Route names in rock climbing can be many things: fun, funny, descriptive, intimidating, informative, eye-rolling, juvenile, cringy, and yes, offensive. Route names can add flavor and color to the climbs we come to love, fear, and revere. It's route names that get tossed around after a long day of climbing that help us tell stories and it's these same names we use to make sense of the vast array of roofs, corners, and crack systems. Route names, like reputations often convey the character a route holds, good or bad. If it weren't for route names, our adventures would be harder to describe and certainly less rich.
But how did this tradition begin? Certainly climbs didn't always have names. The mountains are the source of our sport and hence where names for climbs originated. The first names came from indigenous peoples, explorers, and cartographers with the result that in many instances the latter overwrote the former. The origins range from names of Gods (Mount Olympus), Denali (Athabaskan Koyukon for 'The High One') and even presidential candidates (Mt. McKinley).
After the major peaks had been climbed by the easiest path, newly pioneered routes were described by geography or mountain features such as The North Face, The Southwest Ridge, and The Eastern Couloir. Specific sections of routes began to obtain names referencing a particular section, usually the crux or significant pitch. Some of the most famous being The Hillary Step on Everest and The Hintertoisser Traverse on the Eiger. Eventually some routes became named for the first ascent parties’ nationality as in The Polish Line, Central Rib on K2 and for the first ascensionists themselves, like The Cassin Ridge on Denali named for Italian climber Riccardo Cassin.
In 1897 a team of Brits put up a route in England and named it Kern Knotts Crack which seems to be a departure from the other route names because it references something other than a mountain feature or a first ascensionists name. This may not be the first instance of this occurrence but it is certainly one of the earliest examples. Other early examples include Voie Academique (The Academic Path) 1904 in the Southern Alps of France, Nursery Slab 1906 in the Peak District of England, and The Gambit 1910 at Snowdonia in Wales.
The earliest known rock climb in the Shawangunks was done by Fritz Wiessner, John Navas, and Peggy Navas in 1935. Fritz writes in a 1960 Appalachian Mountain Club article, "It offered 190 vertical feet of enjoyable, interesting climbing grade 4 to 5. This route we have called 'Old Route' on Millbrook cliff."
So the first naming convention begins by incorporating descriptive features of the rock into the route name and then follows by using names, usually those of the first ascensionist. Early routes in the Gunks that used the rock for inspiration include Grey Face (1940), Northern Pillar (1941), and Big Chimney (1942). Routes named for people include Betty (1941) for first ascensionist Betty Woolsey, Emory Crack (1941) for first ascensionist Bob Emory, and Emilio (1941) named in honor of Hans Krauss' friend and climbing pioneer Emilio Comici.
Not all of the early route names can be explained by rocks and people, some had the inventiveness and experiences of the FA party embodied in the name. Names like Gargoyle (1935) possibly described how a block resembled a medieval creature protruding from the wall. Art Gran's 1964 A Climber's Guide to the Shawangunks explains the name behind Horseman (1941), "It was thus named because a man came along on horseback and shouted up to the climbers, 'It looks hard'.". And again Gran tells us, regarding Frog's Head (1941), that, "The frog's head is supposedly at the bulge on the second pitch." Although these names don't feel inventive by our modern standards these were departures from the norms of climbing terminology at the time. One can see how this migration moved us closer to the creative license first ascensionists employ today when choosing a name for their first ascent.
The last category from this early era are route names that tell us something about the climbing itself, either by the climbing technique used or something you will likely feel while climbing. High Traverse (1937) gives us a preview of how the route will end and Layback (1941) divulges the technique needed to succeed at the crux. One of the, if not the, most classic and aptly named routes in the Gunks tells of the stomach churning you will feel when you embark out onto the final headwall of High Exposure (1941).
Route names evolved through the 50s carrying on these same conventions without becoming particularly witty or inventive. One route stood out in the decade and that was Shockley's Ceiling (1953) of which Dick Williams writes in his 1996 The Climber's Guide to the Shawangunks, "...the undoubted highlight of the period was Nobel Prize-winning Bill Shockley's breathtaking 1953 ascent of Shockley's Ceiling (5.6), a spectacular overhang that still inspires awe in beginner's today." We will come back to this innocuous sounding route name when we confront William Shockley's sordid and complex past, but for now let's continue onwards.
Around 1958 a group challenging the status quo appeared on the scene, the notorious Vulgarians. The 60s brought us unprecedented social upheaval and drugs, so it is without surprise these names came to us from that decade: Cascading Crystal Kaleidoscope (1968) and Psychedelic (1965). Beside these innocent names, the Vulgarians also introduced names that purposely flouted the stodgy establishment of the time... the Appalachian Mountain Club or "Appies".
We may see Swinging C*** (1962) and Vulga-Tits (1968) as uncouth and offensive today, but these irreverent route names were seen as challenging authority at the time. The 60s brought about the idea in climbing that route names could be used to make a statement or reflect the mood of an era. The iconic image that summed up these times was a 1964 photo of Dick Williams climbing Shockley's Ceiling naked. This not only left an indelible image of the Vulgarians' legacy, but it further amplified the prominence of the already famous Shockley's Ceiling.
