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It wasn’t difficult to recognize a racist name growing up, even if I didn’t know what the word itself meant — my friends’ wincing faces said enough.

So imagine how I, an avid rock climber, felt when those same words were used to mark climbing routes I frequented. Throughout my six years rock climbing, I’ve encountered countless racist, sexist, homophobic route names — peppered between harmless others.

Every instance of this was a reminder that my favorite pastime in the world was booby-trapped with cutting insults. Just like so many other spaces that have been designed without women of color in mind, the great outdoors is no exception; it can feel unwelcoming and even outright hostile to women like me.

It makes sense, given that the sport was long dominated by White men. In rock climbing, those who put the route together — and are the “first” to ascend it — get to name it. In recent years, physical manifestations of racist value systems have come under fire — from racist route names to how climbing gyms are operated.

But these conversations have also opened up new pathways for solutions. For myself, that meant picking up a crowbar larger than my entire body and a hammer drill designed to pummel through granite. I never thought that I would find myself dangling off the side of a mountain, pressing a drill into solid rock, just to prove a point — just to finally name my own route.

But in October of 2020 and June of 2021, Tiffany Blount, a friend and rock climbing advocate, and I got ourselves tested for the coronavirus, packed up our things and flew from New York to Colorado to spend 20 hard-earned vacation days lugging tools and bolts up the side of a mountain in Staunton State Park.

Tiffany and I are amateur climbers at best, dogged and hard-working ones, but we’re far from the Alex Honnolds that the world has come to associate with the sport of climbing. Instead, we’re women in their mid- and late-thirties, with desk jobs in New York City. But with this simple undertaking, we wanted to show that route development — the process of putting these routes on a mountain — can be an act of empathy that models inclusivity.

Tiffany Blount in October 2020 in Staunton State Park, Colo. (Courtesy of Lam Thuy Vo)
Tiffany Blount in October 2020 in Staunton State Park, Colo. (Courtesy of Lam Thuy Vo)

The path to developing a route is not only one of skill, but really one of access. Route development often happens in closed circles. Anyone who owns the land — a state or federal government body, a private company or person — can designate certified volunteers who get to build the routes.

According to Taimur Ahmad, who works for the climbing advocacy organization Access Fund as a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion and policy associate, rules can vary widely. National and state parks likely require permits to develop routes. Some public lands allow people to go and do what they want. Privately owned land, whether it’s owned by a particular family or an entity like a nonprofit organization, is often completely dependent on how those owners want the land to be developed.

But beyond the idea of who administers the land on which we all have the privilege to climb is the question of whose land it is and was. Monserrat Alvarez Matehuala, the outdoor program director at Brown Girls Climb, said that one of the most important things that many folks fail to address when developing routes is to work with Native American communities from whom this land was originally stolen and who have a deeply intimate relationship to it. Recently, a route developer drilled bolts into federally protected Native petroglyphs, horrifying the climbing community.

For route developers, it’s important to keep in mind: There are many lands that are considered sacred and should not be developed for climbing. There is vegetation that may be particularly abundant in some regions that is important to local tribes. How to proceed depends on each tribe’s values, and checking in with those original stewards of the land is vital to ensuring you’re not destroying important sites for these communities.

So where do you even start?

For us, access came in the form of an email that landed in my inbox in the summer of 2020. “Hi,” the email read. “I read ‘That’s what She Set’, and wonder how I (as an old white male) can make new outdoor routes more female friendly.”

This plea for help came from Alan Prehmus, 64, a Colorado resident who has been developing routes for the past eight years, five of which he’s spent drilling holes and hammer bolts into the side of the Rockies in Staunton State Park.

I co-run an organization called Try-Hard Crew, a group for nonbinary and female climbers that’s been focused on bringing more diversity to the indoor route-setting community. Prehmus had seen “That’s What She Set,” a Try-Hard Crew curriculum for indoor route-setting workshops that I’d put online. The curriculum, which gave guidance on putting plastic holds on the wall for others to climb, was part of an effort to spread an idea: Let’s have women and nonbinary folks help build and install the routes we all climb in the gym. It seemed that the message had received a willing audience in Prehmus.

Tiffany and I devised a simple plan: The two of us — along with the guidance of Prehmus and the blessing of the park, which also works with Indigenous communities — would bolt as many routes as we could. And in the process, we’d help create a new model for route development.

Tiffany Blount and Alan Prehmus in October 2020 in Clear Creek, Colo. (Courtesy of Lam Thuy Vo)
Tiffany Blount and Alan Prehmus in October 2020 in Clear Creek, Colo. (Courtesy of Lam Thuy Vo)

Prehmus started sending us videos and photos of potential areas that could be developed. Meanwhile, Tiffany and I started working out on Zoom four times a week, trying to get out of our pandemic-induced stupor and fit enough to carry 40-pound backpacks full of tools up a steep incline. We took three-hour-long road trips to find places to practice climbing in the wild.

After several days of scouting potential sites for our route, Blount and I settled on a little piece of granite slab that Prehmus had lovingly called “the classroom.” We worked on the area for several days, removing loose rocks and cleaning the area’s surfaces.

Eight days into our first trip to Colorado in 2020, we were able to complete an entire route.

Of course, naming the route felt paramount to enshrining real change. Tiffany suggested we name the climb “Patterson’s Pitch,” an homage to Mary Jane Patterson, the first African American woman believed to have received a bachelor’s degree in the United States.

Then, in June, we added two more routes: One is named Jiayou (加油 or jiā yóu, which means “you got this!” or “fuel up!” in Chinese) — an homage to the solidarity and community I’ve seen spring up among Asians this year, as we deal with an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. The second route, which is located in an area of the mountain called “Lower East Side” and where routes are named after New York City locations, is called “Avenue of the Immigrants,” a little street I discovered in downtown Manhattan a few years ago that made me, a first-generation immigrant to the United States, gasp with excitement.

There are more than 248,000 climbing routes that have been registered on Mountain Project, a crowdsourced website where climbers regularly look up routes for their climbing adventures. To know that we will have three routes on that site may seem like a minuscule feat.

But to me, it’s a way to bring our full selves to this space and signal to other women of color that these routes were made by us with them specifically in mind.

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