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We Need to Cancel More Colonial Mountain Names, Like Rundle

It was called Waskahigan Watchi before Europeans arrived and renamed it for some Methodist preacher who spent little time in the area

Mount Rundle is a long range that stands between Canmore and Banff. There’s a kilometres-long ridge that people hike/run/climb called the Rundle Traverse. It has dozens of world-class rock and ice climbs. There’s a tiresome hike to the summit from Banff. There’s a trail that wraps around it, with the southern side being called Goat Creek Trail and the north being the Riverside Trail.

Unfortunately, the mountain is named after Methodist reverend Robert Rundle. It was named after him in 1858 by John Palliser. Rundle was invited by the Hudson’s Bay Company to do missionary work in the area. He introduced syllabic, a written language for the Cree and only visited the Banff area twice.

The Cree name for Rundle is Waskahigan Watchi or House Mountain (not to be confused with Howse Peak on the Icefields Parkway). Doesn’t that sound nicer than Mount Rundle? Anyway, my climber partner, David Smart, and I visited the tall cliffs above the Banff golf course last week to establish a new rock climb. It was surreal driving through the tourist-infested streets only to find a place where no (or very few) humans had ever visited a mere 15-minute drive and 30-minute hike away.

It was there that we found a series of water-worn slabs that led through steep cliff bands and onto a treed ledge 200 metres above from where we roped up. We named the seven-pitch 5.7 all-bolted route “House Mountain” to spread the word that the mountain has an older and much more aesthetically sounding name.

The movement to change offensive and colonial mountain and route names is not new, but thanks to online support over the past few years it’s become a more well-known issue. Many climbers have been referring to famous peaks by their Indigenous names for years. Here’s a list of mountains with their Indigenous and colonial names: Sultana (Mount Foraker), Begguya (Mount Hunter), Tahoma (Mount Rainier), Dakobed (Glacier Peak), Wy’east (Mount Hood), Pahto (Mount Adams), Nch’kay (Mount Garibaldi), Yuh-hai-has-kun (Mount Robson) and Cerro Chaltén (Cerro Fitz Roy). Consider incorporating their Indigenous names into conversations about them.

Top climber Nina Williams wrote about the subject online, saying: “Proposal: Language management of route names. Distinguish between immature/vulgar/crude names and racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic/transphobic/ethnocentric/anti-Semitic names. Keep the vulgar names and toss the names that are historically violent and exclusive against entire communities of people. How do we draw that line? Imperfectly. But it must be drawn.”

I’ve spoken to a number of guidebook authors across Canada who’ve been working with route developers on changing established climb names from years past. A top Rockies climber, who’s developed dozens of fine routes, emailed me about the issue this summer.

The climber, whose name won’t be mentioned for privacy, said: “I saw your article here about offensive names in Gripped. I agree, and I have some routes with silly dumb names too and want to be part of this revolution. I have been away from climbing more than ever in the few years and don’t keep up much, but if you know who the current authors of Bow Valley sport books is then can you let me know, so we can rid the books of this as good as we all can. Also, anything offensive should be changed to whatever the author feels to call it works for me without consulting the route builder – so please change at will for my routes with any questionable names attached previously is my opinion.”

Kevin McLane, a prolific author based in Squamish, told me that climbers against offensive route names dates back to when he first started climbing over 50 years ago. Some suggested route names had already been changed many years ago, a process that needs to continue. As Williams said, the line between what routes should be renamed is blurry, but if we work on it as a community, then a mostly-accepted outcome can be reached.

In 2019, Canadian climber and writer Bonnie de Bruijn wrote a piece called ‘Controversy Over Sexist Route Names: Really?’ after the conversation started online that we need to rename routes with sexist names. In it, she wrote: “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.”

Last year, a multi-decade campaign to change the name of a peak near Canmore with a racist title was changed to Bald Eagle Peak. The name was chosen by a group of local Indigenous elders.

We need to do better as climbers to help put colonial, sexist and racist place names into museums and history books where they belong, and not on maps and into conversations about weekend plans. Mount Rundle, much like many stupid mountain names in the Rockies including Tunnel Mountain, should be changed back to what it was before settlers arrived.