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Erased – Route Names and Climbing Culture

Bethany Lebewitz, Ashleigh Thompson, Melissa Utomo and Erynne Gilpin hosted an online community discussion regarding prejudice route names, mountain project and climbing culture

“A relationship is more than a one-time consultation, a one-time collaboration. When we are in relationship with someone, we are constantly communicating with them. We’re apologizing for past wrongs, we’re thinking about ways to move forward in our relationship with one another.” – Ashleigh Thompson

On July 9, 2020, Brown Girls Climb hosted a community discussion about “problematic climbing route names and problems in the climbing community that continue to erase voices and experiences of Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color.” This discussion was titled “Erased.”

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✨Welcoming 2020 with community and gratitude✨ . #MeetusMonday Climbing into the new year, we wanted to acknowledge some shining 🌟 in thIs great big family! . Thank you to our LEADERS who commit their time to facilitating space for others. Who stay up late planning and brainstorming ways to make meet-ups, gym policies, and climbing culture more inclusive and who show up because they know what it’s like to be the “only”. . Thank you to all the ADVOCATES in the community speaking up when it’s scary and exhausting. Thank you for recognizing injustice and opportunities for justice. Thank you for holding us all accountable to measurable change. Thank you for using your voice to stand up for yourself and others. You’re actions are powerful waves in our community. . Thank you to all the ATHLETES on the crag and at the gym who continue to train despite being the only one. You are braver than you think. You hear the things others don’t. Men questioning your competence. Women not up for your ‘attitude’. You are fly, you are strong, and you will shatter all the records one day. . Thank you to all the CREATIVES out there. You are the backstage change makers. Creating stories, content, businesses, and strategies that transform realities. You are always undervalued but we see your work. You are the dream makers and the translators, inventing new worlds and reimagining others. . Thank you to all the HEALERS extending themselves to our collective recovery. You nurture, cook, massage, sing, respond, listen, and empathize with those around you. You renew our community through your silent work and we appreciate your actions of love. . Thank you to all the ACCOMPLICES we know and those we don’t. You research, follow-up, and hold your folks around you accountable to a new standard of how to treat people. You are a solid belay. You invest in this, in us, in yourself, in others without contingencies or expectations. You are actually trying and it shows. . Thank you to ALL of you. No doubt you fit more than one of these categories. We can’t wait to see what 2020 has in store for each of you. . ✨Which ones do you resonate with?✨ . . 📍Ancestral land of Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw

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The Panellists

Each of these panellists are known for their work in climbing’s communities. Bethany Lebewitz has long worked toward the creation of an equitable space in climbing. Lebewitz a national leader with Brown Girls Climb. She is also one of the founding members of the Color the Crag festival, an annual event hosted at Horse Pens 40 in Alabama.

Representing the technical side of the discussion, Melissa Utomo called in from her home in Boulder, Colorado. This is the land of the Arapahoe, Ute, and Cheyenne. She is a “web developer, and user interface design specialist.” She is recently known for her work in relation to Mountain Project. Utomo “developed a user-friendly feature to integrate on Mountain Project’s webpage to begin addressing the issue of problematic route names.” This idea represented a necessary step forward in the progression of outdoor climbing, but was met with resistance until recent social pressures. Mountain Project recently incorporated the idea into their website, but refrained from crediting or compensating Utomo for her intellectual property.

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Erynne Gilpin called in as a representative for Indigenous women and Indigeneity in climbing in Canada. Gilpin called in as a representative for Indigenous women and Indigeneity in climbing in Canada. Gilpin “is a mixed Saulteaux-Cree-Métis, Filipina, Celtic community researcher, Birth-Doula, Land-based wellness activist. Her current work as co-founder of UATÊ //STORIED LEARNING employs mixed-media and film storytelling methods as viable pathways of self-determination and community-based knowledge mobilization.”

Ashleigh Thompson also represented Indigenous climbers, with a greater focus on the United States. She brought forth many ideas for the future and a wealth of specific examples relating to Indigenous relationships with climbing. Thompson is Ojibwe and a “native rights advocate, and PhD Candidate at the University of Arizona (land of the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui Nations).” She brought forth a description of “her own work in addressing racist and discriminatory route names,” as well as ideas for the future. One such idea is an Indigenous climbing festival.

Each of these four women brought to the discussion a wealth of experience in social activism and in rock climbing.

