UIAA judges now realized that if Hill could throw out Nuremberg, she would end up tied for the year with Patissier, whose worst performance among the six was worth 12 points. The French read the rules to mean that in the event of a tie, the sixth finish should be used to decide the champion. The majority of judges disagreed, and after much hair-pulling the UIAA declared cochampions.
“I was quite happy,” recalls Hill. “I said to Isabelle, 'Let's go celebrate together.' She said, 'I don't think so.' She had tears in her eyes.”

Patissier refused to stand on the victory podium with Hill. The French climbing federation lodged a formal protest, and the UIAA agreed to search its collective soul. Not until nearly a year later did it manage to make a definitive ruling: The UIAA again decided to call it a tie.

Lynn Hill has a reputation for being somewhat cold and distant—an image she is at pains to dispel. “The roots of climbing have to do with play,” she says. “People have forgotten how to have fun. When I climb, I get back in touch with the kid in myself. When I don't climb, I like to go to movies, have dinner with friends, or dance alone in my living room.”

Testimony to this hidden warmth comes from her climbing friends. “Lynn's great,” says Bobbi Bensman, one of the top American sport climbers. “She's not intimidating—just a really focused individual. She's super playful and jolly when she's not climbing.”

“Lynn's real. She's honest,” adds Erbesfield, who is probably Hill's closest friend. “There's no bullshit about her. That's why we get along so well. A lot of people think she's cool or reserved. They don't know her. She's the first to give you a compliment.”

Like Hill, Erbesfield has moved to France to pursue the competition circuit. The two women, who joke about being twin sisters (Erbesfield is also blond and five-foot-one) lived together for eight months. At Serre Chevalier, it was beguiling to hear them speak good idiomatic French, Erbesfield with a Georgia twang, Hill with the remnants of her flat California accent.

As she has sailed into the limelight, Patissier has carried with her the reputation of a temperamental egotist. Her aloof demeanor, juxtaposed with her beauty, suggests to some a narcissistic starlet of the crags.

Hill recently bought her own house in the small French town of Grambois. Last year she made $40,000 in prize money—unheard of for an American sport climber—and that much again from her sponsors: Hind, Boreal, Petzl, Beal, and Reebok. Made-up and reclining languidly in a low-cut evening gown, she appeared in a Dare perfume ad. Timex told the story of her 1989 fall in its recent “Extraordinary People” campaign. She is becoming a regular on the motivational-talk circuit. On “Late Night with David Letterman” (“Of course I was nervous”) she evened the game by critiquing her host's performance on a small artificial wall.

And she is climbing as strongly as ever. Last spring, after nine days of working out the moves, she solved a route at Cima in southern France called Masse Critique—the hardest rock climb ever made by a woman. (The previous best was Patissier's.) But the keen edge it takes to climb at the competition level may be starting to dull. “I've done so many competitions,” Hill readily admits, “that it's not the same thrill to win anymore. I've already proved something. It's not so important to do the World Cup circuit this year. The training—having to watch every little thing you eat and drink—gets to be too much. I can't go windsurfing for two weeks.”

Despite such sentiments, and despite the swift ascent of Patissier, Hill isn't quite willing to rule out her chances of a few more great seasons, another world championship or two to crown her career. “If I really wanted to, I could get even better at climbing than I am,” she insists. “But there are other things I'm interested in doing. I'm writing a book now, and for years I've wanted to make a film. I also want to travel—Thailand, New Guinea, Borneo, wherever. I'm totally open.”

Hill's book, which she has been working on for four years, will likely be more about the no-nonsense climber than the woman who dances around her living room: a resume of Hill's climbing career, a smattering of psychology, chapters on technique with useful photos demonstrating same. She calls the book her “project.”

Hill was not happy with the Serre Chevalier course, on which she had performed poorly the year before. Because of the spacing of holds, artificial walls tend to favor taller climbers, and this was especially true at Serre Chevalier. “Maybe competition climbing will become like basketball,” she says ruefully. “If you're not tall enough, forget it.”

For the past year and a half, moreover, Hill has been sunk in deep personal turmoil. In 1988 she married Russ Raffa, a climber she had met on her first trip to New York's Shawangunk Mountains in the early eighties. Last March they divorced. “We were just two different people,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “As I matured, the differences started to be not OK. When I think of having children, I don't see it with Russ. And yes, I'd like to have kids. I identify with the kid in myself.”

Her abysmal performance at Nuremberg in 1990 coincided with the nadir of the marital conflict. “It's been a distraction,” she says. “There's no doubt that it's hurt my climbing.

“I've gone through a lot of unhappiness, a lot of questioning. It's hard to have been with someone seven years, then to be suddenly alone, living in a foreign country.” She summons a wan smile. “I'm human.”

