climbing · fitness · Guest Post

On route names in climbing (guest post)

When you enter a long distance trail race, it isn’t called the Wet Dirty Crack 100k. When you enter a soccer tournament, it isn’t called the Spread ‘Em Baby Tournament.

When you take up rock climbing, you don’t have that “luxury.” You have entered a subculture where adolescent male sexual humour has had free play. By convention, the “first ascensionist” of a climbing route gets to name the route, and they name it for whatever is on their mind. Sometimes the results are delightful and witty. Names emerge from days of hanging out at the cliff, working hard, shooting the breeze with friends. There’s a rich kind of free association and play that works its alchemy.

But alchemists don’t always turn lead into gold. Sometimes they just end up with lead. Here’s a page from the recently released guidebook for the climbing in the Blue Mountains in Australia.

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Jennifer Wigglesworth at Queen’s University in Ontario (Canada) is working on a PhD on women’s experiences in climbing. The Globe and Mail this year published an article on her work. My own local community figures in that article, with a gym owner and route developer defending these so-called spicy names. You gotta like that the journalist ended the piece with a classic quote from him: he says that the critics of these naming practices should grow up.

It took me some time to get my head around everything I think is wrong with this route-naming practice. There’s still lots of open discussion to have in the community–about what’s problematic and about how to bring about change.

There’s the obvious colonial history of people “finding” places and naming them as they please. The history of climbing is historically deeply entwined with the European project of “finding” places that were never lost.

I see sexualized route names as a form of sexual harassment. Consider the comparison I started with. If someone down at my university’s athletic centre wanted to name a soccer tournament “Spread ‘Em Baby”, students would have reasonable grounds to object to that as a form of sexual harassment. Making it a price of admission to the sport that you have to take part in (or exclude yourself from) activities with sexualized names is just that.

Some people don’t take the analysis that far: what they object to is derogatory names, not sexualized names. So our local community’s new guidebook (not the one pictured above) has derogatory names removed–where the authors correctly identified that a name was derogatory. Derogatory names that they didn’t think of looking up in the urban dictionary remain. And the book treats us to nice long trips down memory lane explaining the previous derogatory names.

Sigh. Like buddy down at the gym who wanted to call it the “Spread ‘Em Baby” tournament was told no, he can’t do that—so he planted himself at the registration table and told everyone who registered how he came up with this oh-so-funny name and why, with the wisdom of age, since he has a daughter himself now after all, he now sees that “Spread” alone is better. “Spread” is a tournament he would be comfortable having his daughter register in.

One perspective you don’t see in The Globe and Mail article (one a local coach mentioned to me) is that the names become a problem when you are coaching a group of kids. What kind of crag are you willing to bring other peoples’ kids to?

This has been the germ of a whole new perspective I have on this naming behaviour. Given the well-known ability of 13, 14, and 15-year-old girls to crush hard routes that virtually all grown men only dream of climbing, I suspect the whole practice is really a move to keep away the most threatening competition.

I’ve made some surprising connections in my local community with women who love my suggestions for feminist revenge names. The process of thinking up revenge names is fun. Handy tip: you can just take the first ascensionist’s name and call the route “[Insert name]’s Sad [Dick/Crack/Hole] Joke”. I’m also planning a whole crag built around lyrics from Beyoncé’s Lemonade album.

I tried making a plea for some minimal standards with the sexualized joke names. Cracks are a rock feature often climbed. You can see where this is going. You can just imagine how worked up a sexually frustrated quasi-adolescent gets when repeating the word “crack” over and over again all day while trying to perform a physically challenging act on said crack. Crack climbs are absolutely the low-hanging fruit of sexualized route names.

So I proposed that we could at least have a moratorium on “crack” double entendres, on the minimal grounds that they’re just too obvious. To my surprise, some people in our little facebook debate were genuinely surprised to learn that their crack joke was not seen by everyone to be as clever as they thought it was. I guess that’s how potty humour perpetuates itself–generation after generation failing to perceive the obvious.

There’s a local crag (Sorrow’s End) with a route called “See with Joy.” Now there’s a name that captures something about the climbing experience. May there be many more names like that in the future.

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5 thoughts on “On route names in climbing (guest post)

  1. How do climbers find out about these routes? If it doesn’t work to appeal to the community as a whole, perhaps one can appeal to websites and references that list the names, similar to the way The Knot and Pinterest have agreed to stop listing plantations as wedding venues. Maybe there can just be a default replacement naming protocol, e.g.: “Due to issues with derogatory names, when there is a questionable name we will substitute the first ascenscionist’s name and the year climbed, as the route name.”

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    1. Yeah—there are websites that list them, typically by community volunteers putting in the info. And then there are guidebooks, written by individuals and published by small publishers or self-published. Sometimes by climbing associations. The first ascensionist ethos is super strong. People who want change have to take that on. And literally spend a bunch of time arguing with people who call us snowflakes for objecting but have remarkably thin skins themselves. Some guidebook authors are attempting reform, each in their own way. Some (apparently) not. Even agreeing whether the issue is derogatory names or sexualized names is up in the air.

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  2. Love this. Cross country ski trails have the naming issue too, though not the sexual element. One of my fave trails, at the top of my usual ski area, so a big climb, used to be called “Drifter”–which I loved for it’s wandering light spirit. Now they’ve changed it to “Captain Nordic”–ugh. Sounds macho and conquering to me. But I’ll still drift on my skis and be one of those crotchety old timers who calls it by its old name.

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  3. Ugh, some of these route names are horrible! I’ve only ever bouldered indoors, but these would definitely get up my nose.

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    1. I find it affects my life in the gym too. Disappointment at learning how many of the guys climbing around me were just defending this crap (name-calling etc.) Feeling unhappy that I’ve been privy to TMI about what the people around me are thinking when they’re climbing. Especially that person x was happy giving everyone a mental association between their specific person and their genitals via the climb. I’m poised somewhere between “ew” and “wow—what if the world were so sex positive for women that I could confidently plant that association out there in the world and expect glory instead of shame!”

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