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Welcome to another round of #meetusmonday! . We’re so excited to continue to climb and celebrate with one another and challenge each other to grow and learn! . Brown Girls Climb aims to amplify voices and experiences of Women and Femmes of Color in climbing and shift our climbing culture in a way that benefits all climbers! We’re grateful to work alongside many other great orgs and groups to do so. . Here are just a few: @thebrownascenders @blackgirlsboulder @blackclimberscollective @collectiveliberationclimbing @heyflashfoxy @pdxclimbersofcolor @climbersofcolor @sendingincolor @indigenouswomxnclimb @adaptclimbgroup @queerclimbingcollective @queerbeta @transending7 @tryhardcrew @belay.all . We also wanted to update y’all that we’ve got some virtual meet-ups coming up: San Diego 7/22 7-8:30pm PT Boston 7/24 4-5pm ET New York 7/24 6-7pm ET Los Ángeles 7/25 12:30-2:30pm PT New Jersey 7/27 6:30-8:00pm ET Chicago 7/27 7-8:30pm CT **Dont see your region? Feel free to hop into one nearest you!*** Zoom links are shared privately through BGC App & FB groups. If you’re not a member yet but want to attend please message leaders in story posts! . A few other announcements: 📌The transcript for Blackness is Not a Monolith is up! See bio for details! Thank you @pepitaonfire . 📌Erased was not fully recorded so another y’all is being rescheduled in the meantime. Emails will be sent out with summary from original call soon! . ✳️Have suggestions or requests on ways we can support you or events you’d like to see? Drop it below! . 📸 @janelle_takesphotos 🧗🏽‍♀️ @noelias_glimpse 📍Land If Arapahoe, Cheyenne & Ute

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Erased

As Brown Girls Climb hosted the discussion, Lebewitz guided the conversation. According to their website, “Brown Girls Climb is a small Women of Color owned and operated company with the mission to promote and increase visibility of diversity in climbing.” They do this, “by establishing a community of climbers of color, encouraging leadership opportunities for self-identified women climbers of color, and by creating inclusive opportunities to climb and explore for underrepresented communities.”

Lebewitz went on to say, “Part of our culture within Brown Girls Climb is really starting off the space with acknowledging that the land that we occupy right now… is at the cost of Indigenous and native peoples… They have been killed and displaced and have experienced a lot of intergenerational trauma because of colonization.”

In respect to that point, the call held a moment of silence.

As moderator, Lebewitz went on to define the group norms for the discussion. “One, we acknowledge that this is Indigenous land, and that we still have work to do as co-conspirators in this topic. We also acknowledge to enter this space with positive intentions to grow and to learn and we acknowledge that this process is ongoing. We also collectively agree to respect one another in our similarities and differences through empathetic engagement in conversation and agree to allow space for when we need to take time for ourselves and establish and respect boundaries as needed. Lastly, we agree to practice community engagement by recognizing our own privileges and acknowledging when to take, share, and give up space.”

Lebewitz acknowledged the efforts of her co-panellists and the greater BIPOC community outside of climbing. She said, “We still haven’t had justice for folks like Breonna Taylor, for black-trans women, and so it’s hard for me to have this space we are taking up, talking about climbing, which, at times, doesn’t matter at all, but we are trying to work in the places that we have influence over. We hope this provides a tool to reflect on other ways we can flex those muscles in larger areas.”

Lebewitz then recognized the suppression of BIPOC women and femme voices. She said, “It’s very frustrating that, in a lot of ways, women and femmes of colour have been able to quickly identify the issue, but also present viable solutions, at least as a start, and we’re getting ignored. It’s really, really frustrating.”

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I am imagining an Indigenous climbing festival Where we open with ceremony and acknowledgement of whose sacred lands we are on. At each crag, we put out asema, corn pollen, and prayers. New climbers are welcome and we provide mentorship for those who want it. There are so many babies with us, So we all look after them while their parents climb. We hold feasts each night with fry bread alongside traditional foods and a spirit plate for the manidoos. There is a morning prayer run and hand drum songs every night by the campfire. Elders are there and provide guidance for those of us who are going through some things. Vendors sell the most unique Indigenous jewelry and our festival shirts are designed by Native artists. We hold a bingo night to win climbing gear And donations are given to Native-led organizations. Our service project protects the land for generations to come. There is so much laughter that Our cheeks hurt from smiling. 🤲🏽🌿🌞⛰💓 📍 Payahuunadü, Nüümü lands, Happy Boulders last spring. Thank you for those who supported Erased today! Miigwech @browngirlsclimb for the space. I am taking a media break for a little bit, so see y’all soon 🥰

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“We deeply care about climbing. Climbing has, at least for the folks in this call, and I am sure all of you, has very much impacted us in super personal ways. I need climbing because it helps me remember that I have ownership of my own body.”

