Mountain Climbers Push to Change ‘Super-Insensitive’ Racist Trail Names
For decades, a “boys’ club” of climbers have given trails racist, sexist, and homophobic names. In light of BLM protests, a new generation of activists want to change it.
Since he was in elementary school summiting flagpoles, eating his lunch at the top of basketball hoops, and wriggling his way up the exposed seams of brick buildings, Kai Lightner has been a fearless climber.
The 20-year-old professional from Fayetteville, North Carolina, has tackled some of the hardest routes in the world, ascending the formidable Era Vella in Margalef, Spain, when he was just 15. Still there are some spots he won’t go near—not due to any dangerous grade or slope, but because of the name.
Across the U.S., Canada, and parts of Mexico, the so-called “First Ascensionists” who create routes have a long history of naming trails after racist, misogynistic, or homophobic phrases.
There’s “Strange Fruit” in Jamestown, Alabama, “Black Chicks in Heat” in Owens River Gorge, California, and “Confederate Arete” in Sunset Park, Tennessee.
Some are just plain juvenile (see: “I Fudged Your Mama” in Socorro, Nevada, or “Should Have Pulled Out” in Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado). There is no shortage of offensive names. Activists say this shows the seams of climbing culture, which they describe as an irreverent white boys’ club.
For years, the names have been an open secret, something climbers didn’t like but shrugged their shoulders at. After the killing of George Floyd and ensuing global protests, the outdoor industry—like most communities in the Untied States—faces a reckoning of how to address racism in its ranks.
“Within our culture, most outdoor areas are in super-rural, conservative places that have pretty regressive perspectives on race,” Lightner, who is Black, said. “As an athlete of color, these super-insensitive names are very deterring. Things like route names are a microaggression.”
Lightner recently spoke on the topic alongside his mother Connie on an episode of the podcast “For the Love of Climbing.” When Lightner began his career, Connie made clear that he could climb whatever he wanted, as long as it did not have an abusive route name.
“It happened so many times,” Lightner told The Daily Beast. “If there was profanity in the name, something derogatory towards women, my mother wouldn’t let me climb it. If I did accomplish it, who wants to post that? It’s embarrassing.”
Last month, Lightner launched his nonprofit, Climbing For Change, aimed at expanding diversity and inclusion work in the outdoor industry. But along with donating and funding those efforts, Lightner believes that it’s imperative the industry rename the routes as well.
“We will never fully be able to say that our environment is inclusive if we continue to support things that marginalize communities,” he said. “Route names make people uncomfortable, and that means the door is never fully open or inviting to everyone.”
When a First Ascensionist creates a climb, the name they pick is immortalized in guidebooks sold in outdoor shops. For most of the 2000s, the trails have also been shared on the popular forum Mountain Project, a website where climbers upload content about their climbs. (The site was owned by the chain retailer REI until May of this year.)
Last month, a 29 year-old rock climber and web developer named Melissa Utomo spoke to the blog Melanin Base Camp about her experience pitching a feature to Mountain Project that would allow users to flag offensive names. Utomo alleges that the idea was rejected over a series of meetings that occurred late last year and this spring.
After protests began in June, Mountain Project added a similar feature, and Utomo called out the site for what she sees as a rip-off of her initial proposal. (Utomo did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)
Climbers-turned-activists have rallied behind Utomo’s original mission, creating their own lists of offensive names in hopes of holding First Ascensionists accountable.
Jaylene Chung lives in Los Angeles and co-founded Climb the Gap, a collective that aims to promote a more diverse climbing community. The team has been crowd-sourcing a List of Offensive Route Names with the intent of putting pressure on guidebook authors, publishers, and advertisers to address the issue.
Chung has been climbing for nine years; she told The Daily Beast an ex-boyfriend introduced her to the sport. “I didn’t really like it at first,” she said. “It was for hippie granola people.”
But once that relationship ended and she moved to Los Angeles, she found herself living next door to a climbing gym. “I made my first friends here from climbing,” Chung explained. “I found a really cool community of diverse people and I loved how supportive everyone was.”
But other gyms are not as welcoming. “I’m an Asian woman, and when I walk in I do a count, a scan, of who is there,” Chung said. “It’s very clear that everyone else inside is a white man.”
The contrast gets “even starker” when Chung eschews the indoors and heads out to a trail. “Those places are remote,” Chung said. “My climbing partner, who is also an Asian woman, and I went to a spot near Boulder. We got so many weird looks from people who would come up to us and say, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Where are you from-from?’”
Since the pandemic started, Chung and most of her friends stopped going out to climb. Coming from the city, it hasn’t felt safe to intrude on small towns and potentially spread the virus. So Chung stays inside and “dreams of climbing” instead.
“I wanted to maintain some kind of relationship [to the sport during quarantine],” Chung said. “So I’d flip through the guidebooks, thinking of where I’d go eventually. And I thought, ‘Oh whoa. These are some fucked-up names. How have we been letting this go on for so long?’”
Old guard climbers, “the stereotype of the dude who lives in his van, driving across the country,” have chafed at the idea that these names are a problem.
“A lot of people say, ‘It’s just about climbing, why do you have to make it about race? Why do you have to make it political?’” Chung explained. “Everything is political. We climb on Indigenous land. It’s a privilege to be able to climb.”
Danielle Johnson lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and works for the Carolina Climbers Coalition, a nonprofit that preserves rock climbing spaces. As a member of the Western Carolina Climbing Community group, she helped start a campaign to rename six “problem” routes in the immediate area: “Slave Driver,” “Squaw,” “Aunt Jemima,” “Desperate Bitch,” “Gay by Proxy,” and “Slimen Hymen.”
“Especially here in the South, where slavery is such a major element of our past, we can’t just let these things continue to fly,” Johnson said. “We want to demonstrate to our climbing community that if the rest of the country is removing problematic statues and monuments, I think that our route names should follow suit in that manner.”
Isaac Caldiero, 38, has been in the climbing scene for 23 years, and won the seventh season of American Ninja Warrior. He says he has about “300 to 400 first ascents” to his name. In 2011, he published The Insightful Guide to Joe’s Valley Bouldering, which details routes in Utah.
“Climber humor is very rogue and punk rock,” Caldiero, who is white, said. “It’s that old-school mentality of fuck the system, fuck everything, we’re going to go out and rock climb. You’re living in the mountains, you’re a dirtbag, you don’t shower, you don’t live a normal life. That’s how it has been since the dawn of climbing, until recently.”
With the advent of gyms some people, particularly those in urban areas, may only ever rock climb inside. “It’s becoming more attainable to the day-to-day user, and a lot of them have legit jobs, nice cars, careers, homes, families,” Caldiero said.
In his mind, this new generation is not attuned to what Caldiero calls, “just part of the humor of climbers and dirtbags, which was never taken seriously, ever.”
Caldiero once named a 10-foot boulder in Utah “Playmate of the Year,” because the rock formation “had these two perfect, breast-type holes you had to climb on and squeeze.”
“I literally didn’t put that much thought into it,” he said. “My girlfriend at the time was like, ‘Why did you name it that? It’s so perverted.’ It doesn’t represent me as a human being, my core beliefs, in my mind, it doesn’t represent who I am.”
He does not see a fair analogy between climbers calling for routes to be renamed and activists wanting to take down Confederate statues.
“I have a really hard time putting those names on the same level as a statue that blatantly represents racism,” Caldiero said. “I’m not trying to be rude, but why are you so sensitive to the name of a route? You’re going to climb it, spend 10 minutes on it, and move on to a thousand other routes in your life.”
So where do Caldiero, and climbers who share his sensibilities, go from here? “It’s much easier to change the future versus changing the past,” he said. “All we can do now is educate and make it known to people like me, who had no idea about this until a few months ago. Say, ‘Be more sensitive and thoughtful when you’re developing routes for future generations.’”
Climbers in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, have tried to “change the future.” Last month, an area developer Louie Anderson announced some name changes on social media. “Slavery Wall” is now “Downpour Wall,” and routes like “40 Acres and a Mule” were amended to “Broken Promises.” “Happiness in Slavery” just became “Happiness.”
“There is no place in our sport for names that cause harm to others,” Anderson wrote in his announcement. “I hope and suspect that other names will be changed here and elsewhere to reflect this.”
Anderson, who has written a guidebook, added that he could not afford to republish it. “Please help to spread the word about these names changes and encourage other areas, route developers, and guidebook authors to make similar changes as needed.”
This move prompted an op-ed from the climbing magazine Rock & Ice, where senior editor Andrew Bisharat wrote, “A good test for whether a route name passes the ‘offensive’ test is if it’s something you’d be uncomfortable hearing your own kid talk about climbing.”
Taking issue with route names like “Skull Fuck” and “Daily Dick Dose,” Bisharat erased racism from the issue. Many readers took him to task for deflecting attention away from the original goal: ensuring outdoor spaces are safe for BIPOC climbers.
The backlash prompted the site’s publisher and editor Duane Raleigh to resign from his post and issue a public apology to readers, admitting that he created racist routes forty years ago, including one which used the n-word.
In his open letter, Raleigh quoted Dominique Davis, a Black climber from Atlanta, who said: “Climbing trips aren’t the carefree escapes from reality for me that they are for you. I’m Black no matter where I go, and with that comes the reality that the towns many of these crags are located in are not as welcoming and accepting of people that look like me. When there’s a Confederate flag hanging in a gas station, I know I’m not going to risk my safety by stopping there.”
These are issues that changing route names will not reverse, but advocates still think it is a worthy (and beyond overdue) first step.
“It’s going to be a long road,” Lightner, the 20-year-old professional climber, said. “Something like a racist route name might seem small, but it’s a microaggression that plays into the larger picture, and one of the many things that stigmatizes our outdoors to make people believe it’s not for them.”