Friday, October 30, 2020

What's in a Name?

This post is in response to a June 19, 2019 article from entitled "The Perfect Line: Naming and Claiming" by Sarah-Jane Dobner,

Before you surrender to outrage and go off to post a link decrying Mike Gray's assault on feminists, equality and the #MeToo movement, take a few deep breaths, chill and skip down to the last line to gain a trifle of perspective.

"The stack of vintage magazines beside the circuit boards is always worth a browse. So much has changed! So little has changed! The outfits. The destinations, always looking wonderful, over the years. Flicking through. Eyes caught by a full page photo. Mali, West Africa. Black-skinned youth in dirty trousers leaning against the sandstone. Dwarfed by spray-painted European route names. There is a short caption, by Ray Wood. It concludes "Leaving [the environmental] issue aside however, assuming you have the right to paint the name of a route at the bottom in bright yellow paint has a ring of colonialism about it." The date of the magazine is November 2003. Nearly twenty years ago. In those two decades, how much has the conversation moved on?

Painting route names on the wall isn't common practice, so using a 16 year old image of a crag in Mali where some Spanish-speaking (or at least writing) Eurotrash did so is justifying your argument with an outdated example of behavior that isn't acceptable in 95% of the world.

There are complex issues connected to new routeing. Who gets to do what, and where? How powerful is a name? What has been the impact of the current system? What could be better? In 2019 there is much greater awareness of sexism, racism, cultural imperialism and so on. How should we integrate this knowledge into climbing, into new routeing? On the other hand, one of the beauties of climbing, to my mind, is its lawlessness. It is quite unregulated. We go where we like, put our lives in danger, clamber about rock faces all over the place willy-nilly. It's great. I balk at imposing restrictions or codes of practice. But maybe we should?

"Why do we feel compelled to always follow the lines in the book that got put up by a man who probably doesn't climb like me? Maybe we should think about more of a freestyle kind of climbing where people climb routes the way they want. This would also help promote a less grade/end-driven approach to climbing." Hazel Findlay, World-class climber and first ascensionist in multiple countries

The usual "woke" double standards: Hazel Findlay states that we shouldn't be bound by respect for the standards of the last century or the efforts and ethics of first ascentionists.
Her authority for making this statement?
She's a "World-class climber and first ascensionist in multiple countries."
Translation: we sell copy by publishing her picture, she gets to climb for a living instead of waiting tables, digging ditches, joining the military, driving a cab, making pizzas, designing bridges, healing the sick or doing any anything productive for society.
Apparently the author's enlightenment doesn't prevent her from setting aside the fact that, to have FAs in multiple countries, Hazel has added tons of carbon to the atmosphere.
Because while Hazel is white, she's not male, so she gets a #MeToo pass for being so "woke".
(Sorry, ladies, but this is what equality actually looks like: if you get to criticize all males for a past they can't change while using language with enough reverse gender bias to float the Titanic, you're putting yourself in the crosshairs of honesty without respect to gender. Isn't that the goal? But I digress...)

Yeah... those grades and end-driven approaches to climbing suck, huh, Hazel?
Because you'd still be famous in a gradeless world where you weren't splashed all over climbing media BECAUSE you're one of the hardest-sending female climbers.
Which men are forcing you to use the exact same beta? If you want to use different moves or sequences on the same line, feel free! 
From my friend Jim, a strong graduate of Sheffield University who stands just a bit over 5'7" tall:

"I'm 5.7 and don't climb like someone who's 5.11 or 6'. I always have climbed every route the way I think it should be climbed, sometimes that involves making an HVS an E2 or finding a way to dynamically propel myself between holds someone significantly taller than me can statically reach."

Back to the article;

It's a tricky conversation. The trouble is, there is no one, simple, correct answer. We're all looking for the Perfect Line. But that line can be smudged, chalked, rubbed out and redrawn depending on myriad factors including personality, gender, location, faith and time. In this article I'll consider culture and naming in the UK before moving on to look at new routeing abroad.

Hmmm... maybe. But regardless of any of those factors, if you go off-route, you're going to have to admit that you did not in fact "send" the line. Sorry, but If I drive through Texas, I can't claim to have followed Route 66 end to end.
Some people like bolts at their feet, waist and just overhead. If those folks were to take drill and bolts and add them to THEIR lines, I can't help but wonder just how open Hazel, or the author, would be to people climbing their lines "the way they like"?