Though each of these women value climbing, Lebewitz mentions the relationship can be strained. She said, “It’s hard because there is this beautiful gift of physical movement and mental engagement, but then we shift to seeing route names, experiencing conversations or interactions that can be really traumatizing.”

In relation to those violent route names, nearly all of which were researched and brought forward by Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, Lebewitz said, “It often seems so big, like we don’t have control because we weren’t the FA (First Ascensionist), that we couldn’t change it… Now we’re like ‘Oh!’ It’s like understanding white supremacy for the first time, we are understanding, ‘this isn’t actually my [climbing] culture, this is something I have the power to dismantle or uproot and create something different.’”

Thompson is one climber that has actively worked to change the prejudiced culture of route names. During grad school, Thompson wrote a paper and presentation on the cultural appropriation found in route names. She said, “A few years ago I was browsing the Mountain Project website, and, on the home page, a route called The Trail of Tears popped up. As an Indigenous climber, I was really aghast that someone would choose such a horrific event to name a climb. The Trail of Tears was when southeastern tribes in the United States were removed from their homelands in the southeast, so the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole people were marched west of the Mississippi to what was then known as Indian Territory. During this march about…4000-5000 Indigenous people perished.”

“When I have chosen to speak about it on Mountain Project, like a couple years ago, I was attacked for trying to bring justice and equity into the climbing community conversation.”

As of July 19, 2020, there are still 16 routes named Trail of Tears on Mountain Project.

Though there is obvious violence toward Indigenous peoples in a variety of route names, the damage is not exclusive to that demographic. To express this point, Gilpin described her experience at the Flash Foxy Festival last year. She said, “There was this V3 we were trying called Up Her Skirt and we were like… ‘we’re not calling it this, there’s no way,’ so we called it Up Yours Misogyny and we had an amazing time climbing.”

Though Gilpin looked back on that festival fondly, she referenced how violent route names impacted her climbing. Gilpin said, at times, while climbing, “I feel like I silence myself. Sometimes I just need to go for a walk on my own and not engage with it because I’m just there to take care of myself.”

Utomo reflected this feeling when she found violent route names on Mountain Project. She said, “Why isn’t anybody talking about this in the press or in magazines? You just kind of want to shake somebody and be like ‘Why are we so silent about this?’”

Utomo wanted to combat this violence. To do so, she said, “I created this proposal for an accessible way for people to address these route names. I really do want to create a space where we can escape the weight of this kind of white dominance within the dialogue and reimagine how we can all work together and create something different.”

Lebewitz was excited by Utomo’s proposal. Before approaching Mountain Project, they received the support of many organizations. Lebewitz said, “We wanted to make sure that Mountain Project knew that this wasn’t just Melissa’s technical idea, but she had the support of many other people and climbers.”

One of Utomo’s ideas was recently taken up by Mountain Project without compensation or accreditation. That idea was the inclusion of “Flag Inappropriate Content” button on the website. As one might expect, this button was not the maximal extent of Utomo’s ideas for improving Mountain Project’s accessibility, but it was a start. The lack of accreditation she received is significant. It is indicative of the exclusion of a demographic from a narrative. You can read her Mountain Project Feature Proposal here.

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This proposal to add a button that flags oppressive route names has been shown to Mountain Project since Nov 2019! I am sharing this story because we need to see what is possible and we should not settle for anything less. I have seen so many harmful attempts made by climbing orgs to “do good” for the BIPOC community. Instead they created more harm as performative, white, cis, able-bodied climbers are centered. This harm happens to our LGBTQ+, disabled, and neurodivergent communities too. On top of that, marginalized climbers have to do damage control and call out that public mistake after the fact. Let’s get ahead of that and see what we can achieve. Do not let MP slap on a feature without these guidelines AT THE MINIMUM. I‘m a full time web developer and designer who has professional experience in user testing. This proposal was made using industry standards and ethical design practices. Some history on this document: When REI owned MP, they read this proposal and nothing was done. Instead we were asked to do free labor on a different project. They wasted everyone’s time, played political merry-go-round, and none of them took the idea seriously. Since then, this doc has been updated to address the change in ownership to the co-founder of MP. I approached him last month and again it was pushed away because they weren’t ready to “open a can of worms” and needed time to make a plan. No, start that work yesterday. I challenge you to open that can of worms. On the labor of changing route names: We should not lean on the free labor of marginalized climbers to call out oppressive route names one by one. It is extremely exhausting and they are often the recipients of the hurt caused by these names. We must seek systemic change and put the brunt of the work on Mountain Project backed by the compensated vision of Black, Indigenous, disabled, LGBTQ+, marginalized climbers. I have played by the rules on bringing this project forward since Nov. That brought us nowhere. Companies are scared to commit. Build on this project. IMAGINE MORE. Seek change.

