Posted on December 9, 2020

Climbing Routes Are Riddled with Racist and Misogynistic Names. Meet the People Trying to Change It All.

Amanda Loudin, The Lily, November 30

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. {snip}


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.


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.


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.