The first Canadian mountain I ever climbed is an attractive, rocky peak just southwest of Canmore, Alberta — a long day’s drive from Seattle, where I lived back in 1995.
In our 1979 edition of the Rocky Mountains guidebook, the mountain was called Chinaman Peak. Dallas Kloke and I climbed its moderate northeast face, giving no thought to its name.
When Kloke and I returned to Canmore two years later, we were surprised to learn that Chinaman Peak had officially been renamed: Ha Ling Peak. Knowing nothing of its history, I recall a vague feeling of resistance referring to the mountain by its new name. After all, what was wrong with “Chinaman Peak,” my first summit in Canada?
Twenty-three years later, I recognize my ignorance: the old name was racist, and it needed to be changed.
In a recent article by Brandon Pullan on gripped.com, I learned that Ha Ling was a Chinese cook for the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1896 he had won a 50-dollar wager that he couldn’t climb to the top in fewer than 10 hours. He reportedly left at 7 a.m. and was back in time for lunch.
Climbing culture is saturated with racist and colonialist names for mountains, trails, and individual climbs. What I realize now is that the renaming of Chinaman Peak in 1997 was a forward-thinking act, yet one that should have happened much earlier.
The issue of racist names in climbing — as well as sexist, white supremacist, misogynistic, homophobic, vulgar and other offensive monikers — has recently come to the forefront of online platforms. Comments sections are packed with intense debate and outright contempt, even among people seemingly on the same side of the issue.
Andrew Bisharat, a columnist for Rock and Ice magazine, published an article on June 25 supporting the effort to change offensive route names. However, he was harshly accused of missing the mark for several reasons, a crucial one being his failure to specifically mention racism in route names. The magazine itself was criticized for not having a person of color write the article, among other things, which ultimately led to the stepping-down of longtime Rock and Ice Publisher and Editor-In-Chief, Duane Raleigh.
The good news is, pretty much everyone agrees that renaming racist route names is a no-brainer. In the popular sport climbing area Ten Sleep, Wyoming, guidebook author Louie Anderson has officially renamed several long-established features and routes. What was once the Slavery Wall is now called Downpour Wall, Happiness in Slavery is now Happiness, and Aunt Jemima’s Bisquick Thunderdome has become Bisquick Thunderdome. These changes, and others, are a solid first step toward erasing offensive nomenclature.
“Other areas may be seeing a similar trend as route developers and guidebook authors reexamine the role of route names in contributing to inclusivity in climbing,” wrote Corey Buhay on climbing.com. It used the example of Clear Creek Canyon, near Golden, where routes such as Towelhead have been renamed.
It’s worth noting the substantial difference between racist/sexist names that disparage specific people versus vulgar names that, while reflecting poor taste and/or immaturity, aren’t necessarily directed at anyone in particular.
In an Instagram post on June 28, Nina Williams, a professional climber in Boulder, suggests, “Keep the vulgar names and toss the names that are historically violent and exclusive against entire communities of people. How do we draw that line? Imperfectly. But it must be drawn.”
Gripped magazine is compiling a list of offensive route names across Canada and soliciting opinions from guidebook authors in a massive renaming effort, according to Canadian website globalnews.ca. So far in the U.S., many local climbers and guidebook authors nationwide are leading the charge to reevaluate climbing nomenclature in their own regions.
“Climbing was once a playground for juvenile misfits — an underground, counter-culture for mostly white, dirt-bag dudes,” wrote Bonnie de Bruijn last July on gripped.com, alluding to the homogeneous backstory of many route names. “Climbing is far more diverse now.”
And with diversity comes growth, and with growth, responsibility. It’s the pioneers and first ascensionists who label their climbs, and it’s time for them to use that privilege with integrity and respect.
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8