climbing · fitness · Guest Post

Ms. Marmot says… (Guest post)

Climbing routes with sexually explicit and degrading names have recently attracted some attention, with articles appearing in Engaging Sports, The Globe and Mail , CBC , and Gripped. In July, a somewhat lengthy discussion thread about the issue began at The Mountain Project. While the vast majority of climbing route names are completely inoffensive, not to mention intriguing and fun — think Moonlight Buttress, or Cardiac Arete — it’s surprisingly easy to find ones that demean people sexually in ways that target their gender, sexual orientation, racial identities, disability, and body type. Some of the names also evoke associations of sexual assault. 

Many climbers feel that such names should be changed, and change is slowly taking place. Nonetheless, controversy remains. Some climbers are attached to the freedom of route creators to name without having to consider the feelings or needs of others. Others don’t think people should make a big deal out of sexually degrading route names. And if the comments sections are any indication, some think that taking a different approach to route naming would censor climbers and violate their right to free speech. The researcher at the heart of some of these articles — Jennifer Wigglesworth — has also received some rather troll-like attention from commenters who believe that the study of gender discrimination in sport is a waste of time and money.

Canadian climber Bonnie de Bruijn’s article in Gripped takes into account some of these concerns and offers a reflective argument for why it nonetheless makes sense to take the issue of demeaning route names seriously. Her article is worth reading whether or not you climb, so I won’t get into its content here. But her article did lead me to wonder about a couple of issues that might warrant greater consideration.

The first concerns whether degrading route names cut into the kinds of experiences — like joy, flow, feelings of sensuality, and a sense of achievement — that people often have while climbing. The physicality of engaging with the forces of natural landscapes can also involve what philosopher Sigmund Loland refers to (in the case of snowboarding) as a “rebellious sensuality.” Like joy and flow, the sensualities (rebellious or otherwise) of nature sports are pretty great to experience. 

But it is also really easy to kill these kinds of experiences. Degrading and abusive language, for example, can smother joy, flow, and feelings of achievement in an instant. Sexually crude and demeaning comments can send sensuality into hiding. Given that experiences of joy, flow, and sensuality are important reasons why many people climb in the first place, one might ask: Doesn’t it make more sense to foster the conditions that stimulate awesome experiences than to preserve language that undercuts them?  

Why settle for lower cloud nine when you can have upper cloud nine too?

De Bruijn’s article also led me to wonder whether derogatory route names might affect the kinds of psychological preparation needed to reduce human error. Feelings on the edge of consciousness — like feelings of doubt and feelings of knowing or “rightness” — are, in my view, especially important in sports with a high injury or death consequence. In Alone on the Wall, free soloist Alex Honnold says, “I’ve walked away from more climbs than I can count, just because I sensed that things were not quite right. It’s a deeply subjective decision, a combination of my mood and the vibe of the place and the weather. It’s nothing I can precisely quantify, more like a vague feeling that some days are just not the right day.” He practices and focuses until he feels that the risk of error on his part is as close to zero as it can get. 

It’s a good model to follow. Nature sports with inherent dangers require clear focus and a solid awareness of subtle feelings and environmental cues to reduce the risk of error. But devaluing and callous language is preoccupying and can interfere with mental clarity. It can also undermine confidence and performance, which are similarly important for safety. Given that most people are not Stoic sages when it comes to insults and threats, it’s hard to make the case that demeaning language has no consequences for presence of mind. So why create mental obstacles for people at the outset of a climb when it isn’t necessary to do so?

I took my daughter on an educational tour of the Mountaineers’ Cemetery in Zermatt. Don’t let it be said that I’m not fun on vacation!

As I see it, the concerns raised about route names are not about limiting speech, or censorship, or trying to spoil anyone’s fun. Rather than censorship, this issue is more like saying to a friend: 

“when you say ‘Let’s climb $>%**@!+# today,’ I feel uncomfortable. Also, ew.” 

Or saying to the community:

“We can see how $>%**@!+# might have seemed funny before we knew more about the impact of such language, but now we find it dehumanizing and distracting. Can we talk about this?” 

Good conversations around these issues will help resolve conflicting interests and better enable climbing communities to decide what kinds of experiences and interpersonal relationships they want to build. Like it or not, we are the authors of our communities and sometimes it takes a bit of rewriting to get along. It might not feel like it sometimes, but there is a lot of goodwill to work with on all sides.

In my view, it’s better to create more opportunities for good sporting challenges and eliminate unnecessary social obstacles and sources of psychological harm. And given the relative rarity of experiences of joy, flow, and rebellious sensuality in life, it makes sense to avoid diminishing such experiences where we find them. So for now, Ms. Marmot says, 

TLTR: stop behaving like jerks, eh?