In the wake of the recent racial justice discussions across the United States, local route developers have come together to rename several controversial routes within the sport climbing epicenter of Ten Sleep Canyon, Wyoming,
Ten Sleep is no stranger to controversy. Over the years, the limestone wonderland has become a hot spot for discussions about route manufacturing and, more recently, about the process of naming—and renaming—routes.
One area, originally named “The Slavery Wall,” has drawn particular ire. The wall derived its moniker from the cliff’s first route, which was named Happiness in Slavery (5.12b), after a song by the band Nine Inch Nails. (The route beside it, Head like a Hole, (5.12a), is named for another song from the same album.)
The song “Happiness in Slavery,” in turn, references the preface of a 1954 French erotic novel called the Story of O, which is about sexual bondage. Aaron Huey, the first ascensionist behind the wall’s seminal route and therefore the naming of the crag, says neither the song nor the route were intended to reference the history of slavery in the US.
However, later developers added routes like 40 Acres and a Mule (5.11a), which did reference historical events and muddled the original meaning of the wall’s name. Louie Anderson, a guidebook author and area developer, put up 40 Acres and a Mule. He says he’d researched American slavery while trying to think of a name for his new line. In his reading, he learned that during the American Civil War, Black soldiers were promised a mule and 40 acres of land as payment for their service. That payment was never distributed. Anderson says he was shocked to learn of the broken promise and adopted the name, hoping that it would intrigue climbers into doing their own research and discovering that painful past for themselves.
Despite the context, climbers have reached out to both Huey and Anderson, requesting the route names be changed. Anderson released a statement on social media on June 11, stating that 40 Acres and a Mule would now be known as Broken Promises. The name has since been changed on Mountain Project at Anderson’s request, and will be updated in upcoming editions of area guidebooks.
Anderson hopes that going public with the name change will encourage other route developers: “Hopefully this will allow others in a similar position to make the same decision,” he says.
Two days later, Huey made a similar announcement, stating that he would change the name of the The Slavery Wall to The Downpour Wall, a decision he says he’d made several weeks prior while working with guidebook designer Mike Ranta on the newest Ten Sleep guide, which will be released digitally this month.
“In the past weeks during the protests and actions [in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis], I had a few conversations with the new guidebook author, and with another person who reached out and said the original intention did not matter and it was time to re-examine the name in current context. I agreed,” says Huey.
“It was clear when looking through the lens of this moment that the original context of a 23-year-old wall was too obscured and altered with time and had become something else,” he explains.
The new name reflects the torrential rainfall that Huey experienced while developing the wall. “And with all that is happening in America and around the world these past months and years, the name Downpour seems appropriate,” he added in a statement.
Several other routes on the wall have also been changed, including Happiness in Slavery, which will now be known as Happiness, and a route originally called Aunt Jemima’s Bisquick Thunderdome (5.12c) will now be known as Bisquick Thunderdome. The names have been changed both on Mountain Project and in the recent guidebook, which was community-sourced. Mike Ranta, who took over the guide from Aaron Huey about a year ago, designed and assembled the book.
“When I took over the guide I wanted it to be a community effort and for that to be true it has to value community discussions,” says Ranta. He adds that he’s found those recent discussions sober, respectful, and encouraging. “It's amazing that route developers are reflecting on these names, and it shows us that the community in the canyon is taking each other seriously.”
Other areas may be seeing a similar trend as route developers and guidebook authors reexamine the role of route names in contributing to inclusivity in climbing. The upcoming third edition guide for Colorado’s Clear Creek Canyon will have several new names, abbreviated to remove racist or misogynistic connotations, says Kate Beezley, a representative for Fixed Pin Publishing, which distributes the guide.
Routes like Towelhead (5.11b), Welfare Crack (5.11c), and Smack that Bitch Up (5.11a) will be changed to T-Head, W-Crack, and Smack, respectively.
“Making our climbing areas more welcoming to diverse groups of people is really important,” says Beezley. “I’d love to see more route developers having empathy toward other people’s experiences and take that into consideration in their names going forward.”
Look for a deeper discussion on the topic of controversial route names, and whether or not they should be changed, in the upcoming Autumn 2020 issue of Climbing Magazine. Join Summit to get the magazine in print and online.