The cultural dominance of white guys

For the past 100+ years, UK tradition has decreed that whoever climbs it first, gets to name the route. They have free rein and can choose whatever name they like. This name and description then get preserved in guidebooks. This practice is not God-given, or Sacrosanct, or the Truth; it is just one way. A way which, it must be said, is fairly popular worldwide. But nonetheless it is not the only way, and it is not inevitable.
A conspicuous issue for me, regarding this naming and claiming convention, is the cultural dominance of white guys. Read the 'historical' sections of guidebooks. Over and over again I end up gazing at lists and descriptions and photos of white men. Which has repercussions. When one demographic (in this case white, male) monopolises a scene, it has the effect of homogenising the climbing environment. It inevitably excludes others, who are not white men. It sends out the message that This place is not for you. Not meaning to, but it does. So I can feel alienated and miffed. Feel the ghosts of women past, suffocated by skirts and convention, who could have been great first ascensionists but never had the chance. Feel conflicted, because admiration and envy are also in there. As I said in the introduction, this is not a straightforward debate.

The author goes to great lengths to attack white men for all those historical first ascents, white men who have, especially in the last five decades, been active advocates for gender equality and racial diversity in not only climbing, but society as a whole.

From the comments:

The fact that most of the older routes were put up by 'white guys' obviously irks but it is simply a fact of history. Get over it. You can't change what happened (for whatever reason).

Here's a little factoid from the testes-bearing side: when you make the same kinds of presumptions and display the same kind of bias our gender was and sometimes is still guilty of, those of us who had no more choice about our gender than Bruce/Kaitlyn Jenner lose respect for you, and motivation to continue working for equality, diversity and/or inclusion.

Knowing the rebelliousness of traditional climbers - misfits! mass-trespassers! - how galling for such guys, how objectionable, to be associated with 'patriarchy', with white, male presumption, with the establishment. How did that happen? 
How did that happen? Perhaps the need to blame an entire gender for the glaring errors of the few and the sins of one's own past?
How did poacher turn game-keeper?! Or, more accurately, see how they co-exist - rebel, misogynist, husband, dirt-bag, lover, bully. We all wear many hats.
Unfortunately, any white heterosexual male who applies critical thinking to double standards by feminists and puts them into print or statements is too often labeled as a bully. On every occasion where I have pointed out logical fallacies, presumptions, and double standards by individuals, I have been accused of attacking the entire #MeToo movement, which seems fine with ignoring those inconsistencies of reason in the ranks.
I also get it, that new-routers are the ones who invest their time and knowledge into putting up new lines. Can admire the pioneering spirit, discomfort, tolerance of risk, especially in ground-up trad. The vision! Appreciate the financial cost and equipment and dedication needed in developing new sports crags. Nevertheless, 
Did anyone else see that "nevertheless" coming, after the throwaway caveat that preceded it?
...doesn't this sometimes slip into smash-and-grab? A sort of feeding frenzy to 'bag' all the best lines. All those stories of 'stealing' routes, bad/rushed bolting and fabricated ascents. Greed. 
Always easier to see the mote in another's eye than the beam in your own, isn't it?
And isn't it generated by this system? 
After three decades of watching climbing become a sponsored competition and social media sensation, I'd say it comes more from the quest for sponsor dollars and internet fame. But that might cast an unfavorable light on Hazel, so we won't go there, at least not in this article.
I'm not all against greed, per se. Greed is close to desire, and I'm a big fan of desire. On the other hand, gluttony and lust are both Deadly Sins. So shouldn't some care be taken, lest we go to hell?
Lust was a deadly sin to a male Puritanical author; always funny to see feminists using the thoughts of the same system they decry to make facetious statements; do you really think anyone is going to hell for their desire to send a route?

Simply the idea of being able to claim and name pieces of rock resonates with presumption.

Despite a lot of willful ignorance and disinformation like this article about first ascents, with the exception of some professional guides and sponsored climbers, no one who does the first ascent of a route thinks it "belongs" to them. 

The idea of naming a route is for identification, and is done for the same reason that we just don't call our pets "Cat" or "Dog". Not everything can be attributed to white male colonial entitlement, no matter how much modern feminists seem determined to do so. 

A recent Canadian article summarizes the response from one female interviewee: "Lilith said that she would never feel entitled to name […] a cliff…".

How nice for Lilith. Maybe after a week of carrying a pack with food, water, two ropes, jumars, aiders, chest and waist harness, helmet, a drill, extra battery, bits, bolts, pry bar and hammer, hiking far enough to reach new rock, and spending a dozen hours on rope, then a dozen more building trail and belay, she'd feel a bit different. 

Actual experience can often alter the opinions of the uninformed.

But, both historically and nowadays, it seems men have felt thus entitled. And so this conquering and pioneering has gendered elements. Have men been, mainly, doing the conquering?
"…there are some people who have had a bad attitude to new routeing in the past. They have prioritised the 'planting the flag' mentality above the actual experience of new routeing. This is a fairly masculine trait and could be why we see less women new routeing. It's also fairly toxic because it sends the message that climbing is more about conquering than having a positive experience." Hazel Findlay
Sorry, but since both Hazel and the the author have put up and named a route, those inconvenient facts render this a rather biased perspective. 

