Rock-climbing community faces reckoning on offensive labels
By Phil Brown
Open any rock-climbing guidebook, peruse the route names, and you’ll find loads of bad puns (and some good ones), raunch, wacky humor and references to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It sometimes seems as though clever route naming is a competitive sport.
Occasionally, though, route names cross the line into racist, sexist or homophobic territory—such as Black Chicks in Heat, in California, to cite one of many examples found around the country.
Critics say such offensive names leave the impression that cliffs and crags are the playground of heterosexual white males. They want them expunged from climbing guidebooks, apps and websites.
In July, Melanin Base Camp, an organization for outdoorsy people of color, posted an article criticizing the website Mountain Project for failing to remove “incredibly offensive names of climbing routes.” In response, Nick Wilder, the website’s founder, avowed that he considers the issue “my top priority.”
In August, the American Alpine Club, Appalachian Mountain Club and three other outdoor organizations issued a joint statement supporting the removal of derogatory names that “deface the special places where we climb” and “signal that not all people are welcome.”
The controversy is expected to lead to changes in future editions of “Adirondack Rock,” a two-volume guidebook authored by Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Haas. Aided by fellow climbers, Lawyer and Haas have culled through nearly 4,000 names of routes in the Adirondacks and identified a dozen that are overtly discriminatory.
“There are many more names that are crude, adolescent, vulgar, or in poor taste, but we haven’t yet decided that those need to be changed,” Lawyer said in an email. “Some names have a well-intentioned back story, but our protocol is that if you have to explain why something questionable isn’t discriminatory, then it needs to be changed.”
Generally, routes are named by those who make the first ascent. Lawyer said he and Haas will work with those climbers to come up with new names, but when that isn’t possible, they will act unilaterally. “As guidebook authors, we straddle a line between making climbing inclusive and recording Adirondack climbing history,” he said. “In short, we recognize the problem, and want to be part of the solution—we will change route names.”
He declined to identify the 12 names that will be changed. “I don’t want to get into discussions on specific route names. When specific names are debated online, you can see what happens—hundreds of posts and personal attacks.”
Before emailing Lawyer, I went through “Adirondack Rock” and jotted down a number of route names that might be considered offensive: Boob Job, Homo, Hooters, Jemima Dreams, Ku Klux Ken, Psycho Slut, The Sodomizer and some more graphic names referring to female anatomy.
Lawyer said only Jemima Dreams and Ku Klux Ken qualify as overtly discriminatory. “The remaining names on your list fall into the vulgar/crude/etc category, and are still up for debate,” he added. In general, though, he believes that “vulgar is OK.”
The second edition of “Adirondack Rock” was published in 2014. Lawyer has not disclosed plans for a third edition. Before a new book comes out, though, offensive route names will be removed from the “Adirondack Rock” website, according to Lawyer.