Wolverine has been attentively listening to the national conversation about racial and gender inclusivity in climbing, and to the problem of offensive route names. If you’ve been following, and noticed that we’ve been silent, it’s because there has been a lot to absorb and learn.
First, we encourage you to seek out, partner with, and/or donate to organizations who are actively working on creative diversity solutions, for example Climb the Gap and Climbing 4 Change. Offensive route names are only a small part of the greater problem of lack of diversity in our community. But language and names are a big part of guidebooks, so that’s the focus of this blog.
We have changed, and will change, certain route names. That’s the short version. Some climb names are just too disgusting to print. Some use clear racial slurs. Others are misogynistic. Some such names, we admit, have been allowed to stand anyway. Many climbers (especially the white and privileged who dominate our sport) see these names as simply stupid, or in bad taste, serving mostly as an indictment of the first ascensionists’ character. Yet to other, more marginalized groups, these names may form a barrier to participation. We understand that better now and want to be part of the solution.
As guidebook publishers, we have a complex role in this national reckoning. On one hand, we strive to record and explain climbing’s history, and an extreme commitment to that goal would require retaining even the most offensive route names. On the other hand, our essential job is to make it easier for newcomers to the sport to feel informed and welcome at the crags covered by our guidebooks. If some bits of history are buried trying to help more people feel welcome in the climbing community, it’s a sacrifice worth making. History gets selectively buried all the time, for much less worthy causes. But how far is too far? Who defines offensive? We all are making new history in these dynamic times.
Many route names reflect the counter-cultural nature of climbers and route developers from days past. Dating as far back as the early 1960s, climbers such as the Vulgarians sought to shock or offend the sensibilities of the times. Those men and women came up with some raunchy route names, some suppressed by the stodgy guidebook publishers of the day, only to resurface in more liberal times. Decades later there was a replay: many of the early “gym rats” putting up hard first ascents in the 1990s were just young punks climbing hard in their own style and dissing the self-righteous old guard — both with the difficulty of their routes and the rudeness of their route names. Good on them! Or not. Some of the names that resulted are now clashing badly with shifting values and rising awareness.
We believe that — just like in climbing — the process of change deserves as much attention as achieving a goal. Changing a bunch of route names may make some folks feel better and allow them to move on to the next cause, but if the process is just a knee-jerk reaction, little is accomplished. Deeper transformation needs to occur. Habits and values need to be questioned, which requires a conversation.
For example, one route, The Racist in the New River Gorge, was flagged by the local action group. We publish the guidebook to that area. A long and very interesting Facebook thread ensued about that name, which was given to the route (which climbs a very smooth, steep, pale-colored face), “because it was white and mean,” like the racists from the FA’s home town. Change it or leave it? Legitimate question. In the end, after an informal poll, both people of color and whites were equally split. But anyone who read the entire thread went away more informed, and with a lot to ponder.
Another question is, who picks the route names to change? The (mostly white, male) publishers? The (mostly white, male) authors? The (mostly white, male) first ascensionists? The (mostly white, male) name-change zealots? To one small group, the names that need changing are obvious, there are dozens of them in any given guidebook, and the method doesn’t matter, as long as “offensive” names go away. Another group feels that first ascensionists have near-sacred rights over their routes, the names are what they are, and if you feel personally offended, you have some sort of character flaw. In the middle are those who care about history, but also about inclusiveness; those who feel some names need changing, but that the original namers should be consulted; some who care about their young children reading the guidebooks; some who want to know the intention of the name; many who just want to see a climbing community more, not less, inclusive than society at large.
We welcome your participation in improving our guidebooks, and our community. We will continue to actively seek out resources and partners to improve diversity in our sport. As for route names, our main thrust currently is to solicit grassroots information from local groups representing the climbing communities our guidebooks serve. Flagged or otherwise problematical route names will be part of the editing process in all upcoming Wolverine guidebooks. We also welcome your direct comments. Please use the Contact Us page on our website to submit specific name-change suggestions, or broader concerns and suggestions. We will listen!
One last note: Please, as you engage this topic, do so in the spirit of the change you seek to achieve — toward growth and inclusiveness. Finger-pointing and name-calling are polarizing tactics that don’t work well. Listening, learning, and persuading work much better. As many great leaders have said, about many different challenges to our ability to respect each other and get along: “Love is the answer!”