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Why Eddie Taylor Doesn’t Care About Being the First Black Climber to Free Moonlight Buttress

Eddie Taylor, a member of the Full Circle Expedition, just became the first black climber to free a Zion classic, Moonlight Buttress.

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Eddie Taylor wouldn’t take the title as the first black man to free Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park. Taylor wouldn’t take the title as the first black man to climb The Nose in a day on Yosemite’s El Capitan, either. Despite scouring the internet, climbing forums, and calling up historians of the sport, no one could verify whether anyone else had done it before Taylor. Many believe Taylor is the first black man to do those things, but it didn’t matter to Taylor because the only titles he likes to keep are teacher, coach, and climber. 

Moonlight Buttress, a Grade V climb with five pitches of 5.12 and higher, was first freed three decades earlier by Peter Croft and Johnny Woodward. It once stood as the most popular aid climb in Zion, and it now stands as a just as popular free climb. Moonlight Buttress runs up a massive, rising swath of sandstone under the sweeping Zion sky. For many, it is worth a lifetime of dreaming. 

“Eddie is known for his smash and grab style,” said Kate Kelleghan, a Front Range climber and Taylor’s partner on Moonlight Buttress

“What do you mean?” 

Moonlight wasn’t the plan. It was plan B,” said Kelleghan. 

Eddie Taylor and Kate Kelleghan walking from the bus stop, past the enormous sandstone walls, to Moonlight Buttress. (Photo: James Lucas)

The pair had their eyes set on climbing in Yosemite, but the arrival of rainstorms thwarted their plans. So they turned their attention east where the weather cooperated. Taylor and Kelleghan arrived in Springdale ladened with gear, ropes, haul bags, and an extra duffle packed with stoke. They were accompanied by friends James Lucas and Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht, photographers on an assignment for Patagonia to document their adventure or misadventure. Taylor had heard that Moonlight Buttress was an excellent introductory project for those willing to dive deeper into the realm of big wall free climbing. 

“What was the weather like on day one,” I asked.

“Good,” said Taylor.

Taylor is not an overthinker. He speaks like a narrator for BBC’s Planet Earth, and he approaches discussion candidly and pragmatically with zero flare or exaggeration. I asked him what kind of gear he brought, “a list James suggested,” Taylor replied. Lucas had climbed Moonlight Buttress before. I asked him if he was nervous, “no,” he replied. I asked him if he was stressed about the kind of shoes to wear, “not really,” he replied, “TC Pros felt like a safe bet.” 

Taylor and Kelleghan cruised through the approach pitches before coming upon the famous rocker blocker, the first of the crux pitches. The rocker blocker is a mini-fridged-sized boulder perched atop a flake that detaches from the main wall. What was once a source of anxiety for climbers past, when it used to tetter back and forth, threatening to peel off the wall, it is now tethered to the wall with a foot of stainless steel chain. Taylor describes the precarious block in the same pragmatic way you would list off the elements of a periodic table. 

“What now?” 

“You jump off the block to two half-pad edges,” said Taylor, grinning. “Well, I need to clarify that I didn’t have to jump. I’m tall enough to reach the edges. Kate jumped.” 

“Eddie doesn’t jump,” said Kelleghan, one eyebrow raised above her coffee cup. I enlisted Kelleghan’s help when I discovered that Taylor was physically incapable of bragging. Taylor spoke of his big wall ascents like they were your average backyard crag project. 

Eddie Taylor and Kate Kelleghan putting on war tape on the Rocker Blocker at the base of pitch five to prep for 600 feet of 5.12 crack climbing (Photo: James Lucas)

People often assumed that athletes like Taylor would train full-time. Taylor is a high school chemistry teacher. The pandemic had relegated his job to a Zoom screen. It takes an emotional toll. One in three teachers in the US is considering quitting. When I asked him how hard he thought Moonlight Buttress was compared to his other ascents, Taylor replied that teaching chemistry to a class of high schoolers who refuse to turn their webcams on was harder. 

Taylor reached the edges, Kelleghan jumped to them, and the pair proceeded onto the next hard pitch, a battle of endless laybacking and endurance. “No send,” said Taylor, “we barely got to the anchor.” 

Out of daylight and energy, the pair bailed off the wall and returned to camp feeling defeated. In a somber conversation over dinner, both Taylor and Kelleghan doubted aloud whether they had any chance of success. “The negative attitude was a little out of character for both of us,” said Kelleghan. Shutdown by the first hard pitches, they knew harder pitches were still ahead of them. Neither of them trained for sandstone finger cracks. Everything they trained for was in preparation for Freerider. Lucas suggested the pair rap in and suss out the other pitches before throwing in the towel. Almost reluctantly, they agreed. 

“And?” 

“Same story, no send. It didn’t feel possible,” Taylor replied.

Isn’t that the age-old story of climbers and mountaineers? The impossible objective made possible. On the third day, Lucas suggested they give it a ground-up attempt. It seems like Lucas’ optimism helped, because the pair went for it again. 

“And you sent?”

“No! We were done with Moonlight.” 

The next day, Anna Taylor flew in to join the merry little crew. Together, the Taylors went on a rampage of nearby moderates, Moonlight Buttress entirely forgotten. Kelleghan said the group dynamics had a notable shift with Anna’s arrival, “The house was cleaner, more polite. Did she say something to Eddie? Because suddenly, he was ready to try Moonlight again.” 

“And you sent?” 

Taylor grinned wide and nodded. 

Eddie Taylor punching through thin 5.12- fingers off the rest ledge on pitch 8 of Moonlight Buttress. (Photo: James Lucas)

We sat together in front of the campus board at The Spot climbing gym in Louisville, Colorado. My notebook on my lap and a recorder between us. I asked Taylor how he felt about his success. “It was great having Anna down there,” he said, “James was instrumental in helping us do this. Kate is an amazing partner, and she freed Moonlight the weekend after me.” Incapable of bragging. 

We switched topics to Taylor’s next big objective, the Full Circle Expedition to climb Mount Everest. Taylor doesn’t look like your average big wall climber, he doesn’t look like your average Everest climber, or your average climber for that matter. The last few years have seen a shift in the industry to create more equitable access to the sport. Taylor is here for that, even if it is just quietly climbing his climbs and coaching a youth track and field team.

“A lot of people make assumptions,” said Taylor. “Are you here for a diversity initiative? No sir, I’m just here to climb. There is a place for social justice, but today, I’m just here to climb. Whether I’m the first Black person to free Moonlight Buttress is not something I care about. I do care about representation. Someone who looks like me will see me. That matters.”