Names of climbing routes: Where does being flippant end and racism begin?

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) once wrote in his famous “Tractatus“. To put it simply: how we say or write something is certainly significant, because language creates reality. In my opinion, this should be taken into account in the discussion about discriminatory names of climbing routes, which has gained considerable momentum in the context of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, especially in the USA.

First-time climbers, who once used the N-word when naming their routes, are therefore not necessarily racists yet – but should be aware that racism starts with the choice of words. What may have been meant funny and flippantly formulated yesterday can be offensive and discriminatory today. Probably it has done so in the past, but it has not been talked about.

White and male dominated club

Last week the respected editor-in-chief and publisher of the US climbing magazine “Rock and Ice”, Duane Raleigh, resigned – under remarkable circumstances. “We were young and could climb and enjoy risks because we had freedoms that non-white America does not have. We were part of a culture that I regret,” the 60-year-old explained his move. “White privilege let our ‘fraternity’ exist, and we could be inappropriate, and do just about anything without consequences. Broadly speaking, the white, male-dominated club still exists worldwide.”

Facebook Takeover, words and photos by Kai Lightner.Growing up, I have always surrounded myself with friends of…

Gepostet von Alex Honnold am Freitag, 12. Juni 2020

The sensitivity of the scene to the subject is now much stronger than it used to be. US climbers, for example, have now spoken out in favour of boycotting the “N**** Wall” in the Owens-River Gorge in eastern California until the offending name is replaced. The climbing portal “mountainproject.com” maintains a list of “bad names”, route names that are perceived as racist, sexist or otherwise discriminatory. The list now contains more than 2000 names.

Also German routes with the N-word

Climbing rock in the Frankenjura

Among them is a German route: “Der N**** mit dem Knackarsch” in the southern German climbing region Frankenjura. On the climbing portal “frankenjura.com” there are two more names with the N-word (“N****kuss”, “Scharfer N****”). A fourth route (“Indianer und Bambus-N****”) has been renamed “Ernie and Bert” in the meantime. “Even though the story was super-funny, the name is no longer tenable in today’s world,” the first ascender of the route explained his decision to rename it. In my opinion, the name “Bimboland” for a part of the climbing area near the Bavarian village of Kochel am See is also no longer tenable. Right-wing extremists might talk like that, climbers shouldn’t.

DAV: “Little scope for action” 

I asked the German Alpine Club (Deutscher Alpenverein – DAV) whether they saw the need to change discriminatory names. Steffen Reich, head of the DAV’s Nature Conservation and Cartography Department, answered me that it was “an important concern of the DAV to stand up for equality and diversity at all levels”. However, the scope for action in this case is limited, he said: “Firstly, the route names are not assigned by us but by the first ascenders. And secondly, we do not keep a database an do not create climbing guides in which the discriminating names are listed, so we can’t simply change them. According to Reich, the only practical way forward is to impress upon authors, publishers and climbing portals the need “to work towards changing or deleting the discriminatory names.”  

I think the DAV should open this can of worms anyway. At least by appealing to the climbing community to perhaps think more about route names after all. The ridge between funny and tasteless can be very small.