Rob LeBreton, one of the original developers of Nowra and co-author of the current guidebook, writes about the recent push to change offensive route names at the area. (Please note that none of Rob’s routes have been flagged as offensive.)
I opened Instagram this afternoon (24/6/2020) to see dozens of posts calling for the offensive route names at Nowra to be changed. It’s not the first time it’s been called for but it circulates a lot more quickly in this day of social media. To get a couple of things up front, I would like to see some of the routes renamed. Many of the route names were designed to be offensive, but probably not in the way they are being seen as offensive today. I would like to see climbing continue to become a more inclusive space. I am not here to speak for anyone else or tell them what to do, people can make their own choices and decisions.
I would like to see some route names changed. Those that are blatantly racist, sexist, promote sexual violence, homophobic, etc, have no place in climbing or society. I would like to think that with consultation we can work with the first ascensionists to see these names replaced. I come from a tradition of the first ascensionist naming the climb; it’s part of the new routing game. An attempt was made in the 2011 guidebook to clean up some of the names and it was met with a lot of resistance by the community because it was done unilaterally without any consultation. It was also done with a view to get rid of rude words rather than to address the underlying messages in some of the names. This afternoon there were calls for the routes to just be changed on The Crag. I think this would be a big mistake. These calls for route names to be changed come from a place of compassion, understanding and inclusivity. An authoritarian approach does not promote this, it sends a message of aggression and exclusion, let’s change them through consultation and education.
I would like to see climbing continue to become a more inclusive space. When I started climbing in the mid-’80s it was almost exclusively a white male domain but not one that typified the Australia of that time. Coming from a very white suburban background, climbing opened my eyes to the diversity that truly exists in our society. I spent time with people who educated me far better than my schooling had. The conversations I had and the friends I made opened my mind, challenged my thinking and gave me the foundation that forms my world view today. Climbing then was a counter culture so I spent time with people of various sexual orientations, different belief systems and those who had chosen to reject the status quo of society. It broke me out of my bubble. By the early ’90s, when Nowra was being developed, there was a greater, but still low, number of women regularly climbing. With the advent of climbing gyms, the climbing population has become more ethnically diverse and this has spread to the crags. When Villawood first opened the clientele were predominantly European Australian, now at any time you enter the gym you will see a wide variety of cultures represented. We have groups to promote inclusivity for LGBTQIA+ climbers and we have an Australian Paraclimbing Team. I hope this will continue to evolve.
Context is important. I am not apologising for any of the names and as I said at the beginning I would like to see some changed. I would have liked to see some change back in the’90s. One example of context is “Don’t Tell The Priest But It’s A Boy”. This was named when the first ascensionist had his first child. There were members of his family who wanted to follow their Catholic tradition of having the boy circumcised. He was against this. Viewed in 2020, it’s easy to see how this could be seen as a reference to the systemic abuse of children, particularly males, by Catholic priests. Many of the route names were derived from rap music. For many of us it was the first time we had seen African Americans as something other than the amusing sidekick in a movie or TV show. It gave us black role models, strong role models from whom we found inspiration. Inspiration to stand up for what we believed in, to be ourselves and to fight the power. I know climbing is trivial in the broader scheme, but I’m also talking about areas outside of climbing. Because of this music I read about people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Charles Perkins. I learned about inequality in the US and here. Naming climbs from lyrics in the songs was an homage to these influences. Of course, they can be viewed differently now.
I’m happy to see this discussion being aired. Let’s discuss it. I’m sure my opinions can be picked apart and challenged. That’s okay. But please don’t assume that the people that named these routes were misogynistic neanderthals. Comments saying that those who named the routes should all be ashamed of themselves and calling for the heads of the first ascentionsts are both ill-considered and unhelpful. These people are my friends and I believe they are good people. I may not agree with everything they say or do but we are all part of the same tribe. Let’s remember that we are a community.