WHEN MY DAUGHTER was still in the womb I prepared, like most incipient parents, to find a name for my child. I didn’t want to summon inspiration, like a snake charmer summoning the snake, since that just leads to trouble and to children with names like Moon Unit, Pilot Inspektor or Diva Thin Muffin. I didn’t want to be in the delivery room and spy in my peripheral vision a piece of medical technology that might lead me to call her Dee-Dee Fibrilator or Venous Intra. Instead, I spent considerable time searching for the meaning of names, listening to the sound they made when spoken softly or angrily and wondering what stereotypes might be attached to Rachel or Holly (I knew what Candy and Tiffany might conjure). I wrote out each potential name with a calligraphy pen and stuck them to the refrigerator for a week. In the end “Chloe” was chosen, from Greek mythology, and when I say it the rhythm and roll of my tongue are the same as when I slowly say “chocolate” or “milk”.
Until recently, I was an avid rock climber. I have climbed in Squamish, in the Adirondacks, on the cliffs of Bon Echo in Ontario, on the crags of the Niagara Escarpment, the Gunks, and the shark’s fin formation in West Virginia called Seneca Rocks. I have never done a first ascent, so I have never been privileged to name a new route, and actually, I’m not sure how I might choose the name. I have wondered if naming a climb is like naming a child—thoughtful and fraught with consideration lest a lifelong curse is created—or is it impulsive, given to the whims of a lustful love or a broken heart, respectful of a favourite book or admired hero.
Flip through a guidebook for any climbing area in North America and you find themes around which names are chosen. At Seneca Rocks a group of Pooh readers, determined not to relinquish the warm fuzzy feelings that Winnie and his friends gave them in their childhood, created routes called Christopher Robin, Pooh’s Corner and Heffalump Trap that comfort climbers, both in their easy grades and innocent names. There is, however, a route in Ontario called “Ihor Gets Humped”, that although it is creatively misspelled, is a puerile antidote to the cuteness of Pooh’s Corner.
In the Adirondacks, near Lake Placid, climbing routes preserve a clean climbing ethos and tough grading and the older routes use simplicity and logic in their names. Like someone who would name their curly redheaded child “Annie”, there are three routes called “Old Route”, each identifying a meandering line up the cliff that has since been replaced by a more direct line. There are three “Weissner “ routes, named after a famous Austrian climber who was the first ascensionist. There is a “Pete’s Farewell”, which I assume marks his exit from either climbing or the area. The people who named these routes would name their dog “Spot” or “Red”, no explanation required.
Food, beer and sex inspire some climbers. “Formication”, “Baboon Blow Jobs”, and “Afternoon Delight” seem to be about sex, although my distorted male perspective possibly clouds the true meaning. More obvious are “Pringles”, “Potato Chip Flake”, and “Pumpernickel”, all in the Adirondacks; routes that were probably named near the end of the day when afternoon rations had thinned out. There is a crag in Ontario named for drinking and includes routes called “Champagne Hangover”, “2-4 Launching Pad”, and in a slight to American ales, “American Lightweights”.
The best names I think are those chosen by what I call the Intellectuals, and by the immodest who seek only local memory of their exploits. “Mitch’s Route”, Boris’s Route” and “Dave’s Route” are, I assume, routes put up by Mitch, Boris and Dave, respectively, who live in the area and are pretty sure that their fellow climbers will remember them. That they had to use their own names to define ownership of the first ascent is a little like my daughter at twelve months clutching her crayons and saying “Chloe’s markers”. The Intellectuals are so smart that they choose names with tangential relationships to the route. “Pythagoras” is not a diagonal traverse across limestone whose length squared is exactly the sum of the squares of the remaining sides of a right triangle; more likely the climber was a mathematician. Like car vanity plates that proclaim Don Juanism with IMALVR, route names such as “Isosceles”, “Sargasso Sea” and “Iconoclast” tell the climbing world what qualities the self-reflective climber sees.
Many tough routes have names that are testosterone-induced challenges, in-your-face monikers that make no lies about how hard the climb is. A pit bull dog would not be called “Pooch” or “Daisy” unless the owner wanted to contrast the potential fighting ability of the dog with the control imposed by the master. “Wimp Crack” and “Wrong Again Chalkbreath” are on the upper spectrum of difficulty, while “Willy” and “Hope” are beginner routes. I can imagine myself crag-side , watching a hormone soaked hard man cursing and struggling to defeat the cliff and then, when successful, throws down their carabiners and rope, howls into the sky and proclaims in a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western voice, “this climb is called ‘Gym Faggot’, got that”. (Climbers are not always sensitive to political persuasions or gender and identity issues.)
Whereas naming cliff climbs often results in pejorative, sexist or silly titles, naming an entire mountain is an exercise in civility and a Victorian respect for lineage permeates the practice. I can imagine a 19th century committee comprised of British civil servants, sipping tea while apportioning the Canadian Rockies for posterity. Debating the relative merits of calling the peak “Mt. Christie” or “Mt. Edith Cavell” they might decide “Mt. Christie of course; that good chap has done much for the Empire and the Queen”. This kind of regal consideration gives the mountains nobility that in turn ennobles the people who climb them. If K2 was called “Cowabunga” or Everest was name “British Limeys”, the experience might be diminished.
The former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was an avid outdoorsman (and perhaps the sexiest canoeist of this great land) who had planned to climb the higher peaks in the Yukon. Days after his death, Prime Minister Chretien proposed renaming Mt. Logan after Trudeau. The ensuing controversy was visceral and most commentators spoke against the idea, arguing that Sir Logan was in his day a great man who deserved this legacy. The name change was abandoned and a lesser mountain was named for Trudeau. I think that those who have climbed Mt. Logan were happiest because changing the name of a mountain is like changing the narrative of history. The Soviets were good at that and changed the names of cities to suit political fancy, denying those born in places like St. Petersburg a place to call home.
If I ever do a first climb (ascent is best reserved for mountaineers), I will name it “Gooney Goo-Goo”, after Eddie Murphy’s comic tale about his drunken family gatherings. It’s meaningless, without pretension, humble about my accomplishment and fun. It is a perfect name for a moderate route that has big holds and outstanding protection, something as easy as an afternoon walk with the family dog. I’m still looking for it, but in the meantime I’ll be happy climbing routes whose names I almost never remember.