This past spring and summer, the BLM protests sparked conversations about racial and social justice throughout the US. These conversations made their way to the climbing community.
The big question for us in the climbing community was: How can we make outdoor spaces more inclusive for everybody? How can we be anti-racist in the outdoors?
Around that time, Genevive Walker called national attention to, and was able to change, a number of racist route names in Ten Sleep, WY. This set a precedent.
Stevie Imperatrice, Zoe Brown, and I (Lucy Vollbrecht), local Flagstaff climbers, began talking about problematic route names in Northern Arizona. We thought there were certainly some problematic local names, and we thought that Northern Arizona climbers would endorse a community-based route renaming effort.
This begged the question: what difference does route renaming really make?
Renaming climbs is ethically complicated. The thought is that when someone encounters a discriminatory boulder or route name, a problematic and potentially offensive name perpetuates negative stereotypes. This acts as a gate-keeping mechanism and as a barrier to some climbers.
Names that make use of negative stereotypes enforce the idea that only a certain kind of climber is a “real” climber. These names communicate that climbers of whatever social demographic is targeted don’t actually belong in that space or the sport. For example, calling the warm-up wall the Girlfriend Wall enforces the idea that women don’t climb hard and that they don’t climb for themselves. The only reason a woman would come out to climb is as a partner to their boyfriend. This obviously just is not true.
More generally, calling a problem a discriminatory name – for example, “F****** Retard” or “N***** B****” – enforces the idea that these spaces are ones in which discrimination is the accepted norm. Calling climbs by racist, misogynistic, and ableist names (and by retaining these names now that their discriminatory nature is widely evident) signals to individuals who belong to those historically marginalized groups that a given space is one of continued marginalization. It isn’t for them. The prejudiced norms of society at large are still in play here.
The motivation to change problematic route-names is to make these spaces and activities we love more inclusive and welcoming to everyone. We shouldn’t be perpetuating practices that keep others away because of who they are.
After deciding which names and why this work was important, we began the process of route renaming. Our biggest priority with how we implemented this project was making sure this was a community-wide initiative, not just a couple of people deciding on new names. We wanted to include as big a swath of the local climbing/and wider climbing community as possible.
We decided to start with relatively few route names and chose what we deemed to be the worst offenders. I won’t refer to the routes by their old names here, but there was overt racist language, racially charged hate speech, references to violence against the native community, references to violence against women, and derogatory slur towards disabled people. All of these names we thought to be completely inappropriate because of the long history of violence against native people, the black community, women, and non-able-bodied people.
The issue we are trying to navigate here is censorship. The goal is to filter out names that are racist, misogynistic, ableist, or otherwise socially unjust but NOT filter names that are simply crude (that is, names that include a swear word or allude to sex acts). Names that iterate the oppression of peoples based on social-identity are the issue, not potty language.
What at first seems like a huge grey area is really no more complicated than asking the question “is this name just vulgar/crude/immature or does it discriminate against an entire community of people?”
We consolidated our efforts within Priest Draw, which is an area Lucy, Stevie, and I (Zoe) were very familiar with and in a lot of cases know the context behind many of the route names. We then reached out to local gyms and NAZCC (Northern Arizona Climbing Coalition) to get community buy-in and help to disperse a survey we developed.
We created the survey to get name suggestions for the 5 routes we picked from the wider community. We had over 100 suggestions for each name. We also included a section where community members were able to share personal stories and thoughts on why renaming these routes was important to them. There was a wide range of anecdotes/stories shared about how harmful/discriminatory route names can be.
From the new community suggestions, Stevie, Lucy, and I (Zoe) sifted through over 500+ new name suggestions for the 5 problems. We condensed these into 4-5 finalists that we felt best represented each climb and the community’s voice. Remarkably, many suggestions were quite similar or fit into a common theme. We then put out a 2nd survey for the community to vote on final names. We had over 200 votes for each new name.
Our next step was to see these changes reflected on Mountain Project—which they now are — and work on changing the names in the local PDF Guide.
Here are a few anecdotes from the initial survey:
“Misogynistic names remind me of how hard it has been to prove myself in this sport and how uncomfortable it was to be in the community until I did. I wasn’t made to feel worthy until I started climbing “hard” and I still see my girlfriends being dismissed on the basis of their gender and the grades they climb.”
“While teaching a friend to lead at the Panty wall in Red Rocks, a group of Bro’s heckled us to show them our panties. The entire day. My friend ended up in tears from the stress of leading her first route outdoors and being harassed nonstop by strangers.”
“As a white male I’ve never felt personally targeted by it, but some route names do make me ashamed to be a climber and feel complicit in the exclusive environment that is climbing.”
For us, these anecdotes, and the more we received, show that this project really is worth the effort. It proved that route renaming can and does have an impact on the people who climb them. This is only the start to working towards an anti-racist and more inclusive climbing community, but it is a start.