Gossip had it that hill's relationship with Patissier, cool to begin with, had turned really nasty as a result of the World Cup imbroglio. But at Serre Chevalier it seemed that the climbing bureaucrats in each camp, still sniping at one another as though America and France had declared war, were more wrought up than the women themselves. “I don't even care anymore,” said Hill. “It's kind of spoiled everything for me.

“I climbed a lot with Isabelle two years ago,” Hill added. “It was fun. I really respect her. Since Barcelona, she's distanced herself. I'm the one who has to open the conversation. She can be nice—intelligent, fun-loving. But she comes off as cold.”

“We are not friendly,” Patissier concurred. “Maybe correct with each other.”

As she has sailed into the limelight, Patissier has carried with her the reputation of a temperamental egotist. Her aloof demeanor, juxtaposed with her beauty, suggests to some a narcissistic starlet of the crags. “All the boys love her body and her wavy hair,” says Bobbi Bensman. “It's real sexy when she talks. But she's just flamingly rude. If we're climbing at the same cliff, I have to go up and say, 'Hi, Isabelle.' Otherwise I could be there all day and she wouldn't acknowledge my presence. She thinks she's just the hottest thing that ever came into the world.”

Robyn Erbesfield, who lived with Patissier for three months in southern France, demurs. “She was always a lady, a friend. She was nothing but good to me. She drove me to the cliffs every day. But she is somewhat spoiled. If things don't go her way, she can be difficult.”

Patissier has just had her first book published. Spider Woman is a slick, handsome coffee-table work, utterly Gallic despite the English title, full of glossy full-page shots of Patissier in a score of different Lycra outfits, climbing in half a dozen countries. It is Elle compared with Hill's Popular Mechanics. The text, in the first person “as told to” Jean-Michel Asselin, coeditor of the French climbing magazine Vertical, sounds suspect. Asselin is so smitten with Patissier that he babbles in his introduction, “To write really well, I ought to have been her father or her lover. Being neither, I can only serve as a witness, while I dream of being her demiurge.”

Is it really Patissier who speaks in the following passage, or Asselin's fevered fantasy of her?

Now I am going to paint myself.
Only the light of the moon, and myself nude before a mirror. The body of a climber, with all fat omitted. It is built out of long, slender muscles. I have the face of an infant. Round nose. Pouting lips. Hair that never ceases to fly away. Round breasts, a flat stomach, and long legs, and these earn me the gazes of men.

This may well be the Patissier that disaffected colleagues like Bensman know. On the other hand, Spider Woman reveals sides of its author—mischievous, respectful of mentors, even self-mocking—that are hard to discern simply by watching her climb.

“I am very shy,” says Patissier. “When people are aggressive, I back off. When journalists are aggressive, I back off. My friends are not climbers. People think I am reserved because I am not connected with climbers.”

Patissier's performance, however, left the audience agog. With her streamlined, powerful style, she flew up the course, hesitating hardly at all. The climb looked too easy for her. As she reached the summit, she had used only five of her 15 minutes.

Patissier started climbing at age five, under the tutelage of parents who still climb. In her teenage years she did some mountaineering, but she doubts that she will ever follow Catherine Destivelle's lead and return to it as a m‰tier. “It's too cold,” she says. “You have to get up early. You have to wear big clothes.”

Like Hill, Patissier has suffered a serious accident, though hers came not from climbing, but paragliding. In 1986, at age 19, as her parapente settled over a French pasture, she realized that she was likely to land on the roof of an old garden cabin. Instinctively she raised her legs, impaling herself on an iron stake. Crying and bleeding, she pulled herself free. Five operations ensued, involving the removal of part of her intestine. Patissier bears an ugly scar from the accident, which she worries is visible when she climbs in shorts.

In person, Patissier comes across not as arrogant and self-centered, but as courteous, thoughtful, and very bright. In the August/September issue of Vertical, which she had not seen, the headline of an article proclaimed, “Grande confrontation Destivelle/Patissier.” Destivelle had just put up, to widespread acclaim, a new solo route on the Petit Dru in the French Alps. Now the magazine joined Paris Match and l'Equipe in hailing her as “the madonna of the summits,” Patissier as “the gazelle of the canyons,” and implied that the two women were locked in an all-out media war.

Patissier was dumbfounded. “This means nothing. I have not seen Catherine in one, maybe two years.”

Though she will not disclose her income, climbing allows Patissier a comfortable life. Besides the prize money from competitions, she is paid by half a dozen sponsors, ranging from Rivory Joanny ropes to Oakley sunglasses. Only Destivelle and French rock climber Patrick Edlinger, she thinks, make as good a living from climbing as she does.

