Climbing made the pages of The Globe and Mail recently but probably not in the way that any of us would want. The Globe, the paper of record in Canada, published an article by Erin Anderssen, which brought to light a doctoral student’s research into climbing’s long litany and tradition of misogynistic route names. One of the questions raised was if and how some of these names might be changed. Naturally, the article prompted a great deal of discussion among climbers.
A friend posted the article on Facebook with the caption Really?, as if to say, “is someone really making a big deal out of this?” And comments by his friends revealed a shared perception that the critique was ridiculous.
The more I read and engaged in conversation on the topic, the more my response also became, Really?
But not for the same reason.
“Really?” I thought, “some of these are truly awful, why and how are people defending names like ‘Whore Hole,’ ‘Pussy Pocket’ and ‘Pumped Full of Semen’?
I think many people were put off by the article because they aren’t interested in subjecting this thing we love to do – our passion, recreation or profession – to political, academic, or (god forbid) feminist scrutiny. And I get that. But, as it turns out, having a conversation about misogynistic route names doesn’t take the fun out of rock climbing. And the conversation is important.
Having a conversation about misogynistic route names doesn’t take the fun out of rock climbing. And the conversation is important.
To be fair, the critique in question applies to a small percentage of route names; the majority of names out there are uncontroversial. But just because the issue is small doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed. And, moreover, a seemingly small issue can mask a more serious, insidious problem.
The Power of Language
A common response I’ve encountered was that names of routes shouldn’t be taken so seriously because they are often meant as jokes, or there’s a story behind them.
In Anderssen’s article, the backstory behind Sean Therien’s route ‘Parade of Whores’ was described as an exhaustion-induced quip between the two guys cleaning it: “After this, we deserve a parade!” “Yeah, a parade of whores.”
I can see how this was meant to be a light-hearted commemoration of their efforts during the first ascent. I realize that Therien didn’t intend to offend anyone. Nevertheless, the word ‘whore’ is derogatory to women. It reproduces an age-old power dynamic wherein men enslave women through sex.
People often underestimate the power and impact of words, names and symbols. They underestimate them because they do not have obvious physical effects, and they’re everywhere. But that is precisely where their power lies. Hyper-sexualization and objectification of women through language is so pervasive in society that it’s easy not to notice it.
Because of this desensitization, and because their impact is hard to identify, words often go unchallenged. And when they are challenged, women are accused of being over-sensitive, uptight or crazy when they make claims of sexism or misogyny. Anderssen’s article, and responses to it, are case and point.
But we, as a community – both women and men – should feel free to challenge some of these names. It doesn’t mean we are taking route names too seriously; it means we’re taking the power of language seriously.
Another example is a classic 5.10a in Skaha called “Gangbang,” named as such because it was a group of climbers (as many as 8) who cleaned it and did the FA. While the backstory provides a more palatable context to the name, the term remains a nonconsensual, violent act against women.
The thing is, even if the backstory reveals some humour to a name, most people aren’t privy to the inside joke. Route names, for the most part, are just out there for public consumption with all the connotations and implications and power dynamics that they carry.
Because of the increasing popularity and diversity of the climbing community, we need to judge route names based on how they stand on their own.
The Problem of Subjectivity: Who Gets to Decide?
Another common concern raised in conversations was the problem of subjectivity. Who gets to decide which names are harmful and which names are funny? Where do you draw the line between offensive versus what’s just gross or immature?
Adjudicating whether or not names should be changed would not always be simple, most likely quite the opposite. But an issue being complex is not an excuse to do nothing.
Perhaps it could be treated like climbing grades, i.e., with consensus. By asking a fair number of people that, ideally, represents the diversity of the user group, one could at least identify the names that are obviously problematic. For example, I’d like to think that the majority of folks would be on board with changing the Joshua Tree route name: ‘Let’s F*%# the Crack Whore.’ I mean, really, that name is just not okay.
