Uniting Canada's Largest Climbing Community

Route Names Are Art

  •  Route Names Are Art

There’s an art to naming things. That’s why we have marketing and advertising departments. Some names are bad: I’m looking at you, Ovintiv. Some are grammatically provocative: Burger’s Priest suggests that a food item owns a cleric. Yes, naming things is an artform. Climbing route names included. They are poetry. They represent whimsey, punny descriptiveness, a theme, a back story, the weather. Route names are a way to name something that has cultural significance. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yes, some route names are crass. So are some books and some movies and some music and some art. Art has been debated for centuries if not millennia. It’s easy to dismiss things we don’t like or don’t easily understand. Why would someone pay several million dollars for a painting of a red square? What’s the deal with sludgey doom metal? How can anyone possibly like music that bassy and slow? I for one think Sunn O))))) is awesome, and would be happy to look at a painting of a million-dollar red square while listening to them. 

I do struggle with the question myself. As a guidebook author, I don’t want to offend. I recognize that, in this day and age, folks of all ages and walks of life may pick up and read my guidebook. My almost 80 year old devoutly Catholic parents proudly display them on their coffee table. I’m sure they’d be offended by much of the content. I’m not embarrassed for my children to someday read the books and ask questions about them. If my kids ask me about the meaning of the route name Campus Slut I can give them a meaning without having to be crass. I can define those words however I want. Those words can certainly have a hurtful meaning and can be spoken and written in hate. Ought we to assume that the author intended to hurt? I'm sure that in some cases they did. Doubtful though that hurt is intended in many of these cases.

We could give the intended meaning of the route name as part of every route description. And I guess if that information was consistently available we could potentially weed out the hateful ones. Or we could just ignore the history of the route and call it whatever we want. Making up new names for things is also a fun game that humanity plays. The victor always writes the history. Sheesh, shortly after naming my daughter after the tallest North American mountain, they renamed the darned thing. DAMN YOU OBAMA! Too bad I agree that McKinley was a dumb name for the mountain anyway. If Denali wasn’t also a truck it would be a beautiful name. DAMN YOU GENERAL MOTORS! 

Oh, we are getting off-topic again. Route names. Right. 

Campus Slut, 
Marc Bracken and Reg Smart had a mutual friend. A gymnast who was very fit, but not very good looking and thusly not very successful in the love department. Being a male gymnast he was very good at campusing. I hope you didn’t assume their gender prior to the last sentence. Slut is intended in a teasing way towards their friend to suggest that he isn’t getting any and would like to be. To me, the definition of slut is a person who enjoys carnal pleasure. I was a campus slut. The fact that it’s generally seen as okay for a man to enjoy pleasure, but not a woman, more so reinforces gender inequality than the word itself. It’s unfortunate that word is used slanderously towards women, and celebratorily for men. I hardly think a woman who enjoys pleasure is a bad thing. I will concede that slut is a harsh sounding word, maybe if we pronounced it more like lute it would be more forgivable. Campus Slute anyone? Or Overly Friendly Campus Person?

Female Belay Slave, 
Shocking, another offensive Reg Smart route name. He must be a misogynist. His wife named it because she was often his belayer on his many routes. She referred to herself as the FBS. Surely we’ve all felt slaves to the belay at some point. The expression “slaves to the belay” is suggestive of “slaving over a hot oven.” I remember when  Britney released I’m A Slave 4 U and everyone lost their minds; the feverish mob bought the album by the multi-million. Wasn’t she also, I'd assume willingly, becoming a slave for a man’s desires? Is it ok when it’s sexual pop music, but not in reference to holding a rope? Yes slave is a negative word suggesting less than, or owned by. There’s a lot of historical baggage attached to that word that I’m not willing to unpack. Slaves built many of the wonders of the world, empires, and Nike. Working hard for little reward, often with a pain component. Thankless with a Sore Neck? Spousal Belay? Slavin Over An Oven Hot Belay?

Gym Faggot,
Yes, the term faggot was in standard vernacular for quite some time. The word was used 3 times in the National Film Registry approved Saturday Night Fever. It was used in that film to describe gay men. The word has and does mean other things, but let’s not chase that thread. This route name is intended to be an insult. Not specifically to gay men, but to gym climbers — a rare breed at the time — by likening them to being gay. Unfortunately that’s how society used the word for a long time: it’s gay or less masculine therefore it’s bad. In our more accepting society why does a word used to describe someone as being gay have to be bad? No route better exemplifies being named in a different time. As such, it is historically significant in the timeline of LGBTQ rights. Being gay is not a bad thing, so neither should being a faggot. Eliminating the word is like pretending that eliminating plastic straws will solve our waste management problems. Ultimately, though, the use of the word faggot in this context is not championing LGBTQ rights because it evokes negative associations. I said earlier it wasn’t meant as an insult to gay men, but really it is. I know the first ascensionist is not a homophobe, they were just within that zeitgeist. I suggest Proud Faggot or Jim, the Carrier of a Bundle of Sticks, both of which should only offend if you are offended by homosexuality. 

Parade of Whores,
I know, it’s not in Ontario, it has nothing to do with my guidebooks. I just think it perfectly sums up my thoughts on the topic. “Can’t a whore be a man?” That’s what she said, my wife that is. I thought so too. It’s been called the oldest profession, so my absurdist mind dreams up a sketch by the Monty Python troupe all dressed up as old retired Hetaira in togas parading on the stoop of the Parthenon. Beyond the amusing imagery, this rock climbing route name was actually published in The Globe and Mail with its own labelled dot on a map! If that hasn’t become a culturally significant route name, I don’t know what is. The irony might almost be funnier than John Cleese recalling Oedipus coming to her for sexual therapy.

Just so we’re clear, I’m open to changing route names that are deemed offensive. However, I don’t think it’s up to me, but that won’t stop me from playing. I just write about the history of local rock climbing. I’m a big fan of the concept that the community owns the routes. We need to decide as a community how to best use and preserve our limited resources. I do worry about censorship for censorship’s sake though, how do we decide where the line is? I’ve heard a suggestion that the whole Al Qaeda crag and naming scheme is intolerable. Would it be less offensive if we’d chosen a different war, say the War of the Roses? How long before someone suggests that Squamish’s or New Hampshire’s Black Dyke is hurtful?

Rock climbing guidebooks are more than a phone book of names and grades, they showcase the history and culture of our sport. Maybe it’s the folklorist in me, but I feel it to be historically important to continue to record the original name to anything updated. That way we can see our growth as a community. To protect the innocent maybe we’ll try and one-up Huey’s 10Sleep 3d Acid Test book by having them all in invisible ink. Squirt some locally fermented apple cider on your guidebook page 157 for all the R-rated and sinful material. Just don’t use whatever you learned there to be hateful to another person. Instead, learn more about words, and history, and other people. Celebrate how far we’ve come as a society to recognize that the negativity associated with these words is no longer acceptable. 
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Justin Dwyer
Justin Dwyer is a climbing folklorist living in Ontario’s Blue Mountains. His wife says that he “considers himself to be somewhat of an author.” He has been climbing and documenting routes on the Niagara Escarpment for over 15 years. Constantly searching for new crags, unusual places and fresh routes. Since writing guidebooks creates a negative income he is currently building custom homes. He is the undisputed master of the Escarpment’s weird, esoteric and obscure.