Climbers push back on how racist climbing routes are named

A sleepy town reminiscent of the Wild West, Ten Sleep, Wyoming is home to some 300 residents and one of the busiest rock climbing destinations in North America. Melissa Utomo, a web developer and recreational climber, drove nearly seven hours from Boulder, Colorado to experience the 800 bolted rock climbing routes Ten Sleep Canyon had to offer. Opening her guide app, she came across a rock titled Slavery Wall with routes called Aunt Jemima’s Happiness in Slavery and Bisquick Thunderdome.

This wasn’t the first time Utomo had encountered problematic road names. While rock climbing is meant to be a solace in everyday life, climbers of color, especially black and indigenous climbers, experience a different reality. Many have had to overcome invisible barriers that make the sport inaccessible, from the lack of generational knowledge and control within the climbing community to the overt racism encountered in the outdoors. Racist route names are another way many feel unwelcome.

“When I go to these cliffs, I see Confederate flags and ‘South Will Rise Again’ signs,” says Dominique Davis, an Atlanta-based yogi and climber, about her experience as a black woman trekking to popular climbing spots in the south. “I feel discomfort trying to get to these places and then stepping on a wall and seeing it named Neck in the Noose or Whipping Post, I guess that feeling extends through time and space.” She says if she had seen either of these names the first time she climbed, she probably wouldn’t have returned to the sport.

Climbing routes are appointed on a first-come, first-served basis; those who climb the route first, aptly named first climbers, can choose his nickname. These first names are then passed on by word of mouth and immortalized in climbing route guidebooks. Many, including Utomo, believe these route names are symptomatic of internalized racism within the climbing community. The recent propelling of this discussion into the mainstream has raised fundamental questions that the community now comes to terms with, including who is responsible for naming the routes.

The development of climbing routes is currently a labor of love, carried out by passionate climbers with little supervision. Building a new route is as tedious as developing a recipe from scratch. After checking with the proper authorities, early climbers spend weekends scouring what they consider uncharted territory to find untouched rocks, which they then clean, set bolts with heavy equipment which they transported to the site so that future climbers could safely hang their ropes. , climb the route several times and meticulously record their way, which can take weeks or seasons without any monetary benefit. For this great effort and contribution to the climbing community, they feel it is their reward to name the rock.

Early climbers have come under pressure to address and change their names as grassroots climbing community efforts merge with recent protests centered on black lives. Utomo build a feature proposal for Mountain Project, a user-generated virtual climbing route guide that allows users to report harmful and oppressive route names, drawing attention to the sheer volume of offensive appellations. Davis is working directly with publishing houses in Georgia and Tennessee to change racist route names in local guidebooks by contacting the early climbers who developed them. Through their efforts and those of many others, some names have changed, including Ten Sleep’s Slavery Wall – now called Downpour Wall – and accompanying routes.

Many other nicknames remain the same as early climbers and climbers repel, claiming that the name of the route should be the sole responsibility of those who “discovered” it. Ashley Thompsonan indigenous mountaineer and doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona specializing in indigenous archeology, likens this mindset to a colonialist attitude, where people believe the land they are exploring was never colonized or used before their arrival: “We are the first here, so we have a right to the land, including naming it. The first climbers deliberately disobeyed the indigenous communities to build roads or expressed their connection with spaces whose native tribes were forcibly removed, says Thompson, who attributes this to a sense of entitlement to the land.

Virginia F. Goins