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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.”

The Panellists

Each of these panellists have received recognition for their work in climbing’s communities. Bethany Lebewitz has pushed toward the creation of an equitable space in climbing. She has been national leader with Brown Girls Climb and was also one of the founding members of the Color the Crag festival, an annual event hosted at Horse Pens 40 in Alabama.

To represent the technical side of the discussion, Melissa Utomo called in from her home in Boulder, Colorado, otherwise known as the land of the Arapahoe, Ute, and Cheyenne.  The web developer, and user interface design specialist has received accreditation for her work with Mountain Project. She 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.

Erynne Gilpin was 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 was an Indigenous climbing festival.

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


As Brown Girls Climb hosted the discussion, Lebewitz guided the conversation. “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.

“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. “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. “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.

“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 have valued climbing, Lebewitz mentioned the relationship can be strained. “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 that the challenge can feel insurmountable. “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 were still 16 routes named Trail of Tears on Mountain Project.

Though there was obvious violence toward Indigenous peoples in a variety of route names, the damage was not exclusive to that demographic. Gilpin expressed this point through her experience at the Flash Foxy Festival last year. “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. “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. “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. “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. “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 the 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 was significant. It is indicative of the exclusion of a demographic from a narrative. You can read her Mountain Project Feature Proposal here.

Following the Mountain Project problem, the panelists discussed 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.

“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 interrupted by climbers with an increasing frequency. To manage this problem, Thompson said that the National Park Service got involved. “They 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. “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 hoped for something more. “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 was excited by the idea of climbers and Indigenous communities working together. “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.

The following were 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

Featured photo by Brown Girls Climb.