American society’s ongoing reckoning with racism and sexism is sparking conversations even among people who, in the past, have often felt removed from these issues. Small towns, rural areas and niche groups are reflecting on their cultures through the lens of equality. Now, rock climbers are taking a look at a part of their culture that many report has long been hurtful and embarrassing: how to address offensive and crude climbing route names.
The vast majority of climbing route names are lighthearted, but many are vulgar, profane or demeaning to a specific marginalized group.
Objectionable climbing route names range from terms you might not want to hear your 10-year-old say to deeply offensive names that bring up painful issues of racism, sexism or homophobia.
“I am so glad this is finally happening,” said Steph Davis, a Moab local and world-renowned outdoor athlete, of the push to change offensive climbing route names. “I’ve always found these types of names just generally annoying, and not what climbing should be about.
“I love that it’s coming to our community,” agreed Herb Crimp, outdoor athlete and owner of local guide company Desert Highlights. “Because we like to think that we’re isolated from it, but we’re not at all.”
High On Moab, a popular local guidebook to Moab rock climbing areas, includes route names with racial and sexual connotations like Black Sambo, Driving While Asian, and Czechoslovakian Vagina amongst others.
“We haven’t dealt with it because we chose not to look at it,” said Crimp of the issue of prejudice embedded in climbing culture. “Now, mainly through social media, it’s just becoming impossible to look away.”
“I don’t see any reason why people shouldn’t just change the names,” said Sam Newman, a Moab local who’s been climbing for about 10 years.
“Changing the name doesn’t affect the quality of the climbing at all,” said Newman, “so it seems like an easy ethical decision. If I feel uncomfortable, as a person who most of these route names aren’t referring to specifically, I imagine it makes people who are part of those groups feel extremely uncomfortable and not included.”
“For me, when there are female anatomical parts in the name, then I cringe and I don’t use it--especially the ‘p-word,’” said Rachel Nelson, president of the Friends of Indian Creek, a local climbing advocacy group.
“Ones that are offensive to my group, women, I often don’t use the name of the route,” she said, “and I’ve started to think about that... I’ve been doing that unconsciously.”
How do routes get named?
In rock climbing, route names are both a practical tool to distinguish and talk about a specific location and often an opportunity to show creativity and humor.
In general, the first person to climb a specific route, known as the ‘first ascensionist,’ has the privilege of giving it a name.
Establishing a new rock climbing route can be a lot of work and expense. The climbing community has long honored first ascensionists by deferring to their route names and their decisions on how to climb it.
Crimp has been climbing in the Moab area for about 15 years and has established between 40 and 50 routes in the Moab area over that time.
“I’d like to think that if somebody took offense to a route name [of mine], I wouldn’t have a problem with changing it,” he said of his lines, which include names like Midnight Frightening, Flank Steak and Fin del Mundo. “I’d chalk it up to not having thought about if it would be offensive to somebody else.”
“I’m not huge into censorship,” said Jonny Jew, who’s been climbing for about 10 years and a Moab local for three. Jew thinks that if the climbing community wants a name changed, they should first ask the first ascensionist to come up with a new moniker.
“That way, we honor the part of the first ascensionist, and we honor the ability to grow,” said Jew.
However, many climbers are fed up with the notion that a “first ascent” means a person has no obligation to choose a respectful route name.
“I think it’s carelessness,” said Newman of the reason climbers sometimes choose offensive names, “but I think it becomes malicious when it’s a hill that you’re going to die on.”
“It costs you nothing to agree to change your route name. You’re still going to get an ‘FA’ [first ascent] credit, if that’s something you care about,” said Newman.
“I've never subscribed to the old climbing attitude that the first person who climbs a certain piece of rock now somehow owns it forever,” said Davis. “I much prefer the modern attitude that the routes belong to everyone, and if things were done poorly the first time (bad bolt placements, bad name, bad anchors), they should be corrected in order to make the route better for the community who uses it.”
Crimp noted that if the climbing culture is unwilling to change to be more inclusive, it will be a loss for them.
“We might be missing out attracting really talented climbers from different backgrounds,” he said, by making climbing an unwelcoming sport for people who aren’t straight, white males.
How to proceed
Even if the climbing community at large agrees they don’t want to keep these ugly names, the process of changing them remains to be established.
The Mountain Project, a popular climbing forum and route catalog, added a flagging feature on July 1 which allows anyone to choose a “flag discriminatory route name” option from a drop-down menu on the route’s info page. It’s unclear how the site managers will use this information.
Local climbers say guidebook authors and publishers will have a significant role to play by refusing to publish names that are offensive. They also say individual climbers can do their part by referring to routes by new, non-offensive names and spreading that habit.
While some route names may be debatable, many agree that the community can start by eradicating clearly unacceptable names.
“Should we have names that are racist? No. Those can just go away. Just get rid of those,” said Nelson.
She compared the discussion to a controversy in recent years over a local geographic feature, formerly known as “Negro Bill Canyon” in reference to William Grandstaff, a local cowboy in the 1870s. She remembers visitors coming to town and being surprised and uncomfortable with the canyon’s old name. It was formally changed to Grandstaff Canyon in 2017.
“People wanted to hold on to that name because it was this historical name and that’s what they’d grown up calling it,” said Nelson. “But actually, in the ‘80s, it was called ‘N-word’ Bill Canyon,” she said, referring to a slur for Black people.
Nelson taught map-making courses for Utah State University for 10 years, and she impressed on her students, “You can’t hold on to place names. They change and evolve, they always change.”
“It’s hard to know the right way to deal with it, but ignoring it is certainly not the way to deal with it,” said Crimp of the issue.
“That’s a common knee-jerk reaction, that you don’t want it to change,” said Crimp, admitting that he himself had an anti-change reflex to the idea of renaming routes at first.
“But if you dig into it, it’s hard to support that.”
Nelson said the recent furor over route names has prompted her to think about the issue more deeply. In recognizing her own discomfort with route names targeting women, she recognized the validity of other groups’ discomfort.
“Appreciate what makes you feel uncomfortable, and if other people say it makes them uncomfortable, respect that and have some empathy,” she advises the climbing community.