A racial overhaul for climbing routes

Last year, Inside the Appalachians brought you the story of climbers taking racist, sexist, and other offensive road names in West Virginia’s New River Gorge.

Climbers were facing a tight deadline – they wanted these names changed before a new edition of New river rock, the Gorges climbing guide, went to the printer.

The new book went on sale at the end of July. Inside the Appalachians Journalist Zack Harold recently spoke with DJ Grant, a climber who helped start the effort to change the names, to see if the climbers were successful in their efforts.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

For those who may not have heard the first story, can you tell us a little bit about the issues that arose in the New River Gorge climbing community over the past year?

DJ Grant: Last year a group of climbers and I were very unhappy with the names that were in the New River guidebook. Some of the names were racist, misogynist, homophobic, sexist, and just plain offensive. So we contacted NRAC, the New River Alliance of Climbers, to ask if they could fix it. And they were mostly on board to help us fix it.

So once you raised this issue with them, a procedure was created to get these names changed. Can you describe what this process was?

We generally asked people who we thought would be offended by these names. And whenever there was consensus that those names were offensive, we put it on the table. We contacted the early climbers and asked if they were willing to change the names.

He has traditionally been the first person to successfully climb a route – the first ascensionist in the lingo – who was allowed to name the routes. It’s so interesting to me that you gave them the first chance to rename these roads. Because, one, he preserves the legacy of these people. And second, it allows them to right the wrongs they have created by calling these roads offensive things.

So how did it go? Did the first ascensionists agree to change the names?

We have all the names we wanted to change, change. Yes, it was a success.

There are so many areas of our culture where a minority group of people say, “This is offensive. It brings me bad things and I don’t like it. And so many times the other side is so steeped in tradition that it simply refuses to change. And here even the old guard was ready to say, “Okay, I know what you mean, let’s go ahead.”

New issues of “New River Rock” include a message from those who helped petition to change the names of the roads.

They were more willing to help us when we explained to them, “You are not a racist. We understand that times have changed. You help us and your legacy will stay there.

Is there anything in the new guide to let readers know about the work you and others have gone to to remove these offensive names?

There is an excerpt in the book that says what we did and why we did it. It’s just about saying to the next generation, “We had these tough conversations so you don’t have to. We fought for change. Change was not a right. This is something we fought for. This is something we have done for you. This is something we did because we love you.

Have there been any other changes to the guide that make it more inclusive?

This is the best part. Not only have the names been changed, but now there is more representation. There are photos of black and brown climbers. Photos of climbers. There are pictures of not only white, but Asian, black, brown climbers – of all shapes and sizes on the walls. This is no longer a white man’s book. It’s everyone’s book. It is everyone’s sport.

Do you already have your copy?

I have my copies. Yes.

What was that experience of browsing for the first time like?

Honestly, the book was so light because it was free from so much hate. No pain. I cried. Because knowing that we have made significant changes, no other person will feel the pain that we have felt.

There are two volumes to The New River Climbing Guide. It was volume two. Are you working on the first volume? I guess there are some names in this volume that are also worth changing.

Volume one, we contacted a lot of early climbers. Many of the early climbers are also on board with name changes.

Do you have any idea when the first edition might go to press?

It’s going to take a while, unless the public pushes for a new reprint.

Thank you very much for taking the time with me, and thank you very much for the work you and the rest of the NRAC do to make the Gorge a more inclusive and welcoming place.

On behalf of NRAC, thank you very much.

Virginia F. Goins