That this is drawing unwarranted conclusions is shown by both Hazel's use of "could be" and the author's discussion below of the hard work involved with putting up new routes; the vast majority of climbers are satisfied with what they've got and have no interest in or spare time for development (as demonstrated in the amazingly conflicted next paragraph just below).

And let's face it; through no fault of their own, some men are hardwired hunter-gatherers. 

Until recently, as authors try to stay relevant and retain their readers, that wasn't a sin or a crime.

Well, why don't you get up and do it yourself then, Sarah-Jane, if you care so much? I hear you ask. Yes, indeed, why don't I? Well, because it's scary and loose and slow and there is too much unknown for me (talking onsight trad here). And regarding sport crags, I don't fancy the discomfort of hanging in a harness for hours, the noise of the drill, days spent with a wrecking bar when I could be out climbing…. So am I a hypocrite? Maybe. I'm just saying how I feel.

No worries; most of the readers who commented on your "article" felt the same way: you're a hypocrite.

Sorry, just saying what many of us are thinking.
As an aside, and in the interests of full disclosure, I did put up a new route once, when I got hopelessly lost and led up a fresh line. I claimed it and named it. I was excited. Can feel the thrill now, of telling people, encouraging them to try it and grade it and corroborate - or otherwise - my assessment of stars. Finding a name that made sense in context. It was so fun. I can see exactly how it would get addictive. Even that terminology implies the need for treatment. Enough said. Moving on.

Yes, now that you've made more unfounded presumptions and your second throwaway confession, let's move away, quickly, to further obfuscation and spin. You must have learned journalism from Matt "Do As I Say And Not As I Did" Samet.

"People need to be motivated to do the job of bolting a route and for most people it's too much like hard work. It's also pretty expensive and finding a pristine line that doesn't require a bit of trundling and cleaning is pretty rare." Trevor Massiah, co-owner of Rock and Sun, climbing coach and route developer, especially in Spain and Thailand.

Redressing the balance?

Is this situation fixed, so nothing can be done?

If it ain't broke, only a fool tries to fix it.

I'm not so sure.

I rest my case.

Like any history, these are selected facts, foregrounded facts. Presentation and editing continue to shape our experience. For example, it was a relief for me when guidebooks downplayed the history sections. Then I could just crack on with the climbing.

Right, because being reminded that those evil, colonizing, flag-planting white males are one of the main reasons there were enough routes and gyms and guides for climbing to have become a cultural phenomenon kind of interrupts the current dialogue, doesn't it? 

Also, many of the old black-and-white photos do feature women - but often very little is said about them. Perhaps more effort could be made here? Beyond guidebooks, I know Hard Rock, say, featured no articles by women.

Can't dispute this one; despite many column inches of "woke" discussion of equality, while the last issue of Climbing magazine featured quite a few photos of women, the vast majority of the articles were written by men.

But contemporary anthologies really can do better, can make an active effort to recruit material from a more diverse base. If there isn't a significant proportion from non-white-male-contributors in your selected essay book - why not? Because these people have been climbing. They will have stories.
As I said, new routeing is not for me. But happily, I do not represent "All Women." 

Ma'am, you don't even represent 5% of women who climb. Affluent, college age and below, perhaps 25%, but nothing like a simple majority.

So maybe now is the time to set about purposefully widening the field, so a greater range of people put up routes? 

Over 25% of climbers, according to the BMC, are women now. There are many girls coming up in the sport. So shouldn't the aim be for a quarter of new routes to be female-led? For diverse new routers to have access to tools and equipment and training, to feel they can name. Should more effort and funding be directed towards such investment? 

Tool companies sell to anyone with money or credit, as do gear manufacturers. YouTube visibility is not controlled by gender, nor is Freedom of the Hills only sold to men. We live in one of the only times in history when it seems that it is up to everyone else to motivate people of color and women. 

Surely this is not the message or legacy left behind by Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gloria Steinem?

This could be on every level, from individual activists passing on their knowledge to non-white-male enthusiasts, to increased support from the BMC, clubs and sponsors.

And non-white non-males could also do their part by volunteering for bolt replacement efforts, where almost everything you need to know about not only removing but placing bolts is right there for you to see and learn.

As there is almost no way to explain the intuitive understanding of spotting a potential new route, without 'mansplaining' the obvious about cracks and lines of holds, that is just a matter of practice, which can also come from helping with replacement.
Is this pie in the sky? There is so little unclaimed rock left in Britain (more on that later), so has the horse bolted (so to speak), would this be tokenism, divvying up crumbs? Plus I realize my position is rife with contradiction.

