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Know the West

Photos: The power of climbing harnessed

Brown Girls Climbing addresses trauma and is increasing diversity at the crag.


Emily Taylor remembers the first time she met another black climber outside of work. It was three years ago — after she’d been climbing for more than two decades. For years, Taylor, who lives in Oakland, California, has been advocating for better representation in the outdoor community, but the response from industry leaders has been vague and negligent. “They have been so careless and haphazard and not understanding of their own cultural bias,” she said. Some companies have taken shallow measures to appear more diverse, but meaningful efforts, such as seriously looking into why there are so few black climbers, have not followed. Before it can move forward, the industry must grapple with the harrowing violence black people have endured in the United States, Taylor explained: “We have generational and ancestral trauma about having rope around our bodies.”

So Taylor, a professional climber and climbing coach, created her own initiatives to diversify the sport, including a group called Brown Girls Climbing. Having a black coach can help young climbers, including non-binary kids, navigate the predominantly white spaces of climbing gyms, and feel safe there. One way Taylor does this is by incorporating stories of black heroes into skill-building exercises. For example, during a lesson on “quiet feet” — carefully avoiding shoe squeaks while climbing, to ensure efficiency and proper technique — she described how Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape to freedom without “making a sound.” All of them know that story, she said. Creating an intentional space for fledgling climbers has been personally liberating for Taylor: “These girls can walk in (the climbing gym) and can see somebody that looks like them.”Jessica Kutz, editorial fellow

Michael A. Estrada is a Salvadoran-American photojournalist and artist. His work falls at the intersection of media, environmental justice, art, and folks of color in nature. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.