There are overachievers, and then there is Taylor Justice. The 12-year-old skier/climber/straight-A student started shredding double-black diamond chutes when she was eight. Three years later, she joined the Junior Ski Patrol at Aspen’s Buttermilk Mountain. Earlier this year, she rescued a man who’d fallen 30 feet into a ravine on Peru’s Inca Trail, fashioned splints for his broken wrists out of cardboard boxes, and helped him to safety. And later this month, she’ll climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money and awareness for critically endangered black rhinos.
It’s enough to give even the most accomplished adventurer a serious complex.
Taylor, who’s in seventh grade, lives most of the year in Middleburg, Virginia, a tony, horsey outpost in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But come ski season and summer, she and her family decamp to Aspen, where Taylor learned to ski when she was two. She was hiking by four and made her first ascent of Aspen Mountain when she was six. Now she’s plotting her Kili climb, and eyeballing Colorado’s 14ers, peaks in Chile, and as she says, “One day Everest!”
“Taylor is just a born athlete,” says her mother, Whitney Justice. “She started climbing as a baby on my back, and picked up skiing instantly. Then one day we were getting off the chairlift and Taylor saw the ski patrol shack. She said, 'Mom, I want to work there some day.' I told her to march right in and ask if there was anything she could do to help out. The patrollers took her under their wing and I lost my ski buddy!"
Late this month, Taylor will join Climb for Conservation, a group of 12 female climbers, on an ascent of 19,341-foot Kilimanjaro. The group, nicknamed the Green Girls, was founded in 2010 by Ginna Kelly, an Aspen-based environmental lawyer, eco-model, and TV host. “I saw all my friends travel around the world to hike and ski, and I thought, Why not climb for a good cause?" explains Kelly. "Why not climb for more than just a selfish pursuit to conquer the mountain?” The Green Girls are an eclectic bunch, including ice scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center Julienne Stroeve and eco blogger Vanessa Meier, creator of the "Green Girl Next Door." Mariel Hemingway, actor, activist, and granddaughter of Ernest, was on the roster, too, but had to withdraw to work on a film.
Kilimanjaro is the group’s kick-off climb, and each climber will pay her own way and raise $10,000 for the cause. Except Taylor. She’s committed to raising $19,341—a dollar per foot of the mountain’s elevation—to protect the black rhino, which lives just outside the park. Listed as critically endangered, the rhino numbers around 4,000 in sub-Saharan Africa, with poaching at a 15-year high. “The elephants have gotten a lot of attention recently,” says Kelly, “but the rhinos, not so much. We want the world to know that in 13 years the rhino may be extinct in the wild due to poaching.”
The money raised by Climb for Conservation will help rebuild fence posts at the Mkomazi Rhino Sanctuary and fund Rafiki wa Faru, an educational initiative for school-aged African children that teaches the importance of wildlife and environmental conservation. More than 1,000 children from 35 schools have gone through the program. An Outside Television crew will film the climb for an educational documentary.
It’s a great cause, but one can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t add up to too much for a 12-year-old girl in middle school. No one was more skeptical at first than Taylor’s own mom. Says Whitney: “I do not push Taylor. In fact I told her doing Kili at 12 and missing school was too much. I said no to the trip. She begged me until I gave in. When things start piling up for her, I take her cell phone away. Teenage texting is time consuming!”
As for Taylor, she seems content to juggle it all. “I’m lucky to have a school principal who is supportive of my climbing. He has really helped to structure my schoolwork so I can stay current and do my climbs,” says Taylor. So what does have her worried? “Altitude. It will be my only enemy.”