Why do I doubt that will keep you from continuing? 

Oh, look, it didn't...

That I'm dubious about naming and claiming at all, philosophically, conflicts with my call for women and other under-represented groups to put up more routes. In addition, setting up a binary of "men" and "women" sits badly with me - it is simplified, flawed, as I see gender as more nuanced and fluid. And besides, "men" are not the enemy.

Uh-huh... you pedal backwards with great skill, young padwan.

These are my climbing partners, my friends. The perfect line wavering, meandering, zig-zagging. More like a scribble. A scribble of ideas.

So many choices, which line to take?
© Sarah-Jane Dobner

The power of a name

What about the names themselves? Why does it matter? I appreciate we are all different, that names won't have the same impact on everyone. Personally, I am interested in language, and the symbolic (and actual) power of words. Naming is not peripheral to me, not a meaningless add-on. It gives a flavour to the whole area, to the whole route, the whole experience. In the wider cultural context, white, British men have named buildings and roads and stars and plants after themselves and each other and we all have to walk around and write addresses and orientate ourselves in the midst of this hubris. At the same time, there is a long, inglorious precedent of women, and people of colour, being written out of history, and their contributions minimised. Naming matters.
I'm not advocating chucking all the babies out in this dirty water.

Just the white, cis-male ones...

I'd like to celebrate what we have. Sometimes, particularly in trad, the name of the route is so good it ferments the mystique. Like countless others, I wanted to climb "Dream of White Horses" at Gogarth for many, many years before I made it to Wen Slab. Yes, I knew it was a classic - but what a name! RIP, Ed Drummond. I also adore crags where generations of new routers have riffed with the theme. So on the military range in Pembroke, amongst a regiment of others, we have Army Dreamers, Front Line (the first buttress to face the sea! hats off to that namer), Space Cadet (steep, so you would fall into space! HATS OFF!). These fill me with delight.

So names referencing the traditionally white male institutions of organizations that have historically most often committed rape, genocide and the suppression of people of color, those are fine? 

Talk about conflicted...

"I think it's important to not whitewash over history…certain route names can, and have, led to some interesting and…challenging conversations." Trevor Massiah
Sorry, Trevor, but no one here is whitewashing... the intent is to ERASE history, to rewrite it as a chronicle of shame and oppression even where none existed.

On the other hand, sometimes names miss the mark or are downright toxic. Names, intended to be light-hearted, edgy or funny to the namer may be offensive, grating and rude to someone else. 

"There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so." 

"People today, and especially women, are all so busy finding things by which to be offended and oppressed that they rarely have time to enjoy any freedom or achieve anything." 
-Cindy Gray, former nurse's aide, firefighter and EMT, stroke survivor, MS fighter, aneurysm survivor, mother, grandmother, and climbing ambassador who began climbing in her 40s, helped organize, fund, and feed over a dozen trail work and crag clean-up events on a fixed disability income, and who has been an invaluable and equal partner on 52 trad and sport first ascents in West Virginia, Arizona, and Colorado.

And when that 'someone else' is of a less powerful cultural demographic (female, Black, gay, disabled) then I'd suggest it is a pretty poor name. 

I'd suggest that, after the presidency of Barack Obama, the fall of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and many other sexual predators, the outcry that followed Trump's comments about a disabled reporter, and the recent global Climate Strike led by a teenage girl, anyone delusional enough to believe that females, POC, and LGBTQ folks are a less powerful demographic needs a reality check.

"My intuitions lie with freedom of speech over policing/regulation. I guess there are some examples that cross the line but I don't know where that line is. Who does know where that line is? And who gets to decide where the line is?" Hazel Findlay
Apparently, Sarah-Jane has taken on that mantle, Hazel. I suppose her one FA endows her with more authority than a world class climber with numerous first ascents.

Aside from outright insult, another feature to look out for is a stylised, machismo in route names - "Driller King!", "Sports Wars"! Such names have so little to do with the landscape, and so much to do with assertions of masculinity.

Sigh... time for a little historical perspective and another pointer on hypocrisy.

'Driller King' sounds, to this fan of the amazing band Queen, like a play on 'Killer Queen', from their album Sheer Heart Attack. Take a break from your outrage and perhaps you'd have time to check out some of the older music of your own country.

Sports Wars sounds militaristic, and a bit tongue-in-cheek; regardless, you had no problem with militaristic route names just a few paragraphs back, remember?

Would you want to tackle a route called, say, "Cute Fluffy Kittens" or "Glittery Nail Varnish"? They're equally silly, but they stand out as ridiculous, as we're not used to a hyper-feminised nomenclature. A little off-putting? Remember that feeling! For that is how I feel.

