It was a typical hot Virginia morning when I drove up to the Nystrom’s house to pick up my friend Jordan and her little sister for our new summer job working at an outdoor day camp in downtown Richmond. Jordan and I chatted about our weekend plans, camp gossip and boys, like typical teenage girls do, as all three of us loaded into my old VW ragtop. Jordan’s sister was quiet and reserved and sat in the backseat observing the two of us and the world around her with quiet interest. This was my first clear memory and impression of Taylor: Young, quiet, observant and, if anything, reserved.
I went away to school after that summer and didn’t return back home for a few years. When I finally did come back to Richmond I re-met Taylor at the climbing gym where I took a job as a coach. She was in high school. A few years older, taller and with boobs. I realized quickly that my initial assessment at summer camp some years back couldn’t have been further from the truth about this human.
It doesn’t matter if its been a few years or a few hours or never, my God is Taylor Nystrom excited to see you. Do you have a person space bubble and a problem being touched? It’s cool, she’ll break you of that in the first 2.5 seconds of seeing her again (you don’t get much of a say in this by the way, just accept it). She gives the best hugs.
Her unabashed nature is strangely disarming. She doesn’t care if you think she’s kind of weird, in a way I think she prefers it because it makes the people around her feel like they can be themselves and at the end of day, she’s right. From her, you will feel no judgement. Ever.
Taylor Lorain Nystrom gives ZERO fucks. I remember being on a camping trip with her some years back at the New River Gorge. We were packing up camp and I mentioned that the fire wasn’t entirely out and someone should throw some water on it. I turned back around to see Taylor squatting over the smoldering embers, peeing on it nonchalantly as if it was the most obvious and normal thing to do.
I’ve learned more things about life, love and everything in between from that girl than I could ever manage to fit on paper. She’s the person I call when I feel like my world is falling apart, or I feel messy or “I’ve got the best news ever.” She embraces the highs, the lows and all the mess that makes you human and always has a relatable story that makes you feel like you’re not alone. She also tells you when “it’s time to get your shit together.” But she says it in the way that feels like she’s hugging you when she says it, even if she’s a thousand miles away. You’ll never hang up the phone with Taylor feeling worse than you did when you called her. If you do feel like a turd, she’ll find a way to remind you that you’re actually a badass- you just forgot it for a minute.
That’s what makes Taylor special–the way she makes people around her feel special. Taylor is a great many wonderful things, but for me and I’m sure many others, Taylor is home.
Note about this interview: This interview took place in a bar in Acadia National Park, Maine, after a long day of climbing. It is more of a conversation than a traditional interview. Hope you enjoy our banter as much as we do.
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Occupation: Climbing coach, Mother of Rue the pint-sized Chihuahua, and as of a week ago, middle school Science teacher
Years Climbing: 14
Sasha Turrentine: When did you start rock climbing?
Taylor Nystrom: I started rock climbing when I was 13 years old. I went to a birthday party when I was like 9. And I went to climbing camp when I was 11, and officially started climbing when I was 13.
ST: Meaning you got a gym membership?
ST: Did you have any outdoor experience at that point?
TN: Passages–the summer camp I worked for, had a little outdoor climbing in a quarry. But no nothing else besides that. I didn’t get much outside experience until I was like…17 or 18.
ST: When did you start competing?
TN: I’m a little fuzzy on the dates. I started competing when I was 13 I think. I tried out for the team, at Peak Experiences, and I made it. It was the greatest moment of my life when they called me and invited me to be on the team.
ST: Why did you choose to compete? Why did you like climbing?
TN: For a lot of reasons. I was talking to someone earlier, explaining that…talking about how the first time I ever went climbing. I got on a 5.10 and I did the thing where you kind of like move up a little bit and you’re like, ‘take up the slack! take up the slack!’ I definitely weighted the rope the whole time. Because of that, I wanted to do it without weighting the rope.
The other thing about climbing that was awesome was the community. I know everyone says it. But I was a little weirdo in middle school and didn’t have anybody that I really associated with, and the climbing world was this group of people of all ages that wanted to hang out, and they thought I was cool because I rock climbed, and I thought they were cool because they rock climbed.
Also I’m super competitive.
ST: What did your parents think of your climbing?
TN: Oh man. NOT into it. They liked that it was a good group of people that I was hanging out with, they trusted me and my friends, but my dad is very scared of heights and he was convinced that I was going to hurt myself, especially when I started climbing outside. He hated the fact that I climbed outside. When I was in high school, I got pretty bad Senioritis and wasn’t concentrating on my classes so much. I was also playing Lacrosse. But I quit so I could pursue climbing. And that was when my dad sat me down and was like, ‘Climbing isn’t going to take you anywhere in life. You should continue playing Lacrosse because at least you can continue doing that in college.’ He thought that the reason my grades were slipping was because of my climbing friends. I got grounded a lot during that time, and my grounding was that I would get grounded from climbing practice.
