Friday, November 9, 2012

Climbing Ethics - A History of Chalk


Climbing Ethics - A History of Chalk
By Aubrey Wingo

You’re in the gym and you throw on your shoes and harness. You read your route, tie in, make sure that your belayer is good to go and chalk up. It’s one of the steps that many of us have in our procedure that almost becomes second nature. I, myself, find that even if I’m not getting right back on the wall, I’ll chalk up anyway, sometimes completely nonsensically. The white handed climber is a common site in the gym and outside but the question is does everyone realize what chalk is used for and where it came from? Do we even need it? This article will zone into the use of the chalk, its history and how we can become better ethical climbers when using it.


It all started in 1954. John Gill, the father of modern bouldering, introduced gymnastics chalk to the world of climbing after discovering its potential while taking gymnastics during his freshman year at Georgia Tech. He visited Stone Mountain, which was close to his college campus but is now closed for climbing, to try it out for the first time. Gill, who felt that climbing should have been viewed as an extension of gymnastics, started introducing a new style to climbing which involved dynamic movement, “simple jumps and lunges”. They had been done in gymnastics, why couldn’t these “gymnastics releases” be practiced as they required more skill and greater strength. This would soon be considered the birth of the dyno (back then called free-aerials). However, Gill believed that in order for this style to be accomplished the use of chalk was necessary. “The serious use of momentum became a choice of style, and not simply a desperate technique of last resort. And no gymnast would work on challenging releases without chalk - neither should a climber.”

After purchasing chalk at Jackson Pharmacy during a visit to the Tetons, Gill introduced chalk to the climbing community. At the start, purists to climbing already found chalk to be unethical but most were drawn to it instantly. Smooth rock and warm areas became substantially better and over the next few years, the use of chalk spread throughout the world. Dynamic movement through the use of chalk continued to thrive and Yvon Chouinard, founder of Black Diamond and Patagonia, informed Gill that what he started was called “bouldering”. Alpinist magazine, in issue #12, stated that "...his introduction of chalk and dynamic movement marked the beginning of modern climbing in America.”


But what about those purists? Was John Gill’s introduction to chalk one of the greatest and most influential discoveries in our history or was is the most detrimental? Chalk in rock climbing indeed has created a different view to our sandstone and granite wonders where it seems that every useable surface turns white. This has caused a bit of a controversy in the climbing world in its relationship to Leave No Trace. Many areas around the world have prohibited chalk (or in some cases only banning white chalk), such as Garden of the Gods in Colorado, Arches National Park in Utah, and many areas in the Czech Republic, in efforts to keep our crags as clean and natural as possible. Many climbers throughout our history have also taken a personal stance not to use chalk and encourage other not to as well, finding it unnecessary. David Black, author and climber, wrote an article called Climbing Ethics Revisited - Chalk, explaining the issues and solutions over chalk use. “Half a century ago when climber’s wanted to dry the sweat off their hands, they wiped them on their pants an grabbed a handful of local dust to rub between them. It was the same color as the rock that produced it, and when it rained it washed off the rock. It was the perfect grip-enhancer.” Black goes on to note the three problems with chalk: when mixed with sweat, chalk can become an “almost permanent varnish of slime”, “chalk plus moisture equals paint” which makes the rock permanently marked, and “it’s an eyesore.” Black concludes “there is no real ethic regarding chalk, possibly because modern climbers have no ethics.”

Is this true? Does our generation of climbers lack the concept of ethics and Leave No Trace? I for one am impartial. My articles are meant to educate those who are new to the climbing world and even to those who need reminding on how much the environment and how we access it is a privilege and not a right. It is certainly obvious that not using chalk would help the environmental impact that climbers can cause. However, Black, although obviously adamant about the prohibition of chalk, still notes that one way to help minimize the negative effects of chalk is simply using less. We all sweat differently (me, in particular, a lot) and for us, it seems as if though using chalk is inevitable. But there are efforts that all of us can take if we “require” using chalk. I have come up with some tips that you can demonstrate to help prevent impact and the overuse of chalk:

Put less chalk in your chalk bag - Having less access to chalk will prevent you from the desire of caking chalk on your hands and down your arms. Plus, if you spill your chalk bag, there is much less to clean up!

Only chalk what you need - If you’re climbing a route that only involves crimps, you should only need to chalk your tips. If you’re climbing jugs, there is a good chance that you have the strength to not require any chalk at all.

Buy a really good brush - There are lots of the market, but in order to prevent layers of caked up chalk, brush your holds while your climbing, and even when you are done. And this is courteous to other climbers! Avoid excessive ticking - Ticking, the process of marking the rock with chalk in order to see the prime spot on the next hold, create even more of an eyesore and are typically hard to brush off. If you do tick, you should be putting it so faintly that you can brush it off with ease.

Chalk your hands, not the rock - The rock isn’t sweating, you are. Sometimes patting a fat sloper seems like a good idea, but it is going to create more of a white mess.

Keep in mind the type of rock you are climbing on - White chalk's effects on non-porous rock like granite and quartzite is minimal, but porous rock like sandstone and limestone absorbs chalk and will leave blemishes.

Only climb in colder temperatures - A random thought, but on hot and humid days, you are naturally going to use more chalk in order to find friction. By climbing only on colder days, the friction, thanks to the climate, is naturally going to be better, so you will require less chalk.

Try a different type of chalk - It’s hard to let go of that white powdery goodness, but there are other products on the market that are being create in order to help with this issue. The Metolius Eco Ball, colored chalk products that match the environment you’re climbing in, liquid chalk, or other types of drying agents.

There are efforts that we can take that can improve the amount of impact that we do as climbers. However, how many of you are willing to take that step to use less chalk? Chalk addiction is probably just as hard to give up as cigarettes and gambling: as SpiderDan Goodwin says “some call it white courage. I call it chalk.” Next time you go out to the gym or the crag, give it a shot. Climb a V1 without chalk and see how it feels. Never know, might make you are stronger climber!

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