Interesting that I find nothing off-putting about those names, but you do; project, much? 

One of the most popular routes at a nearby crag is "Little Purple Flowers", and big, burly white men have had no problem tying in and clipping their way up that quality line since 2011.

Other ways and other names

There could be methods other than naming-by-the-first-ascensionist. It is possible. Just because we're used to one mechanism doesn't mean it's the only way or the best way. It's just the one with which we're familiar. The current way seems peculiarly British somehow - that winner-takes-all, first-past-the-post mentality. Planting a flag. Staking ownership. As an alternative method, names could be given by local schoolchildren, by near-by residents, by poets, by vote, by online competitions. No end of possibilities!

Nope! Once you've discounted the value of the work by first ascentionists, the sky's the limit! Just imagine how fast they'll be racing out to put up new lines so someone else can name them! 
Names could also be computer-generated. In 2018, UKC sent its Logbook database - including over 432,000 route names - to a specialised neural network (UKC article). By studying current names, the computer learnt the 'rules', and generated names of its own. Its creations act as a mirror. Reflecting the current gender bias and proclivities, 'man' and men's names were regurgitated and various crude / rude words emerged as a clear pattern. On the other hand, some names which popped out of the neural network are utterly delightful and surprising, like these for example: The Folly Cloud, No Rocks Egg, Candy Storm, Strangershine...If a more varied, balanced, nature based, movement based vocabulary was offered to the neural network, why shouldn't Artificial Intelligence have a go? Time to share!

This one may well be the single most ridiculous contention of your entire spew; "Let's use the vast problem solving potential of Artificial Intelligence to name features on rock!"

From here to the point where SkyNet decides to erase us all is about three short steps,  I reckon.

This is akin to what happened to television; a tool that should have been a boon to education now panders to the lowest common denominator while spewing out more ignorance and disinformation that every single newspaper, radio talk show, and internet source on Earth.

Caff says no.
And what might the impact of this be? If individual glory (naming and claiming) was by-passed, as well as expanding naming potential, would this alter the nature of new-routeing? Would the avid drive to grab routes soften a little? The scales tip back to desire?

Again with your logical fallacy that desire doesn't already drive 99% of new routing.

Perhaps there could be a naming oversight committee, made up of diverse peoples in the climbing community, 8% Asian, 4% Black, at least 50% women - in line with the UK population. Why not?

Because we have bigger problems than route names those same committees might turn their genius towards, like climate change and wealth inequality?

And what to do about currently offensive names? Guidebook writers make efforts from time to time: a description of "Happy Girlfriend" notes the route is also suitable for happy boyfriends; embarrassed disclaimers accompany "Wogs". Such awareness is appreciated. But can't the names themselves be changed? Re-writing history is always uncomfortable, but history is usually uncomfortable for someone (and frequently not the victor). In Sweden in 2010 certain offensive route names were retrospectively banned and altered. Is it worth re-naming grossly offensive routes? Or should we, as a community, sit with our shame?

Hot news flash: changing offensive route names has actually been going on for a couple decades. 

New routeing imperialism

As Ray Wood observed in the opening paragraph, isn't there a whiff of colonialism in putting up lines abroad - a new routeing imperialism?
It's easy to see why Brits seek new lines outside the UK. There is a shortage of virgin, native rock.

OUTRAGE! I'm deeply offended by the sexual connotations of the word 'virgin', and the colonialism of the term 'native'.

British climbers started tackling peaks and cracks and grooves over a century ago. Save for the odd E9 and E10, the peach lines - in England and Wales at least - are gone. These days, new routes are frequently bolted, on tiny crags and outcrops dug out from mud and ivy in forgotten backwaters, shattered quarries which used to be overlooked as hopeless but are now appreciated as grist for the mill.
"I think many of us think more globally and would prefer not to have borders or foreigners! I do think it is all about attitude and respect though. There definitely needs to be more education on ethics and behaviour at the crag and in the outdoors in general." Trevor Massiah
So it seems that many British new-routers are putting up lines beyond these shores. Unclaimed rock! Cherries to pick! But this is also occurring in a particular context. Many of these locations are less economically privileged.

Just the obvious; foreign climbers putting up routes and developing new crags gives the indigenous population a chance to learn how it is done, as well as attracting tourism which brings revenues to support the economy. 

Sometimes 'mansplaining' is actually common sense, or pointing out the obvious to folks so blinkered by political correctness that they refuse to see.

We know our backstory of colonialism, imperialism, our involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, the Elgin Marbles, our taking without asking. Isn't it a little like going on safari and shooting big game? Because we've killed all our own tigers and elephants.