ST: I wonder if this next generation of climbers or two generations from now won’t relate to this. It’s in the Olympics for 2020. What if it becomes a recognized collegiate sport?
TN: It’s already on its way. In places like Boulder. In New York City too. You see so many more parents investing in their kids’ climbing.
The thing with climbing is that it can be done in such a controlled environment, it does have a lot of potential for people to invest in it just for competition, with very little influence on other outdoor disciplines and forms of climbing. You’re already seeing it happen. There are a lot of really, really strong kids, and their primary, even sole thing is competition climbing.
ST: What changes do you notice working with these kids in 2016–comparing it to your experience as a competition climber back in the day?
TN: There are a lot of changes. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the type of kid you see. It’s the same kind of kid. A kid that maybe has a lot of energy, learns a little differently, maybe interacts with people a little differently. The type of kid that gets into climbing is the same type of kid from when I was younger. But the biggest difference….kids are SO strong now. It’s unbelievable how strong they are.
When I was kid, I know people who would win Nationals flashing a 12b. That was the finals route for 12 years olds at Nationals. Now, at Nationals, the qualifying route for the male Junior was an Open Project. The easiest thing at Qualifiers is probably 12a and that’s for 8 year olds. All of their finals routes are 12d and up.
Let me just preface this by saying–my parents were incredibly supportive. They took me to all my comps, paid for me to be on the climbing team. But they didn’t know anything about climbing.
ST: They weren’t immersed in climbing.
TN: Exactly. They didn’t understand what I was doing. They were on the outside. I have awesome parents–put that in there. But, parents now seem way more invested than when I was younger. The amount of parents ready to pay for their kids to have private lessons, in addition to being on the team–or both parents coming to the competitions–parents taking their kids to climb outside, sending their kids to national camps.
ST: Yeah, national camps? That was not a thing.
TN: Yeah now a lot of gyms offer nationals camps.
ST: Coaching-wise? What differences do you see between the coaching you received versus the coaching you give now?
TN: This generation of coaches, my generation of coaches, we all competed. So we have that experience. A lot of the coaches now have the experience of competing, whereas my coaches—the competition scene didn’t really exist for them when they were my age, so that’s a big difference. A lot of the coaches now are experienced comp climbers. Teams are a lot bigger now too. So there’s less closeness than what I remember from my team, by virtue of size. There’s more levels of programs.
ST: When did you stop competing?
TN: When I was 18. I’ll still compete every so often. When I stopped competing seriously, I was probably 21.
ST: What was the transition for you from indoor to outdoor climbing? Was it a conscious choice? Did it happen naturally?
TN: I still feel very much involved in competition climbing and culture. I think now rather than me wanting to make myself stronger and investing in myself in competition, I’m more invested in how my kids are doing in competition. Invested in their goals. But honestly I still feel very motivated to push myself. I’ve always wanted to climb hard stuff outside. i still have a lot of projects that have been projects for years. I don’t think my relationship to climbing has changed that much honestly. If I can get it together and not get injured, I’d love to do route nationals this year. I still feel really motivated and goal-oriented in climbing. I still want to train and try to climb and push past plateaus. I think the best is yet to come. I don’t think I’m the strongest that I’ll ever be. There’s this Russian climber called Olga Bibik. And she was winning World Cups when she was 30 soooo….that’s what I’m going for. Laughs.
Tokyo 2020. Anyway. Wow. I’ll be exactly 30 in 2020. Dry Heaves.
ST: Ok, 30 isn’t that bad. Don’t puke in your mouth.
TN: Sorry, that was the poutots.
ST: —in case you’re wondering folks—we’re eating poutine with tater tots-they call ‘em Poutots. A special over here at Dog and Pony Tavern in Acadia. Moving on. Tell me about trad climbing. How’d you get into trad? Why you pluggin widgets?
TN: I think that honestly trad was a relationship of circumstance. I’ve always lived within driving distance of a good sport crag—
Wonderwall starts playing in the background, Taylor stops to sing along.
—-and then when I moved to New York City, I didn’t want to lose touch with climbing, and the last thing I wanted also was to become a gym rat. And it just so happened that the closest climbing in all directions is trad climbing.
I also think that when you start climbing in a gym, your scope is way smaller. You see what’s going on in the gym–as you’re in the game for longer, your view of what is possible and what there is to do gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Trad climbing opens up so many more opportunities and rock climbs. More adventure. Great views! Laughs.
ST: What are some adventures that you have in the back of your mind? What are you scheming? You said you have projects. In the next year, what are things you want to get after?
TN: You mean…what am I lusting after? Honestly. Trad climbing is cool but sport climbing is my first love. So big trips that I want to do are sport trips. One thing I really want to do that I’ve never done is spend a solid month at the New. I’ve always gone there for max a week and a half at a time. I’d like to go spend a solid month there. It’s. So. Good.
I’d like to go back to Europe. I want to crack climb.
ST: If you could pack up right now, nothing holding you back, and you had 3 months, where would you go?
