Melissa Utomo’s first trip to Ten Sleep Canyon, Wyoming, in July 2019, was memorable. Sure, the limitless limestone and alpine wildflowers left an impression. But what stood out the most was an area called the Slavery Wall. Flipping through the guidebook, she was shocked: Route names included Happiness in Slavery (5.12b), Aunt Jemima’s Bisquick Thunderdome (5.12c), and 40 Acres and a Mule (5.11a).
“There was this feeling that certain people weren’t welcome,” says Utomo, who is Asian American. That feeling cast a shadow over her trip.
Route names range from geographical (Northeast Face) to punny (The Young and the Rackless, 5.9) to pornographic (Daily Dick Dose, V7). And some, like those at what was until recently called the Slavery Wall, touch on race or gender, issues turbocharged in the wake of the 2017 Me Too movement and, more recently, the Black Lives Matter protests.
When it comes to changing the more cringe-inducing names, climbers are split. On one side are people like Utomo, who claim that problematic route names make climbing unwelcoming for marginalized groups, and that those names need to change as the community becomes more diverse. After her trip, Utomo, who works as a web developer in Boulder, Colorado, dug in further and identified at least 1,500 names on Mountain Project that contain racial slurs, misogynistic language, or other obscene keywords. One example, 40 Acres and a Mule, refers to payments promised to Black slaves who served the Union in the Civil War. Neither was delivered, exacerbating economic inequity.
Brittany Leavitt is a regional director for Brown Girls Climb, a business that supports women of color through memberships and climbing events. “Speaking through a Black person’s lens, even if that happened over 100 years ago—it’s still something that’s relatable and hurtful to … the Black community, especially for people who have ancestors who were a part of that historical context,” she says. “A lot of climbers will say, ‘Let the past stay in the past,’ but [those broken promises] affect us still.”
In 2019, Utomo reached out to Mountain Project, then owned by REI, to propose a design feature for flagging harmful route names. She says she was dismissed, first by REI, then by Nick Wilder, the site’s current owner; changing route names wasn’t a priority. Plus, MP representatives told her, the first ascentionist would have the final say.
John Sherman, the bouldering pioneer responsible for the V-scale, is against name changes. “If you start to change names, one, you trample on the history [of climbing], and, two, you are making an assumption that you know better or are morally superior to another individual,” he says.
Climbers also argue that changing route names bucks the tradition of paying respect to first ascensionists. Establishing a new route requires vision, experience, and time. Often, FA parties put in days of manual labor, cleaning, trundling, scouting, and installing hardware. The cost usually comes out of their own pockets. All that work becomes a donation to the climbing community. The route name is an artisan’s stamp, and a way for climbers to record something memorable about a climb.
Hueco Tanks, Texas, with its many X-rated names, has become a ground zero for this discussion. Take Itty Bitty Adolescent Titties and Beer, Pizza, and a Three-Foot Toothless Girl, just a few examples of names that made Jeff Achey—then the book editor at Climbing and today the owner of the guidebook company Wolverine Publishing—cringe when he flipped through Sherman’s 1990 guide. “I just remember being put off by all these weird, pornographic names,” he says. “It was ribald humor and tongue-in-cheek, but it put a stain on the area for me.”
Sherman claims that a lot of those names have innocent backstories. For example, Hueco’s Daily Dick Dose was first projected on a daily basis by Dick Cilley. Others were reflective of El Paso’s seedy past, says Sherman, often named after whatever film was advertised on the marquee of the Fiesta Drive-In adult theater climbers cruised past on their way to Hueco.
Then there was the Chris Hill climb Another Nigga in the Morgue. When Sherman submitted the guidebook manuscript, he says the copyeditor immediately changed the name, citing racism. Sherman wrote back, telling the publisher that Hill was African American. “Had Chris fallen from the crux, he would have cartwheeled down a slab and ended under another boulder called The Morgue,” Sherman explains. Censoring the name without context, Sherman argues, was akin to assuming that the first ascensionist was a white person (which would be racist on the part of the editor) or had malicious intent. In reality, neither was true.
Hill himself says there’s even another layer of meaning—the name also pays tribute to a Geto Boys song he had on repeat while putting up the climb. Adds Hill, “The first ascensionist has always had the right to call the route whatever they want,” emphasizing, like Sherman, that routes should not be renamed. “History should be preserved,” he says.
The Guidebook’s Role
When Dave Bingham published his 1985 City of Rocks, Idaho, guide in small-town, Mormon-country Idaho, routes like Nipples and Clits (5.10a) generated local backlash. While sales weren’t affected, Bingham says the pressure was so intense that he changed the name to “Nipples … ” in later editions. “I don’t think it’s cool to be intentionally offensive,” he says. “And some names I see—honestly, they’re just from young dudes being idiots. If they were my names, I would say to the guidebook author, ‘Yes, please change this. I don’t know what I was thinking.’”
