09/10/2020

Why Route Names Matter

Categories: Community

Climbing has a long, quirky, sometimes hilarious, and often vulgar history of naming routes. Inside jokes, digs at other climbers, shock-value verbiage, and linguistically creative ways of sticking it to the man are the norm—all reflective of the counterculture spirit that has long been emblematic of the climbing world. Many climbers still celebrate this independent ethos as a means of keeping that counterculture experience alive and setting the climbing world apart from other sports. But our community has been asking some tough questions around the route-naming legacy.

City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho. Shoshone-Bannock+ lands. | © Nikki Smith

Is it possible to take names too far? Can some names damage the climbing experience? Should the community do something about it, or is that a slippery slope toward censorship that runs contrary to the spirit of climbing? Does the first ascensionist have a right to name a route whatever they want, or is it ultimately up to community consensus?

How Route Names Can Hurt Individual Climbers

What is sometimes lost in these endless online debates, is why and how route names can hurt individual climbers and impact their experience at the crag—just as much as a dangerous runout or uneven landing. We’d like to share some of those stories, in hopes of facilitating discussion and reflection on route names.

Ashleigh Thompson’s Story

Climber, Ph. D Student, Red Lake Ojibwe, She/Hers

The first time I realized route names could hurt was when I discovered a route called “Trail of Tears” featured on the Mountain Project home page. The Trail of Tears was one of the most egregious acts against Native Americans in United States history. Thousands of Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek people were forcibly removed from their homelands and marched west of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory at the hands of the U.S. government. As a result, thousands of Indigenous people lost their lives. To see a route named after this atrocious event displays ignorance, apathy, racism, or a combination of all three. Think about it this way: Would naming a route in Red Rocks “Las Vegas Shooting 2017” be acceptable?

I was also appalled to come across a route called “Squaws in Heat.” Squaw is a derogatory term for an Indigenous woman. This name debases Indigenous women as nonhuman and is not only offensive but perpetuates violence against a population of women who already face the highest rates of violence in North America. Indigenous women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average, and 84% of Native women face violence in their lifetimes.

These route names—and the acceptance of them by the climbing community—are hurtful and dangerous, but unfortunately unsurprising. After climbing for more than four years now, I have noticed that cultural misappropriation, cultural insensitivity, and racism is more prevalent in the climbing community than I first realized. Upholding violence against Indigenous people through route names is just one example of racism in the outdoor recreation community. I would hope that, in the future, climbers can use forethought, intelligence, and compassion in route-naming.

© Nikki Smith

Lor Sabourin’s Story

Climber, Guide, He/Them

Last year I was guiding a group of college climbers in Joshua Tree National Park at Dihedral Rock. There is a route named “Thin Line” on the right side of the wall. On Mountain Project, it is named “Thin Line (Limp Wristed Faggot).” The students had learned about Mountain Project earlier in the trip and often consulted it throughout the day. That day, when they saw the route name, they immediately began using it and calling each other “limp-wristed faggots.” I did my best to stop them, but the damage was done. The route name had given them permission to use hateful language in a joking way. As a queer guide, this made my work environment feel toxic and made it much harder to teach the skills that they needed throughout that day. Holding onto that route name for “historical value” allowed a future generation of climbers to learn that the climbing community tolerates hateful language and behavior. Getting rid of those names sends a powerful message about the type of climbing community that we want to have in the future—one that is welcoming to folks from any background.

© Nikki Smith

Irene Yee’s Story

Climber, Photographer (@Ladylockoff), She/Her

I was climbing in Tennessee with a friend, when a man came up and started helping us distinguish the routes in the area. He began listing them off, and I was stopped in my tracks by some of the racist and problematic names. Though I have always believed these sorts of route names should be addressed and changed, that moment solidified something for me. As we keep these names around, it allows these words to not only proliferate but to be used in a casual sense. The man did not even give pause as he said the words like it was his laundry list. There are so many reasons why it’s important to create these changes within our community, and we have a chance to contribute to the dismantling of a power structure that continuously chooses to oppress groups because of race, sex, and sexual orientation. We can make sure words and concepts that should have died out with a previous generation do not have a chance to proliferate.

What You Can Do to Help

Although blatantly bigoted or cruel route names may be an easy call for revision, many route names fall into a gray area. But there is a line—there is no place for racism, misogyny, homophobia, or other forms of bigotry within our community. And if we want to build a climbing community that is truly welcoming to all, then it is up to all of us to have tough conversations within our local communities. Route names are just one part of a much larger journey toward an inclusive climbing community—but they matter. We hope you’ll engage in these conversations, giving your fellow climbers the benefit of the doubt and assuming good faith.

Identifying Harmful Route Names

As you think about route names through a lens of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, here are some questions to guide your thinking and conversations:

  • Reflect on a given name: does it seem like a G-, R-, or X-rated name? Does it go beyond humor or grossness, and instead dip into the realm of racism, homophobia, or misogyny, like the use of slurs and other forms of hate speech, or references to historical trauma?
  • Is the route name just generally provocative, or does it have a specific target, singling out a particular group of people? What is the effect, intentional or not, of this targeting? Does the name associate violence, degradation, or other forms of mistreatment with this group?
  • Was the route named in an earlier era, perhaps innocuous when first named but now considered outdated (i.e., the perception of the language has changed over time)? Can the language be updated to reflect the original intent of the name using modern phrasing?
  • Has the route name caught the attention of land managers, landowners, or other nonclimbing local-community members? Is it contributing to negative perceptions of climbers among those groups?
  • What if a route name that could be hurtful to a specific group of people was actually named by someone from that group? Does being from the same group as the one targeted by the route name give a person the right to use potentially hurtful language?

Moving Forward Together

We can maintain climbing’s counterculture roots and celebrate our independent spirit without using language that harms fellow climbers. Our legacy as climbers does not need to include cruel, bigoted, or biased route names—however unintentional that harm may have been. The words we use hold the power to hurt people or to lift them up. Let’s do the work to correct this harmful language and create a just future for the sport we love. Access Fund is here to support our fellow climbers as we push forward in this work together.

Many of the route names referenced in this article have since been redacted by Mountain Project, along with 700 other routes names that have been deemed problematic. Mountain Project has stated that it is in the process of implementing further changes and route flagging technology across the site.

Want to continue the discussion? Reach out to [email protected] with thoughts and questions.

Credit Photo Courtesy of:
Kennan Harvey

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