“Oppressive route names should have no place in our sport,” Evan Hau told me via email earlier this month. Hau, of Calgary, Alberta, is Canada’s top sport climber, having recently become the first in his country to climb 5.15.
As a second-generation Chinese Canadian, he’s also an active proponent of changing offensive names in climbing — a topic I first wrote about in July, as the issueexploded online.
Climbing is awash with racist, sexist, homophobic and otherwise derogatory monikers for boulders, routes, cliffs and mountains. As tradition dictates, most of these names were coined by the first ascensionists: mainly young, white guys who climbed the feature first. For many decades, diversity in climbing barely existed; insulting nomenclature lurked largely unchallenged.
Until this year.
Not only has climbing evolved to become more diverse, the voices of dissent are growing louder.
What began as a seemingly niche argument about renaming routes, with emotional opinions on either side, quickly became the heart of a much broader question: is it worth rewriting a fragment of climbing history in order to become more inclusive of women and marginalized groups?
“It’s really been this unique moment of exponential growth, nationwide, in climbing pivoting towards valuing under-represented groups,” said Christa Melde, a co-founder of the Arizona Women’s Climbing Coalition (AZWCC). Melde is a key activist in the movement to change discriminatory climbing names in Arizona and beyond.
Some of the routes Hau wants renamed are at the so-called White Imperialist sector of a crag in Alberta’s Bow Valley, laden with anti-Chinese names.
“I do believe the original names had some well-intentioned logic to them 30 years ago when they were named,” Hau emailed. “However, times are different now and we should adapt.”
One route, Yellow Peril, is a “racial color metaphor that represents the people of East Asia as an existential danger to the Western world,” Hau said.
Another, No Tickee No Laundry, is a “racist phrase used to ridicule the difficulty Chinese laundry workers had in pronouncing English words. It creates a caricature of the Chinese immigrant. Many Chinese immigrants made their living in laundromats and would ask for the receipt in order to return a customer’s laundry.”
One argument against changing some offensive names is that they may have innocent backstories. For example, Another Nigga in the Morgue (established and named by a Black climber) is a boulder problem in Hueco Tanks, Texas. As Corey Buhay writes in a recent Climbing Magazine article, its meaning isn’t racist like it sounds. Rather, it was named after innocuous circumstances surrounding the first ascent.
The problem is, few will ever know the original meaning of most names which, many argue, renders that meaning irrelevant.
“So you have the topic of intent over impact or impact over intent,” said Melde.
In Phoenix, where she lives, there’s a route called Date Rape, named after the Sublime song. The AZWCC approached the route developer and asked if he would change it.
“In a perfect word, all name changes would happen by those that first named the route, wall, or area,” said Louie Anderson, a route developer and guidebook author in Wyoming who was among the first to rename routes and crags in the U.S.
“So far, no developers I have spoken to have been resistant to changes,” he said.
Melde echoed that good news after speaking with the first ascensionist of Date Rape.
“He said, ‘I absolutely see how that could be taken in a bad way. I was in my 20s when I bolted that route. I loved Sublime at the time. Now I have three daughters and I couldn’t imagine being a rape survivor climbing a route named Date Rape and having a good time. Let’s rename it.’”
Like it or not, the issue of offensive names has implications for the entire sport and culture of climbing as it moves forward with exponential growth. To me, and to many others, changing offensive route names is an obvious and necessary step toward positive change and diversity.
“Changing route names is just one piece of a larger puzzle to make climbing more inclusive,” said Melde. “And now’s the time to do it.”
Contact Chris Weidner at email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8