WTF? When were there elephants and tigers in Britain? Is this a serious essay or a Monty Python sketch?

The routes get named with English references, English in-jokes, English language. Plus routes must surely have been named and claimed by Westerners, over the years, that actually had earlier, undocumented, indigenous ascents.

You say "must have been" because there is no indication, from the natives of those countries, that any such thing has happened. The likelihood of anyone without sticky rubber or gear ascending a steeply overhanging face of micro edges and finger pockets is as small as the likelihood that you will not indulge in any further hypocrisy or assumption in this article.

It makes me feel uncomfortable. How to square this relentless claiming and naming with respect for local rock, local people, the local climbing population?
"…there are great advantages to doing new routes and opening up unknown areas…it can bring a resurgence of interest in those cultures, and economical benefits in the form of tourism, employment etc, And there is a positive form of learning and understanding that comes from being submerged in each others cultures." Emma Alsford
Doesn't this echo my statements above and negate your protests of no positive or local community benefit?

The British have done plenty of inappropriate naming. Countries on other continents (Rhodesia after the white supremacist Cecil Rhodes). Mountains in other parts of the globe (Everest after British surveyor George Everest). "Everest", not surprisingly, had many names before. Tibetan, Nepali, Chinese, Indian names. Names which meant things like "Holy Mother" and "Goddess of the Sky". Do you see the change here? Whereby omnisciently-powerful feminine divinities are replaced by the name of a white man. Last year a group of local women made the first ascent of a mountain in Afghanistan. Together, they named the peak, "The Lion Daughters of Mir Samir Peak" (UKC article). Lion Daughters! It feels that could only have been named by them. Their contribution enriches the literature and the landscape.
"All we need to think about is suffering. Are people suffering because of what we are doing? If so, how much, can we alleviate it and if not, then don't do it." Hazel Findlay

I don't know, Hazel, what are YOU doing? Still flying, still putting up new routes, still shilling for gear companies with huge carbon footprints? 

Like the solution to climate change, once the #ClimateStrike is over, is it all up to the evil, white males to change their behavior and figure out solutions?

The decolonisation of climbing

If you are climbing in an area which currently has no active, indigenous climbing scene, when is it okay for you, as a Brit, to name and claim all the key lines (and the minor lines) before that nascent climbing community has had time to develop?

Climbing has been a global sensation since the late '90s. The Masai are wearing Rolex watches, the Bushmen of the Kalahari have Internet access, and there are climbing clubs on Native American reservations and deep in the Amazon. I am planning a bolting clinic for a group of young ladies planning to develop a new crag in Nicaragua.

Where hasn't a nascent climbing community has time to develop, save places which have bigger problems than who is placing bolts or developing climbing lines?

Imagine how you would feel if you were a local person and, having gained climbing wherewithal, you find the native rock surrounding your home purports to be labelled, route after route, by English (or French, Spanish, other European) names?

I'd go happily shred, as would most new climbers, be they males, females, or gender fluid. 

Not everyone lives for outrage.

Here, again, your lack of routing experience shines through; very few crags have been completely bolted out, especially in the Third World. 

Maybe it's time to reconsider the belief, amongst Western climbers, that rock lines are always free pickings. Perhaps it could become common practice to open in-depth communications with local people before putting up new routes.

Another hot news flash; this has already been going on for a few decades, as well. 

And even where indigenous cultures have objected,  women as well as men have had no problem ignoring those objections to maintain their sponsorship, create fodder for the climbing rags or post material to their Facebook or Instagram feed. 

I've seen countless posts and articles by and about brown, black, and white women trespassing on private land where they are not welcome to reach crags the natives would rather they didn't climb, or where it is illegal for natives to climb but tourists are free to come and go (Cuba).

What relationships do indigenous peoples have with the rocks? What issues matter to them? Clearly, this would involve additional time, resources and money. It's easy to foresee problems with language barriers, cultural misunderstandings and consultation with nomadic populations, for instance. Nonetheless, isn't it worth considering taking climbing in this type of ethical, postcolonial direction? And the greater the power imbalance, surely the more effort should be made? However, to achieve this, we would need to prioritise sensitive listening over gung-ho adventuring and route-bagging. Can we self-regulate or should there be guidelines? Or would that mire our sport in bureaucracy?

D'ya THINK???

The perfect line?
© Sarah-Jane Dobner
What else, specifically, might ameliorate the colonising flavour of claiming and naming routes abroad? Money is frequently cited - that climbers bring cash to deprived areas, funding which is of significant benefit to local communities. Climbing is then like any other tourism. But can we do more? There must be many options, which may or may not seem familiar or viable at present. For example, is it possible to just climb and enjoy, without naming and claiming routes?