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Following the Mountain Project problem, the panelists began to discuss the climber in relation to Indigenous lands. Thompson said, “There are close to 600 federally recognized nations in the United States alone. There are over five-million Indigenous people. We are still here.”

She went on to say, “Beyond route names, there has been a lot of problems and contention between climbers and Indigenous people… In the early nineties the National Park Service, which has quote-on-quote ownership of it (Bear Butte Lodge aka Devil’s Tower National Monument) even though it is a sacred place to over 20 plains tribal nations…, had to create a new management plan for Bear Butte Lodge because during the month of June there is a Sun Dance ceremony held there every year.”

Each year, Sun Dance ceremonies were becoming interrupted by climbers with an increasing frequency. To manage this problem, Thompson said that the National Park Service, “issued a voluntary ban on climbing there during the month of June when Sun Dance is held, and even though it was a voluntary ban there was a group of climbers backed by some climbing organizations that are still here today and they actually filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service for that voluntary ban.”

The climbers lost this lawsuit, but damage was done. Thompson said, “To have this lash back against what was a voluntary ban, it was really viewed by a lot of Indigenous people as just disrespectful.”

Moving forward, Thompson hopes for something more. She said, “I think Indigenous land acknowledgements are really important, but I think we really need to go beyond whose land it is and move into respecting different tribal nations, ceremonies, their different religious or sacred sites.”

Thompson is excited by the idea of climbers and Indigenous communities working together. She said, “When collaboration between climbers and Indigenous people happens, I think a lot of good comes. One example I like to talk about is Bears Ears National Monument. I think that is a good example of climbers and Indigenous people working together to protect these places we all love.”

Through combined efforts, President Obama declared Bears Ears a National Monument in 2016. This act protects it for the future.

The event ultimately concluded with a community discussion. Though this was, in many ways, a pioneering discussion of changes, it presented the importance and relevance of community involvement in topics that directly affect all climbers. Climbing media, organizations, and communities cannot cater to a single demographic any longer. The world is a big place with many people and everyone deserves an opportunity to feel at home in climbing. Climbing, itself, can only benefit from greater community involvement and the promotion of equity.

To that effect, the following are thoughts that climbers should consider when entering spaces:

“Protect communities that give space for creativity. We are innovators. To create a world that serves white supremacy is not creative.” – Utomo

“Without collaboration and insight from the communities you are attempting to reach, your approach and tool cannot and will not be effective.” – Lebewitz

“When we are engaging with Indigenous people the Four R’s are really important. They are relationship, they are respect, reciprocity and redistribution. I try to have those guide my intentions whenever I start collaboration.”  – Thompson

“Diversity to what? What is the assumed default? Inclusion to where? What are the structures that have created that place?” – Gilpin

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Desmund Tutu

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IMAGINATION IS OUR BIRTH RIGHT⚡️ . . Repost from @ashanishinaabe: 😭🥰⚡️🦅🙏🏾 “I am imagining an Indigenous climbing festival Where we open with ceremony and acknowledgement of whose sacred lands we are on. At each crag, we put out asema, corn pollen, and prayers. New climbers are welcome and we provide mentorship for those who want it. There are so many babies with us, So we all look after them while their parents climb. We hold feasts each night with fry bread alongside traditional foods and a spirit plate for the manidoos. There is a morning prayer run and hand drum songs every night by the campfire. Elders are there and provide guidance for those of us who are going through some things. Vendors sell the most unique Indigenous jewelry and our festival shirts are designed by Native artists. We hold a bingo night to win climbing gear And donations are given to Native-led organizations. Our service project protects the land for generations to come. There is so much laughter that Our cheeks hurt from smiling. 🤲🏽🌿🌞⛰💓 📍 Payahuunadü, Nüümü lands, Happy Boulders last spring. Thank you for those who supported Erased today! Miigwech @browngirlsclimb for the space. I am taking a media break for a little bit, so see y’all soon 🥰”

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Featured photo by Brown Girls Climb.