To flashback for a moment, Emilio Comici, an influential Italian climber active in the 30s and 40s was the first person to conceive of the "directissima", a route that would, as he put it, follow the path of a drop of water that fell unhindered down the center of a wall. This idea was honored by his friend Hans Kraus in his route Directissima (1956). Later, a pair of adjacent routes played off of this name, Doubleissima (1957) and Ridicullissima (1977). The concept of creating a theme around an area was repeated with route names that ended in "Land". Never Never Land (1959), Wonderland (1959), Turdland (1959), and Absurdland (1960) form a quartet of routes all located within a few hundred feet of one another.
The 70s brought us twists on familiar phrases or book titles like Climb and Punishment and No Slings Attached. Names involving nonsense began appearing, for example in Shit or Go Blind (1974), as well as the use of whole phrases such as Land of Milk and Honey (1976). Names used to specifically reference danger started to appear in R and X rated routes like Abracadaver (1979) and Crash and Burn (1974), the latter involving a jump from a pinnacle onto an overhang to get to the crux.
The 80s continued this theme with dangerous routes like Talus Food (1983) and One Blunder and it's Six Feet Under (1985), and it doesn't get more eighties than The Jane Fonda Workout for Pregnant Women (1985) named for a VHS exercise tape. The Douglas Adam's cult sci-fi novel, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" gave us space drinks called Pangalactic Gargleblasters (1986).
Wop Stop (1982) introduced a new concept by using a racist term like "Wop" in the route name but as a joke by the Italian-American first ascensionists Russ Raffa and Rich Romano. Romano explains that Raffa referred to an Italian restaurant they would frequent on their way out of town as "The Wop Stop". Explosive Bolts (1986) referred to the bolting wars that ended in the Mohonk Preserve ban on new fixed protection. New route activity dropped off in the 90s and the sporadic route names played off of all of the previous trends and added little either in novelty or originality. By then creative license had become the norm.
In 2017 an organic discussion grew within the Gunks climbing community about William Shockley's past as a eugenicist. Shockley was well known for winning the Nobel prize in 1953 for his work on the invention of the transistor but it seemed that a new wave of climbers were learning about his support of the eugenics movement, despite the fact that he had no training in biology. He described this as, "...the most important work of his career."
The reader interested in learning more about Shockley's beliefs, racism, and embracement of eugenics has plenty of sources to draw from. His Wikipedia page covers his political views and personal life. There are numerous New York Times articles about his views and his race debates can be watched on YouTube. For an in-depth review of his racist past search "Shockley Eugenics" in Google. Suffice it to say he was not simply another racist in his time, he was vociferously embracing Nazi ideology.
Discussions within the Gunks climbing community surrounding Shockley's past arose and some people called for a renaming of Shockley's Ceiling. After much heated debate the team at Gunks Apps chose to keep the name the same but make a note drawing attention to his white supremacist past in the description. The change was made and the debates settled down. At the time the issue seemed to be resolved but that was not to last long.
In 2020, amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd sparked a flood of Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the country. The fallout sparked the tearing down of statues and debates raged about changing names of streets, sports teams, edifices, and monuments named for slave holders and confederate war generals. Climbing was not immune to the push for change. It was clear from the seemingly endless examples of overtly sexist, homophopic, racist, and ableist route names that there was a need for change. Even the most ardent route name purists had to admit that there were names that had to go.
Climbing had started in the mountains, but now the route name creative license had opened the door for offensive names to enter the fold unchecked. What gave us fun and inventive names also uncorked the dark side of route naming. Climbers had become much more diverse since the mountaineering days of the 19th century and many of the offensive names that had been brushed off as part of the rock climbing tradition were now under the microscope.
Gunks Apps took its own approach to changing the names (you can see a complete list of all of the changed names across all of our apps in the link below) through intense internal debate, but it was felt that Shockley's Ceiling needed a wider and more diverse audience to weigh in. Feedback was solicited from BIPOC climbers and Gunks locals from a wide breadth of experience and backgrounds. It was felt that although the name "Shockley" was not racist by itself, his name stood as a monument that honored the person and his views. The overwhelming opinion, though not unanimous, was that the name needed to be changed.
A slew of names were floated including Shocking Ceiling, Semiconductor Ceiling, Racist Roof, Shocking Truth Ceiling, Conversation Ceiling, and even Black Lives Matter, but it was the simplest suggestion that seemed to be in closest alignment with the oldest of traditions in naming: The Ceiling. Gunks climber Arturo Quiñones pointed out that, "as modern climbers we should not impose our own creativity in route renaming" and this idea resonated with the authors.
The Ceiling calls out the most outstanding and recognizable feature of the climb, the roof, without honoring Shockley himself. Our history has brought us full circle. The earliest climbs were named for the features of the rock itself and we now find ourselves in the present renaming a monument, and in its place leaving future generations a taste of the old world where the spotlight now shines on that unmistakable and intimidating roof... The Ceiling.