Meet Shoestring Warrior and Climber Chelsea Griffie

Photo by Greg Epperson

Have you ever set out to be the first at something and reached that goal? Have you ever done something for the sake of doing it, because you wanted to at the time, and then realized you were the first person to do it? Meet Shoestring Warrior and climber Chelsea Griffie who also happens to be the first Black female to ascend El Capitan in Yosemite! “The Nose” (El Capitan) was first climbed in 1958 by Warren Harding. Due to the small number of Black female climbers, it wasn’t until 2001 that Chelsea became the first Black female to climb it!

It was not a goal. I just Googled it and found someone else claiming to be the first two years after me. I did not realize you needed to go online & brag about it.

Chelsea continues to inspire outdoor enthusiasts of all ages and has spent many years working within organizations that enable and support youth to experience the outdoors. Keep reading to learn about Chelsea and some of her favorite organizations working to get youth outdoors!

Shoestring Warrior: Chelsea Griffie


Oakland, CA

Current Location:

Pasadena, CA


I’m between gigs now, just working as a Postmate. Postmates is kind of like Uber Eats. When I move back to Oakland in a week, I am looking at getting into nursing.

What are your passions outside of work?

Rock climbing, hiking, bicycling

Tell us about yourself!

Wow. That is so broad, I’m not sure where to begin… What do you want to know? I am cafe au lait colored. I am Afro-American, Puerto Rican, Native American, and some other stuff. I am 50 years old. I went to college at UC Berkeley…

How would you describe your level of camping experience?

I used to teach camping and backpacking.

When did you first discover your love for the outdoors?

At age 27. Once I started climbing, and it was so long ago, there were few climbing gyms. I started camping to be near climbing places, like Joshua Tree and the spots near Idylwild, CA. I eventually went on a several day trip to the Gorge of Despair in King’s Canyon National Park. We put up a first ascent there called Despairados.

You’re an avid climber, what do you enjoy most about climbing?

Climbing has a physical side, but there is also a problem-solving side. It is a great combination for me. Also, I used to study gymnastics, and that works out really well for climbing. You practice body awareness constantly as a gymnast.

Also, some of the best gymnasts and climbers are short.

I think that part of that is that we often cannot just reach through to the best holds, as you might do if you were taller. So, we get plenty of practice with crappy holds.

In 2001 you became the first Afro-American to climb El Capitan in Yosemite. What does that accomplishment mean to you?  

It was not a goal. I just Googled it and found someone else claiming to be the first two years after me. I did not realize you needed to go online & brag about it. Also, the first time El Capitan was climbed was in 1958. But, there are so few Black climbers and female climbers, I got the first Black female ascent in 2001.

I also led the only Woman of Color backpacking trip through the Balanced Rock Foundation in Yosemite for 13 years. When they first asked me to lead it, I worried that I was not “of color enough”. Turns out that I am.

Tell us about the work you’re doing to encourage and enable children of color to experience the outdoors.  

I was the Program Director at Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT) and the Founder and Executive Director of Los Angeles Wilderness Training (LAWT) for 7 years (LAWT is now defunct). They both provided training and gear libraries. Training graduates could borrow the gear to lead the kids they worked with outdoors.

What are some of your favorite organizations and people working to diversify the outdoors?

Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT) – Supports youth workers and teachers with gear, training, funding, and community with a focus on getting youth outside.

A Place Called Home – Provides children from South Central Los Angeles ages 8-21 enrichment, training, safety, and opportunities through educational programs, counseling and mentorship.

Los Angeles Rooted – A grassroots collective made up of People of Color that are Queer, Trans or Womyn-identified. Los Angeles Rooted seeks to build healthy connections within the community through bike tours, summer youth programs, and community healing activities.

WYLD – Wylderness Youth Leadership Diversity – Aims to connect veterans and youth to alternative paths. WYLD emphasizes experiential education, mentorship, service-learning, and cross-cultural connections.

(They all used to borrow LAWT Gear, and took our trainings)

What advice do have for people on finding their adventure community?  

Approach it like you would approach anything new, and be ready for surprises.

Also, find people who have been doing it for awhile, and figure out how to befriend them.

Funniest outdoor experience/mishap?

In general, there were always more men climbing than women. I totally used that to my advantage, dating guys who eventually became climbing partners.

For a specific experience, I would have to go with when I lived in Yosemite, I would do the 4 mile Trail to Glacier Point, then hike to Sentinel Dome. I worked for a company that did a guided hike to Sentinel Dome, so I knew I would get a meal and a ride back. I decided to take a short cut.

Turns out that “meat bees” nest in the ground, and I walked right through a bunch of them.

I got stung around the crotch about 5 times and their bites are serious. Like, they were sore for about 4 days. I would not recommend that. I rarely take short cuts now.

Where’s your next adventure?

Well, I am planning on moving back to Oakland in a week. That is a different kind of adventure. My husband owns a home there. A “tenant” did not pay rent for 6 months, and trashed the place when they were evicted. It’s fixed up now, and we are going up to live there. Anyway, I will be closer to Yosemite, so I will go there, and Point Reyes.

The perfect s’more? (if you don’t like s’mores, what’s your favorite campfire dessert?)  

I am not a s’more fan, because I am gluten free, and graham crackers are not, and I have also seen GF marshmallows. I would just go with dark chocolate and strawberries.

Photos © 2018 Chelsea Griffie

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