Researching the name of any mountain, village, forest, lake, hill or indeed virtually any other geographical landmark in the British Isles is a journey through layers of language: Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Cumbric, Gaelic, Brittonic, and the myriad other dialects of ancient tribes that remain as a residue in the fabric of the landscape. To the philologically curious, the names of the climbing routes slapped onto its rocks and crags over the last hundred-odd years, invisible except to those for whom they form the geographical reference system of their sport, are a no less fascinating part of that journey.
It’s taken as read among rock-climbing types that the first ascensionist of a climb has earned the right to name that climb. To get to weave a personal legacy into the toponymic tapestry of the natural world is seen as a great privilege among the climbing fraternity, and route-naming is something climbers take extremely seriously, sometimes putting as much effort into devising a suitable name as climbing the route itself.
Kate Lawrence, lecturer at Bangor University, suggests that the name of a climb can reveal a lot about the period when it was first ascended. In a paper presented at the Royal Geographical Society conference in 2014, analysing the names of 145 routes in Snowdonia, she writes: “The names of climbs first ascended in the 1920s and 1930s often give you an idea of how to get to them and where to go, but by the 1980s, a hedonistic culture was prevalent amongst some climbers in North Wales and the names of many climbs are clearly influenced by this”.
While the routes put up in the 1930s went by largely descriptive names, alluding to the shape of the rock or local environmental features, by the late 1950s climbs were being given poetic titles, and come the ‘80s climbers were looking to songs, films and literary works, or choosing names that spoke of the physical or psychological experience of the climb or what was going on in their head while making the ascent. All of the names, Lawrence says, give a sense of the route’s background and origins.
“One Step in the Clouds, named in 1958, describes the feeling of the climb, and you do feel you are tip-toeing across something very delicate where you have to be careful. … Curving Crack, named in 1932, describes the visual aspect and is quite down to earth, and Comes the Dervish, named in 1981, signals the spiritual state of being outside the body.” ‘Cenotaph Corner’ on Dinas Cromlech at Llanberis Pass, named in 1952, “takes on the theme of burial and death — Dinas Cromlech means burial chamber, and the massive crag does look like a tombstone.” In the nearby slate quarries there are routes with names like ‘Sweetest Taboo’ and ‘Is it a Crime?’, named after Sade songs, and one named after the Muse track ‘Supermassive Black Hole’.
As the late Charlie Fowler once said, “anybody can put up a classic route, but it takes real talent to come up with a great route name”, and kudos to the climbing community, there are some really great route names. In a lot of cases it’s probably best not to delve too deep into the process of cognitive deliberation that produced them, but at the same time it’s hard not to see a certain poetry in some of the offspring of this ‘hedonistic culture’ Lawrence talks about.
‘Don’t Touch that in front of Grandma’ (Juniper Canyon, Nevada) for example; ‘Fuzzy Undercling’ (Red River Gorge, Kentucky), ‘Chicago Nipple Slump’ (Joshua Tree, California), ‘Poultry in Motion’ (Shannon Falls, BC), or ‘Bald Women with Power Tools’ (Joshua Tree); ‘Walk We Crawl’ on Rock Creek Wall at Sierra Eastside, California; ‘I Saw a Sleaze Revisit Ed’, next to ‘Isosceles Revisited’ in Yosemite; ‘The Quack of Ducks’, above ‘the Crack of Dust’ at Mission Gorge, San Diego County; others political (‘Unimpeachable Groping’ at Red Rock Canyon; named in the ’90s — go figure), many obscene, and plenty treading the edgelands where bawdiness or black humour collide with outright poor taste.
Contributions to the literary and cultural side of things are numerous and varied. There’s a crag at Red Rock, Nevada, for example, called the Hamlet, every route name on which is an allusion to Shakespeare’s play — so, ‘Goodnight Sweet Prince’, ‘The Play’s the Thing’, ‘Rosencrantz’, ‘The Rest is Silence’, ‘When the Blood Burns’, and others. There’s ‘Summer of Our Discount Tent’ in the Bridger Mountains in Montana, and ‘Too Loose To Trek’ — “a short dirty little climb” at Joshua Tree, southern California; at Donner Summit ‘A Steep Climb Named Desire’, and ‘Climbin’ Punishment’ at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia; ‘Ancient Mariner’, ‘Albatross’ and ‘Upon a Painted Ocean’ at Point Perpendicular in Australia, and ‘The Satanic Traverses’ on Napes Needle in Cumbria, named back in the days when Salman Rushdie was fleeing persecution from 8th century religious throwbacks (on which note there’s also the rather pleasing ‘Cretins Corner’ in Idaho — described as “loose, wet, & overhanging”). And then of course, there’s the whole Tolkien issue.
If the poetics of ‘Hillbilly Sex Farm’ (West Virginia), ‘Magical Chrome-Plated Semi-Automatic Enema Syringe’ (Lumpy Ridge, Colorado) or the inevitable ‘Mr. Hugh G. Rection’ (Pinnacles, California) seem a little, let’s say, incongruous with those of the mountain landscape, there’s a whole other genre of route names of which the opposite is true.
On Pavey Ark in Langdale, I was pleased to discover, when I started delving into it for an article I was writing a while back, there is a certain syntonicity between the personality of the crag and the names of the climbs that crisscross its surface: ‘Crescent Slabs’, ‘Arcturus’, ‘Cruel Sister’, ‘Mother Courage’, ‘Rainmaker’, ‘Fallen Angel’, ‘Impact Day’, and a long list of others that would look as comfortable on an Iron Maiden album sleeve as in the pages of any climbing logbook.
The route names directory for the Napes, on the southern flank of Great Gable, similarly, is a veritable encyclopedia of the ancient, the literary and the chthonic: climbs like ‘Eagles Nest’, ‘Arrowhead Ridge’, ‘Vikings’, ‘Supernatural’, ‘Incantations’ and ‘Lucifer Ridge’, and others that nod respectfully to English folklore (‘Little John’, ‘Longbow’, ‘The Merry Monk’…). ‘The Crowley Route’ on the Napes will always have a slightly sinister ring to it, though like many climbs it’s named innocuously enough after its first ascensionist (it just happens that in this case that was the occultist Aleister Crowley, one of the first generation of climbers to bring their then-nascent sport to the Cumbrian fells in the late 19th and early 20th century). In the United States, ‘Wall of the Early Morning Light’ (Yosemite), ‘Lucifer’s Ladder’ (Utah), and ‘The Eagle’s Gift’ (Virginia) are among the countless other such names in this tradition.
For all my metal sensibilities, as route names go there can surely be none finer than that of a climb in Upper Owens River Gorge in eastern California. Listed in the online directories as ‘Nothing but Trouble’, its full title is: ‘You Have Been Nothing But Trouble Since the First Day I Laid Eyes on You; You are Like a Thorn in My Side; I Don’t Know from One Day to the Next What Stupid Lame Brain Stunt You’re Gonna Pull; Now Get Out of Here, Get Out of My Office, Get Out of My Life, Once and For All, Get Out Out Out Out!’