You didn't seem to think so after 'your' first ascent...

Then this can be left to others, to locals, in due course. Is it different if you live there? If you are investing, long term, via language, friendships and finance, in the place you've made your home?

Only if you aren't a white male, I suppose.

How about supporting the development of a local climbing community, sharing skills and kit?

Again, something males have been doing for a decade or more, depending on location.

Or deferring on choice of route-names to indigenous peoples - why not leave marked-up topos with, say, the village elders, the school, the local women's co-operative - and ask them to name the lines? Names would then be in indigenous tongues and, translated into English, would provide insight into the locale as well as giving a sense of ownership to that community, in perpetuity.


If 2003 was too early, is now the right time? Time to find a more perfect line when putting up new routes and giving them names. A perfect line in the rock face. A perfect line in the guidebook. A perfect line between climbing for yourself and respecting others. Between exploration and exploitation. Between past and the present. Between what's lovely in theory but unfeasible in practice. Between doormat and collaborator and killjoy feminist.

You said it, I didn't. Your Freudian slip is showing, ma'am.

The perfect line when borders and genders and heart-body-mind are shown to be so fluid. The perfect persuasive or jarring sentence to trigger a debate.
And there you have it, folks; this is a debate, not an attack on feminism or diversity or inclusion. 

(Yes, Bryan Williams, I'm looking at you and all my biggest fans at Seneca Rocks, in the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club.)

Try to read it in the spirit it was written; humor, even if sarcastic and occasionally acidic, a perspective informed by over four decades of climbing, three of them spent working hard to include and empower women in the work place and our outdoor spaces, and striving for true equality, rather than rationalizing reverse bias to atone for a past we cannot change.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Deep Pockets

Gotta love R&I; surveys and studies which aren't linked so you can't see the actual data, enough assumptions to sink the Ark, and always plenty of unwarranted praise and reverence for every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Fund.

Here's a little review of a recent article by Rock and Ice entitled "Deep Pockets"; bold print is excerpted from the article, red print is the author's take on those presumptions.

Statistically, you probably hold a college degree or are working on one. Your gym membership is $75 (if you’re lucky), and you’re wearing a pair of climbing pants probably worth more than every pair of pants Jim Bridwell owned in any year all together.

Sorry, but no degree, no plans to waste money on one. 

My gym is a NFS crag I bolted, so that $75+ goes to pay the bills, which is more of a challenge, since my wife and I pull in less than $15,000/yr. 

That's why my climbing pants are also my street pants, usually a pair of surplus jungle fatigues or used clothes purchased from Goodwill or the local clothes closet.

These so-called “gateway” communities, like the counties around Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, some of the poorest in the country, are increasingly benefiting from the economic boost visiting climbers provide. 

Hmmm... Pendleton County, where I live in the Eastern Panhandle of WV, is home to Seneca Rocks, one of the oldest climbing areas in the Eastern United States, as well as Nelson Rocks, a climbing resort that has been in business in one form or another for the last two decades. In 2014, I published A Climber's Guide To Smoke Hole Canyon, which opened up over 250 routes at three different crags to climbers. Since then, D.C. climber Tyrel Johnson and I have published two online guidebooks to four of the crags in and around the canyon. 

We're still waiting on the prosperity.

Despite the rosy assurances of the Fund and R&I, in Pendleton County, we have fewer restaurants and businesses than ever, poor to no dependable internet access and phone service, more homes for sale, and every year high school graduates leave to find jobs in better locations, or go away to college, after which they move away to find jobs in better locations with more opportunities.

A recent study sponsored in part by Access Fund found that climbers spend $3.6 million annually in the Red. A 2019 study found climbing brings in a hefty $12.1 million in yearly spending to West Virginia’s New River Gorge. 

If you're going to use data from studies to justify your assumptions, it's considered standard protocol to actually link the studies. Just sayin'...

Those are mighty impressive numbers, but if you draw a circle 50 miles wide around the Red or New, or any other major "destination" crag, you'll see very little, if any, of that money outside that boundary. And inside the circle, 70-90% goes to the wealthiest families in the region, usually the ones who shop at Costco or Sam's Club, using their wealth to control the banks, pretty much tying the purse strings for launching any new businesses.

Over half those surveyed in the RRG study held college degrees, and the majority of the remainder were in the process of completing one. Most participants in the Nantahala-Pisgah study had annual incomes exceeding $50,000, a whopping 37% had completed more than a four-year degree and over 20% owned their own business.

I'd like to point out that 50.1% is "over half". The "other half" no doubt had to get back to work their two jobs to raise their kids and pay the bills. 

(Again, if you linked the studies and surveys, we wouldn't have to guess at these numbers, but that's not the self-congratulatory conversation you really wanna have here, is it?)

