The first black woman to climb El Capitan
By Leonie Sherman
In 2003, Emily Taylor became the first black woman to climb El Capitan. There were no camera crews or journalists waiting to interview her. “The weekend I summited El Cap, there was tons of buzz about the Huber brothers, two big German dudes, freeing the Zodiac,” Taylor explains. “They got all the media attention.” Only one other black woman, Chelsea Griffie, also located in the Bay Area, has ever climbed El Cap…and very few people know her name either.
Taylor is a black queer professional climbing coach. She trains athletes while working to dismantle oppressive systems that make it so hard for people who look like her to thrive in the field of outdoor recreation. She’s trained over two thousand people in a career spanning over two decades. She’s worked with adaptive and spectrum climbers, consulted for companies, been a team-building facilitator, writer, and designer. She was the first black female climbing coach in USA Climbing, the first out queer coach in USA Climbing, and the first queer coach to be pregnant in USA Climbing.
“When you’re black you have to do better than what most folks think is the best possible, especially in a white male dominated industry like rock climbing,” she explains. “You have to do twice as well to even get to the starting line, to even get on the field. Then being female and being queer? That’s like a trifecta. It’s hard.”
Fortunately, her father raised her to take on the world.
“Mom had substance abuse issues, so she was in and out, mostly out, of my life as I was growing up,” Taylor explains. “My dad raised me on his own.” His military career meant they moved frequently, but her father’s love was constant. “My dad taught me I could do anything I wanted to do, I just had to do it the best I possibly could,” she recalls. “He always told me, ‘you have two strikes against you, you’re black and you’re female. Don’t let that be an excuse.’”
“My father was the love of my life,” she admits. “I buried him on my 21st birthday.” The last thing he said to her was “I’m so proud of you.” With his passing, Taylor took on a house and care of her grandmother. A college counselor noticed her stress and suggested she get away for a bit. Taylor picked up an Outside magazine, saw an ad for Outward Bound and embarked on a two month long multi-activity expedition where she discovered the second love of her life: rock climbing.
“My first time out I was climbing a 5.10 in hiking boots!” Taylor explains with a laugh. “Climbing was a fun, natural thing for me.” The Charlotte Climbing Gym was close to her college, so she joined after she got back from Outward Bound. “It happened to be run by a black guy. I thought ‘yeah, let’s do this!’ At the time I didn’t know there were no other black people climbing or in the industry.” She immersed herself, training, watching other people climb and trying to understand what happened when young people started climbing.
“I would watch these kids come in to climb and at first they’d be awkward and impulsive, but they were transformed on the wall,” she explains. Her major in sociology made sense once rock climbing came into her life. After graduation she took a job in a residential psychiatric hospital in Atlanta as an experiential therapist working with young people who’d been abused. She taught traumatized kids how to ride horses, kayak, and rock climb. She put together teaching modules and outdoor units and learned how to manage trips. Most importantly she showed these young people how to face themselves and heal from trauma.
“As brown and black people we often don’t recognize the trauma we are living with because we’ve been experiencing it for so long. It’s like we have such deep calluses we aren’t even aware when we are being cut,” Taylor explains. “It’s the spaces between the trauma, where we find laughter and happiness and joy that allows us to heal, to exist, to continue, better prepared for the next trauma.” After three years of heartache and laughter, healing and trauma, Taylor realized her calling was to help kids before they got to the hospital.
So she moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan and began working for Planet Rock, the largest climbing gym in the country at the time. The owner recognized her talent and fire and gave her the freedom to develop videos for the hearing impaired, curriculum for the visually impaired, a teaching manual for staff members, and the gym’s program for young people.
She found that she bonded particularly well with young people who were somewhere along the spectrum. “I understand the obstacles, challenges and transitions of prepubescent to young adulthood, because I’ve worked with climbers through all of those milestones in their lives,” she explains. “I’m not just a climbing coach, I’m a life coach. I show them how to climb from their hearts. But climbing is maybe six hours a week. It’s the stuff you do with your life in those other hours that determines your success as a climber.”