Our server comes by.
‘–You guys done with those poutots?
ST: Please. Take them away.
TN: Too many poutots.
We laugh, then pause.
TN: Fun fact: the New River Gorge is one of the, maybe the oldest river in America? It’s a really old river. Which is ironic. It also is the only river that flows south to north.
ST: I didn’t ask for trivia. I asked where you wanted to go rock climbing.
TN: If I could pack up and go anywhere for 3 months…South America. I want to sport climb and do big mountains in South America. I’d love to go to Patagonia and do some mountaineering, which I have no experience with so…maybe climb some big mountains in South America and do some sport climbing. South America. That’s my answer.
ST: Sounds great, I’m inviting myself. I was down there for six months after tearing a tendon and retiring from competition climbing. I got really sick in Bolivia, right before we were supposed to head to Patagonia. I have Pata Blue Balls. So I wanna come. Gotta get down there.
ST: What are the qualities you look for in a climbing partner?
TN: Respect. Respect for my process, respect for my climbing, for the way that I climb. I feel confident in the way that I do things. If someone’s going to talk shit on me wearing a helmet climbing a single pitch of trad…that’s not going to work for me. Respect for me and my safety, and their safety. Trust.
ST: —They have to be pretty cool about farting.
TN: Ignores me. They have to be someone that trusts themselves to belay me well, and trusts me to climb in a safe manner. They have to be not that serious. They have to be fun. They have to like female singer-songwriters…which makes you and I an unlikely pair.
They also have to be chill with me peeing really close to them.
–I’m really into putting my feet on the dash while we’re driving. They have to be not weird about sleeping in small closed spaces with me.
ST: I feel attacked.
ST: I’m working on it ok. Baby steps.
TN: –Someone who is ready to bail when it’s time to bail! But someone who is also motivated, and psyched to go out and rock climb.
Respect (puts a finger up)…Trust (sticks a second finger up)…Being okay with me peeing near them. Top three.
Climbing is supposed to be fun. If you’re getting super agro about it, I’m not into that. If I’m belaying someone, and it takes them 4 hours to climb a single pitch because they’re scared out of their mind, that’s cool that they’re working through it, and I’ll be there for that 4 hours, supporting them the whole way. And I want the same from my partner.
ST: —Patience. I will not climb with people who have frantic or impatient energy. Nope.
TN: Yeah that goes with the trust thing.
ST: Climbing is so weird.
TN: Yeah…it’s so awesome though.
Long pause. Blink 182 blasts in the background.
TN: Climbing is a cool really weird thing that opens a lot of opportunities to see the world from a lot of different perspectives that aren’t normally available. And it makes you work for them. Which is awesome. It’s a thing that I’ve been really blessed to have be a part of my life.
ST: You went and hurt yourself this year. Tell us about your injury.
TN: You want to take this somewhere more quiet?
We both laugh.
ST: Sure. I wink.
We move to the car and start the 20 minute drive back to Somes Sound Campground.
ST: So, you hurt yourself.
TN: This winter I hurt myself. I really injured myself. I blew a pully. I haven’t had an injury where I couldn’t climb at all in four or five years. I ended taking a full 4 months off of climbing this year–it was an interesting experience. It was the first time in a while where I recognized how much my identity is wrapped up in climbing. Winter in the city is really hard…so when it’s really cold out, climbing is what I cling to, so not having that was hard. I think I was pushing myself hard without taking time to rest and wasn’t eating that well. I was really stressed out and climbing was my answer to all of the stress. I had put all my eggs in that basket. At the time I was focused entirely on climbing. So that was a weird moment. I lost this thing I had devoted so much of my time and identity to. I didn’t realize how big of a part of my identity it was until it was gone.
ST: Man. I remember the night I tore my tendon while training in San Francisco. I remember driving back to Santa Cruz that night, and just sobbing. Just sobbing, alone in my car, saying, “What am I going to do now?” It was everything to me then. It was the most intense loss I had experienced at that point. I was so young.
TN: The whole time I was injured though, I knew I would be able to go back to it. Climbing is a huge part of who I am. To not have that left me in this weird floating space. But it was a cool opportunity to explore all of these things that I hadn’t had time for before. I started running and biking, I read a lot. I started spending more time thinking about my career. I embraced those things. That was cool. I was still coaching, the climbing community wasn’t going anywhere. I’m so lucky to have that identity and community—I can always go back to it. There are a lot of people that don’t have that. I lost it, and had a chance to really appreciate it.
ST: How is it starting to climb again?
TN: I get in my head. I get self conscious when I’m climbing, and think stupid stuff like, ‘These people aren’t seeing me on a good day.’ I get worried about what people are thinking about how I’m climbing. I feel this need to explain that I’m coming back from an injury. And I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter what people think of my climbing. I’m just reminding myself that everyone gets injured. And that it’s much better to let yourself heal. I don’t have anything to prove.
ST: Let’s go to bed.
TN: You wanna snuggle?