Zachary Lesch-Huie, Access Fund’s Southeast Region Director, spoke to the unique benefits climbing tourism holds. “Climbers are ideal economic actors,” he said. “We don’t just visit once. We like to go to a new area, then return over and over again. At the same time, we like to try new spots. We’re into traveling, we’re into repeat visits, and we have a little extra money to spend.” 

Sorry, Zachary, but "a little extra money" is about all visiting climbers spend, and it's not enough to change anything meaningful, when much of that is spent on NFS campgrounds that allow concessionaires to take 90%+ of profits out of state, or at businesses owned by out-of-state interests or "old money families" which don't reinvest in their communities and often stifle development and opportunity.

Climbers are also typically excellent outdoor stewards, practicing Leave No Trace policies and camping and traveling sustainably. Participants in a Chattanooga economic-impact study overwhelmingly cited “the climber” as holding primary responsibility for caring for and maintaining the natural areas which support climbing, as opposed to land managers or non-profit organizations. As far as outdoor recreation and tourism goes, you can’t get much better than that.

If that was true, no, you couldn't do much better than that.

It isn't.

Every climbing group I know of, including affiliates of the Access Fund and AAC, has to struggle to assemble more than 6-10 climbers for trail work or other conservation efforts. On a more personal level, I speak from the experience of having organized over two dozen trash clean-up, trail work, and re-bolting events in the last two decades.

The national average is probably closer to 1 volunteer for every 50 climbers that come out to shortcut trails, leave their dogs tied to a tree and digging up unstable forest soils on steep slopes, top rope through the anchors instead of their own draws, kick loose edging stones and steps, and force others off-route by hanging their hammocks across the trails, because those 1/2 mile approach hikes are just so exhausting.

Whether state agencies, local town managers or park managers, minds are swayed by both the dollar climbing can bring and the conscientious manner in which climbers approach outdoor recreation. “When they see these statistics, these communities want us to come back, and they support our access efforts,” Lesch-Huie added.

Cloud cuckoo land, Zach.

I've lived in communities located at or near crags in AZ, CO and WV: few residents even knew what the Access Fund was, and nothing like a majority had a very high opinion of that organization, or its members, because of their snobbery, presumption, trespassing, and failure to support local businesses.

...economic-impact data is a key factor in the consideration of opening climbing areas. 

After over two decades of volunteering and working on Public Lands in VA, WV, AZ, CO and CA, I can state without reservation that NFS budgets, recreational staff perspectives, guide service influence and district ranger policies/attitudes are the real key factors in those considerations.

Ninety-five percent of local climbers in the Nantahala-Pisgah study said outdoor recreation opportunities played a role in their decision to move to North Carolina.

It would be interesting to read a survey of how locals felt as those climbers moved in, raised taxes by improving their second homes, started businesses that took money out of the pockets of existing business owners (much as the AAC did by building a campground in the New River Gorge, where there were already four such businesses run by local residents or small businesses), began trying to tear down monuments and inevitably change everything about the culture they were invading to more closely resemble the places they had fled. 

But, again, that's not the conversation the Access Fund and R&I want to have, is it?

While the majority of these studies focus on gateway communities in the rural South, Access Fund is financing climbing economic-impact research nationwide. Studies have covered Montana and Nevada and others are currently underway, from crags in New England to an updated study at the Red River Gorge, all supported by Access Fund.

And since the raw data or even the original studies will never be linked, there will be no way to judge just how much the Fund has "interpreted" findings to promote themselves and the 1% of climbing that they represent.

Aside from being a member or donor, there are a few things we as climbers can keep in mind to help. Pick up your trash, keep the noise down, and don’t camp on property without permission, obviously, but also spend a bit of cash in the places you climb. 

Better yet, save that Access Fund/AAC membership fee and spend it where you climb. 

Don't just pick up your trash, pick up any trash you see, keep the noise down, leave your dog at home, and don't CLIMB or camp on private property without permission YOU obtained, personally, from the landowner.

“I encourage folks to stop by mom-and-pop shops and buy a drink or snack,” Lesch-Huie said. “Don't drive an hour away and spend your money in the city. Swing by one of these local businesses and spend some money.” 

Since so many of these folks are making $50,000/yr or more, how about a few more radical (effective) suggestions?

Instead of filling the tank before leaving the big city and buying all your groceries at Costco, Aldi's, Foods of Inflation, Whole Paycheck, or Sam's Club before you come to the crag, stop at the closest gas station and grocery to the crag and buy your weekend supplies and return tankful there, where you climb.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've gotta go look for that college diploma and figure out what happened to the other $85,000 of our annual income.

Climb on.