Other names fall into more of a grey area. In 2012, The Adventure Journal published an article listing 34 route names that “you can’t say to your mom.” On this list of less-than-classy route names, a few of them are kind of witty and made me laugh out loud, e.g., ‘At Your Cervix’ and ‘Harder Than Your Husband.’ Others are simply juvenile, gross or racy, but not overtly demeaning to women, such as ‘Unwiped Butt’ or ‘Rim Job.’ One could even argue that ‘Daily Dick Dose’ isn’t inherently misogynistic. But the vulgarity level is high, which will offend some more than others. In cases like these, changes can happen organically, on an individual basis, e.g., many people refer to ‘Daily Dick Dose’ as ‘DDD.’
Vulgar names were not the focus of Anderssen’s article, but it’s an extension of the conversation. The climbing demographic is getting younger and I’d wager that some parents might take issue with names that have crass, sexual references. I’m not saying all names should be Sunshine and Lollipops, but surely we can make some concessions in light of the changing demographics of our community.
Finally, some argue that guidebook authors and publishers have the right to change or abbreviate the names they deem inappropriate or potentially offensive for their consumers. This makes a lot of sense to me and, actually, it’s already happening. In the latest bouldering guide for The Niagara Glen, the authors changed names they felt were derogatory, including one that was blatantly homophobic. And, as Anderssen mentions in her article, a new guidebook in Nova Scotia will refer to ‘Parade of Whores’ as ‘Parade.’
First Ascensionist Immunity
“If people knew how hard it was to create new routes, they might relax about the names.” This quote, taken from Anderssen’s article, espouses a sentiment that came up often in comments on social media and in conversations.
The argument is that when you do the work of putting up a route, you’ve earned the right to name it whatever you want and people should essentially shut up about it. According to this line of reasoning, doing a first ascent gives someone a carte blanche to be, intentionally or unintentionally, vulgar, racist, misogynist, etc.
Doing the hard work of cleaning a route does not give someone the right to alienate or offend a large demographic of the climbing community.
This is totally unconvincing to me. How hard one works to clean a route, just like how awesome an athlete one is, should not affect how we judge their actions or, in this case, their words. Doing the hard work of cleaning a route does not give someone the right to alienate or offend a large demographic of the climbing community.
A Double Standard
It is not unprecedented in climbing to have names changed. ‘Chinaman’s Peak,’ ‘The Squaw’s Tit,’ and ‘Indian Giver’ are examples of names that have been changed. Indeed, most people seem to agree with Sean Therien, whom Anderssen quotes saying, “Racist names…should definitely be changed.”
I find it interesting that the same people defending the right to keep these misogynistic names are a lot less eager to defend the racist ones. Racist names are offensive, but sexist ones are funny. The double standard is a clear tell of fatigue with feminism, in society at large and within the climbing community.
But I’m not apologetic about feminist critiques. I believe positive growth of a community comes through self-reflection and questioning of the past and current traditions. It comes through listening to members concerns, not dismissing them. It comes through open and respectful dialogue.
Negative reactions to the claims of misogyny, I think, are sometimes tied up with negative feelings about the modernization of the sport.
Many of the comments, either published online or in conversation, reveal an underlying resentment over the “sanitization” of rock climbing as it becomes mainstream.
Climbing was once a playground for juvenile misfits – an underground, counter-culture for mostly white, dirt-bag dudes. Climbing is far more diverse now. Now there are super rich climbers who “camp” in their Sprinters on the weekends. Now rock climbing is a corporate team building exercise. Now there are lots of kids. And there are way more women.
For some people, then, changing route names might feel like a nail in the coffin of the climbing culture they once knew.
While this helps to understand some of the negative reactions, preserving a memory doesn’t justify preserving harmful names and not everything from the past is worth preserving.
I’ve been climbing for over 25 years so I can appreciate the nostalgia for the pre-mainstream era. I recall fondly the days before Instagram, before volumes, when crags weren’t over-crowded, and when nobody trained – they just climbed.
But one of the coolest things about rock climbing that I noticed when I started as a teen was how it provided a space and a community for people who may not have fit in elsewhere. All that mattered was the passion and obsession with climbing. It was a kind of inclusivity before inclusivity was a thing. That is a part of climbing’s heritage we should aim to preserve and promote.
It’s true, much has changed in rock climbing, for better and for worse. I don’t think we need to systematically sanitize the entire catalogue of route and boulder names. But I think that cleaning up the super shitty, sexist ones would constitute a change for the better. Really.