The owner of Planet Rock also shut down the gym for a week to take employees on a weeklong outdoor climbing trip. The destination Taylor’s first year was Yosemite and Tuolumne Meadows. She still remembers sitting in the meadow and looking up at El Cap. “You see a photo in a book as a kid and you’re like, whatever, rocks,” she laughs at the memory. “But then you see it as a climber …” her voice trails off. “I remember I whispered to the wind, ‘I want to be the first black woman to climb that.’ Then I had to do it.”
A client at the gym had climbed the Nose on El Cap with Jim Bridwell and put Taylor in touch with him. “Jim just said, ‘Sure, let’s do it!’” Taylor remembers. “He told me what I had to do to get prepared and then I met him in J-Tree and he put me through four grueling days of what I needed to learn, and get over, and how to prepare and basically smacked me down.” She’d moved back to Georgia to be closer to her grandmother and trained through the summer, through heat and mosquitos, joining Bridwell at Camp Four in October.
“Nobody had told me how to poop and pee in my harness! That was quite an experience on day one,” she admits. “I kept thinking people in the meadow were watching me because I was the darkest thing on the rock, so I would wait until dusk to pee.”
Taylor led the sketchy pitch off Sickle Ledge. Their team of three swapped leads up to the Great Roof. “I didn’t lead any pitches after that,” says Taylor. “I was just mentally exhausted.” After six brutal days on the wall, rationing food and water, the summit itself was anti-climactic. “I just wanted to be the first and get it done, I wasn’t really mindful enough to notice how it felt,” she admits.
After El Cap she fell in love, married, and conceived a child. “Yosemite came back into my life when I was about to give birth,” she says. “Somebody told me to visualise El Cap as I was giving birth; you rest, rest, rest and then when it’s time you push, push push. Remembering El Cap, how to cope, the loneliness, the belaying blind, waiting for your turn, that helped me through giving birth.”
Their daughter was born in 2009. They decided to homeschool her, and she started her life in climbing gyms, on Taylor’s chest or being held by another parent. After success coaching, she was ready to pursue her deeper goals. “I had a vision to help kids who didn’t have access, didn’t have it easy, and I was spending all my time with affluent kids who just wanted to win. I was ready to close the chapter on Atlanta.” Six years later she moved out to the Bay Area where she was gratified to find a community that embraced her.
“My Instagram is flooded with fat women, black women, indigenous women; we are all facing the same obstacles in a white dominated industry. Once we find each other, it’s really healing, but we are all talking to each other, almost in an echo chamber,” Taylor says. “How do we take our experiences out there to a wider audience in a safe way? Are white folks willing to hear this message, to see it, to really understand what’s going on?”
She explains that initially she loved how climbing felt in her body. She contacted a mystery in herself and learned to be vulnerable through climbing. But where could she find a climbing partner who looked like her? After over twenty years of climbing, her first experience climbing outdoors with a black female as equals or partners was last year.
She’s working to change the dynamics and create more opportunities for black and brown people, especially females, to thrive in the climbing world. A few years ago she started a black and brown climbing collective, and she runs a non-profit called Brown Girls Climbing. She is teaching her daughter to use her voice for herself and others, to lead through life with compassion, love and empathy for others. But she still returns to engage with the challenge of dismantling oppression.
“Bringing these issues to the climbing industry is my calling, it’s my purpose. I’m here to be the bridge between these worlds,” she says with confidence. “We have to expose, deconstruct and dismantle the systems of oppression, and white supremacy that exist in our industry by starting with healing and liberating our bodies from rope held by white people.” Taylor pauses to gather her thoughts. “Until we can have honest and true conversations about black and brown bodies in this industry, this industry will continue to stumble upon that fragility that binds it.”
Admiring Taylor’s stamina and fire means embracing those difficult conversations in our own lives. Let’s start today.
Emily Taylor is a consultant, climbing coach and athletic trainer based in Oakland. For more information check out tayloredfitsolutions.com.