The gracefulness of Patissier's movement as a climber comes from a deliberate effort. “In sport, femininity is important,” she says. “I don't want to have an image de b£uf” —she holds her arms curled in front, her head stooped, gorilla-style—”like a Russian swimmer.” In Spider Woman, she waxes lyrical on this theme:

The true secret is nature. To be in the sun, close to rivers, caressed by the wind, sung to by the birds. That is the first thing about climbing, and it should always remain so.
Women, who are so close to nature, have every quality that climbing requires.

In her book, Patissier discusses her gruesome accident and its aftermath straightforwardly. She also generously acknowledges the love and support of her boyfriend, a 26-year-old climber named Christophe Viros, who serves as her trainer.

Why has she suddenly leaped to the top in sport climbing? “In 1986, when I started, I was younger than most of the others,” she says. “In my mind, it was hard to compete with the older ones. Now I feel better, more confident, more quiet. I grow up in my mind.”

As Erbesfield reached a hold 40 feet off the ground, approaching Raybaud's high point, Hill's voice, shrill above the throng, rang out: “Allez, petite!” Go, little one!

The finalists at Serre Chevalier had been winnowed down to six women. The first one to climb, a promising Frenchwoman named Agnˆs Brard, suddenly popped off the wall only ten feet up, provoking a shocked gasp from the crowd. An unknown Russian named Nathalia Kosmacheva, who had qualified through the backdoor in a limited open contest on Thursday, struggled gamely and reached a point 50 feet up. Then Nanette Raybaud, showing the calm precision that won her the 1989 World Cup, flashed the route, reaching the top with six of her 15 minutes left.

Patissier's performance, however, left the audience agog. With her streamlined, powerful style, she flew up the course, hesitating hardly at all. The climb looked too easy for her. As she reached the summit, she had used only five of her 15 minutes.

Hill was in trouble from the start. On a low sequence where the taller French women had reached past the blank spaces, Hill had to inch her fingers agonizingly toward the holds. After six minutes, she was only halfway up the wall. She made four dynos and then, on the fifth, grabbed a hold with her right hand, only to have her body pivot left into space. As the crowd groaned, she held on for one, two full seconds before her fingers slipped off and she fell.

Erbesfield proved that a short person could master the Serre Chevalier course. Climbing superbly, as she had so often in recent months, she finessed her way up the wall and topped out two minutes ahead of Raybaud. It would take a superfinal to decide the women's champion.

The technicians unscrewed holds and altered the route, making it considerably harder. By the time Raybaud emerged and started up the wall, dusk was gathering, with a chilly wind blowing from up valley. The disqualified climbers came out to sit in the crowd and watch their colleagues perform. Since no seats were reserved for them, they squeezed in and hunkered on the asphalt along with the tourists and kids. The men watched the women as avidly as they did other men. The French cheered for the Americans, the Americans for the French, everybody for the lone Russian.

The superfinal route was not only tricky, but fiendishly strenuous. Raybaud labored upward and grabbed a high hold, but you could see the strength ebbing from her body. She came off at 45 feet; as the belayer lowered her, she yelled, “Oh, putain!”

Patissier went at the course with her brash speed, but soon began to lose strength as well. Near the top she lunged for a hold, then lost it and fell, three feet higher than Raybaud.

Erbesfield climbed exquisitely, once more forced to find a different route to accommodate her height. Only inches below Raybaud's high point she too lunged and fell. Patissier was the champion. Hill placed fifth.

An hour earlier, Hill had embraced Erbesfield just after she made it into the superfinal. Although it was Hill who had lost out, the tears were in Erbesfield's eyes. “I'm going to tell you something special when you climb,” Hill said. “Listen for it.”

As Erbesfield reached a hold 40 feet off the ground, approaching Raybaud's high point, Hill's voice, shrill above the throng, rang out: “Allez, petite!” Go, little one!

Floodlights bathed the victory podium. Patissier's friends sprayed her with champagne. She grabbed a bottle and sprayed them back. (In December she would win her second world championship, with Erbesfield placing third and Hill a distant fifth.)

On the edge of the stage, Hill autographed a handful of kids' programs. It was obvious that the reachy wall had contributed to her so-so performance: The climb she had been forced to make was utterly different from Raybaud's and Patissier's. But Hill refused to alibi. “I grabbed the hold wrong,” she said. “I had a negative thought in my head. I'm disappointed—but not real disappointed. I didn't feel so good today—I'm not exactly sure why. There were other things on my mind.”

David Roberts's most recent book, coauthored with Bradford Washburn, is Mount McKinley: The Conquest of Denali (Harry N. Abrams).

Lead Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto