Melissa Utomo, a 29-year-old Asian American Web developer, is used to being the only woman and person of color when she rock-climbs.
A few years back, on a climbing trip to Wyoming, she was in just that position when her group arrived at a big section of Ten Sleep Canyon called the “Slavery Wall.” As the climbers challenged themselves on some of the wall’s routes, the troubling names mounted: “Happiness in Slavery.” “Welfare Crack.”
“I couldn’t really process or absorb the names at the time, because I was in this group of all White men,” Utomo said. “But when I returned home to Colorado, I started reading up on other violent, oppressive route names, and I realized I needed to do something.”
Utomo is part of a growing chorus of female and BIPOC climbers (climbers who are Black, Indigenous or people of color) working for change in the sport, particularly in the area of route names. Their task is a daunting one, sometimes placing them at odds with a climbing world dominated by White men.
But Utomo and others like her are beginning to make an impact. In June, amid mounting pushback and rising protests against racial injustice, local developers renamed the Slavery Wall and some of its similarly offense-raising routes. The wall region will now be known as the “Downpour Wall,” while some of the other re-brandings were even simpler: “Happiness in Slavery” — a route named after a Nine Inch Nails song that also inspired the “Slavery Wall” name — is now just “Happiness.”
The way that such routes are named in the first place is straightforward and done without much oversight. When you become the first climber to successfully map out a new route — a “first ascender” — you earn the privilege of naming it. Beyond the Slavery Wall, in some corners of North America that has led to monikers such as “Gold Digger,” “Kitty Porn,” “Clean Shaven Girls” and “Astride my Indian Queen.” In a Medium post in July, self-described “novice climber” Sena Crow recalled being appalled by Texas routes such as “Schizophrenia” and “Third Reich.”
Utomo said climbing has a system of gatekeeping baked into its culture that makes speaking up about offensive names intimidating. “We’ve normalized worshiping the first ascenders,” she said. “If you’re a new climber, it takes a lot of courage to speak up.”
Snews, an outdoor-industry magazine, and the 57hours app, which connects users with mountain guides, each recently surveyed outdoor adventurers to gauge their knowledge and opinions of route names. Asked whether they had ever encountered a route name that they considered racist, sexist, discriminatory or otherwise offensive, 91 percent of SNEWS readers and 65 percent of 57hours mountain guides said yes. Digging deeper, the 57hours survey inquired whether the prevalence of certain route names deterred women and BIPOC adventurers from participating in sports such as climbing and mountain biking. Forty-three percent of guides answered yes.
Ebony Roberts, managing editor at 57hours, said she wasn’t altogether surprised by the responses. “I was a little saddened, though,” she said, “to see some women express the sentiment that essentially, you just have to suck it up if you want to play.”
When 57Hours guides encounter a route with an offensive name, Roberts said, they don’t necessarily avoid it. “They just don’t tell the client the name of the route,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to lie or hide it. The names need to change — full stop.”
Like Utomo, climbing instructor and high school teacher Christina Smyth is working to bring about that change. Smyth, of British Columbia, says she took note of the route names in that area when she began climbing 11 years ago.
“With more free time this summer due to the pandemic, I decided I needed to make an effort for change,” Smyth said. “I started talking to other female climbers, and we began compiling a list of offensive route names. Then we decided which were most worth going after.” Topping the list were the flat-out racist or misogynistic names.
But forcing a change can be challenging, requiring one to get the first ascender’s buy-in and then persuading guidebook authors to make the revision as well. “There’s a good deal of tracking people down and reaching out to them to request the change,” Smyth said. “So far we’ve made some progress, but we’ve also had some pushback. I’m working with others to make this a collaborative effort so that many voices can outweigh those who resist change.”
For her part, Utomo has put her tech skills to use by developing a system that will allow climbers to flag problematic route names. She’s gained the support of affinity groups such as Brown Girls Climb, Women Crush Wednesdays and BelayAll.
“In July, along with Brown Girls Climb, I participated in Erased, a virtual discussion about route names and reimagining what the climbing culture can be,” she said. “We now have a team of 11 people and launched a fundraiser to begin a research phase into building a new climbing app that is accessible [and] will allow route-name flagging and new route names. We’re invested in a long-term goal.”
The efforts of Utomo and others have served to activate a joint effort with five outdoors organizations representing 150,000 members. The American Alpine Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Colorado Mountain Club, Mazamas and the Mountaineers issued a joint statement this summer committing to creating a more respectful and inclusive community with an eye on abolishing offensive route names.
“It’s important that we all spend this time dealing with the systemic oppression that is rampant in the climbing culture,” said Sarah Bradham, acting executive director of Mazamas.
Taimur Ahmad said that as a person of color and a first ascender of several routes in the Sierras, he has been very conscious of the names he and his climbing partner — a woman — have selected together.
“I’ve done climbs where I felt uncomfortable saying the name to a friend and I’d shorten it or change it,” Ahmad said. “I’m optimistic that the majority of organizations in the sport are in agreement with the need to change.”
As with any cultural shift, effecting lasting change in the climbing culture will not happen overnight. But Utomo and others are emboldened to see it through.
“I’m very optimistic,” Utomo said. “There are a lot of voices coming into the discussion. People are hungry for change.”