Achey ultimately changed the especially problematic name Pumped Full of Semen to PFOS in Wolverine’s Hueco Tanks guidebook. “Thinking about all the pre-teen girls I’ve read about crushing in Hueco, wandering through the boulders with their dads, thumbing through our guidebook, I just couldn’t bring myself to print it,” he says. Still, he doesn’t think discomfort alone is reason to doctor history. “Climbing has strong countercultural and anarchic roots, and I think we as a community are proud of that heritage,” Achey says. Everything from long hair to sex, drugs, and rock and roll was considered offensive when climbing first took hold in the States.
“So are some of these route names legitimate expressions of a period of time and a group of people who were active in rejecting the establishment? Maybe,” Achey says. “I’d say you can look to the art world for guidance. For art, you often have to realize that, OK, this piece of art is intended to be uncomfortable and provocative … if this disturbs you or offends you, that might be part of the point.”
The Real Rebels
Peter Beal, a prolific Colorado first ascensionist who first started climbing in the late 1970s, doesn’t buy that argument. “Most of that rebel culture was not particularly rebellious—it was just white dudes from the middle class having a good time,” he says. Plus, he claims that a lot of those original developers “grew up and became stockbrokers or dentists. So I don’t see any particular reason to retain that bogus mythology.”
“Sure, some of those offensive names are part of climbing history, but do we want to glorify them?” asks the Colorado climber Jamie Logan, noting that history can be preserved by saving old guidebooks instead of demanding that climbers use those names in perpetuity. Logan, an early pioneer of North American free climbing (FFA of the Diamond on Longs Peak; FA of the Emperor Face on Mount Robson), started climbing in 1958. She says a lot about that early culture was rebellious—just not the naming part. “We didn’t feel the need to name routes things that would make people feel bad,” she says. Instead, climbers of that era opted for names like Muir Wall that showed respect to historical figures. Or, in the Valley climber Jim Bridwell’s case, psychedelic-sounding names that were in vogue in the 1970s, like New Dimensions (5.11a) and Outer Limits (5.10c).
“I feel strongly that the first ascensionist should have the right to name a route whatever they want. It’s their First Amendment right,” Logan says. “And I feel strongly that no one else should have the obligation to ever call it that name.” Adds Logan, if a route name is causing pain, it should be called something else by the community.
Beal says all climbing development—from which routes should be bolted to which names are acceptable—is subject to community approval if it takes place on public land. Others add that relying on first ascensionists to rename climbs can be problematic: Most of the 1,500 routes Utomo identified were named by white males, who she says may not be good judges of what’s painful to marginalized groups. Brown Girls Climb’s Leavitt further recommends that indigenous people be consulted to ensure names aren’t in conflict with the land’s sacred or historic context.
Many of the first ascensionists interviewed say they’d be open to changing names if presented with a good argument, and would appreciate being asked about the name’s context before having it labeled as bigoted. Louie Anderson, the Wyoming-based guidebook author and ascensionist responsible for naming 40 Acres and a Mule, is one of those.
“I definitely don’t think [route developers] should have carte blanche to be offensive or vulgar,” he says. “I tend to just go with [existing] themes when I’m naming things”—another longtime climbing custom meant to show respect to the area’s original route developers.
When Anderson came to Ten Sleep’s Slavery Wall, it had already been named and themed (by area developer and guidebook author Aaron Huey after the wall’s first route, “Happiness in Slavery,” a Nine Inch Nails song). So when Anderson put up a 5.11a, he researched the history of slavery in America and stumbled upon the painful context behind the phrase “40 acres and a mule.” Says Anderson, “[It] was a historical reference to a promise that was never delivered. I was hoping that someone would read the name and wonder about the context and do their own research.”
Leavitt says Anderson’s intent doesn’t soften her opinion: “If you think this is how we want our history to be remembered, it’s not,” she says. “There are a lot of ways to do that, but naming a route after pain isn’t one.”
In the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in police custody in May 2020, Utomo, among other concerned climbers, reached out to Anderson and Huey to let them know that the original intent behind their route names was lost on most climbers. Anderson agreed, and renamed 40 Acres and a Mule to Broken Promises.
A few days after Anderson’s announcement on social media, Huey made a similar one: In future guidebooks, the Slavery Wall would be the Downpour Wall, and Happiness in Slavery would be Happiness. “Aunt Jemima” has also been dropped from Aunt Jemima’s Bisquick Thunderdome. Huey called the changes long overdue. His view now: “There is no room for route names that play with race.” A week later, Nick Wilder also changed his tune, adding to Mountain Project a route-name-flagging feature, which he says was largely inspired by Utomo’s proposal.
Leavitt says she was pleasantly surprised by the flurry of renaming, however localized, but warns that there are still harmful route names out there, and, perhaps more worrying, plenty of climbers “resistant to seeing the change and growth happening in the climbing community.”
“It’s definitely a baby step,” she says.