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No Chalk

How do you feel about chalk all over the cliffs?

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I wear good climbing shoes in the gym or at a crag. I use cams and bolts to protect and equip my routes, but don’t expect to see a chalk bag on my hip. Chalk is a climber’s graffiti. I am not talking Banksy in the wilderness, but a five-year-old kid with spray paint at the Louvre. It makes a mess, and there is nothing temporary about it.

How often have I stood at the base of a cliff and looked up to see defined handholds of climbers that came before me? It makes me sick. It is like the highlighted marks in a used textbook that makes you wonder if the prior owner was smart enough to identify the critical passages in the book and following their marks will lead you to a good grade.

[Read More Student Articles from the John Long Writing Symposium]

In one of my early climbing experiences, the guy on the boulder next to me, a weekend warrior, reached into his chalk bag at every hold. His gear represented a United Nations of brands as if the names of those companies alone could propel him forward. He was fit. Muscular forearms, broad shoulders leading to a bull neck honed from hours of exercise with his personal trainer. Effortless was not a word that I would use to describe his technique. Sure, he attacked that wall with gusto, yet for him, the struggle to reach the bag often eclipsed the effort to reach the next hold. The contortions he used to chalk up were like a performer at a circus sideshow.

As a child gymnast, I never put my hands in the pan of chalk. You would think a child would want to get their hands dirty, but it was too much for me. The one time I used it, I couldn’t wait to get that gritty feeling off. The chalk bowl sat on a tripod looking like a crucible from a fantasy motion picture. Each competitor would reach in and crumble, pat and clap, often losing themselves in a cloud of white.

It never surprised me to learn that it was gymnasts who brought chalk into the wild. It wasn’t free range chalk like we use today, but a block of chalk that would sit like a lodestone. In the late 1950s, John Gill carried his slab of chalk to Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta, to try moves that had been thought to be unattainable. His success caused the use of chalk to spread across the climbing world. The old guard fought against it, but like Netflix rolling over Blockbuster, it was only a matter of time before adoption reached a tipping point and there was no way to take the hand out of the bag. Chalk was here to stay.

Chalk’s purpose is to improve performance by drying the hands and improving your grip. Where would we be without the friction that holds us to the wall and makes the tiniest of cracks the difference between success or failure. Like steroids and doping, people approach chalk as a performance-enhancing drug in the elusive search for friction. Chalk pushers want us to use it whether the wall demands it or not. It is not a question of yes or no, but one of how much and how often. It becomes so second nature that I have watched many a climber eyeing a wall without realizing that his hand was reaching down and bending back only to find his harness wasn’t on yet and no bag was within reach.

Has your chalk bag become your crutch? I enjoy pausing on the ski slopes as a line of young children snakes past me. Shifting from side to side with their heads held high, they have no poles in their hands. They ski without poles to learn the balance of their bodies and how the skis will respond to their movement. These same children will be given a chalk bag the moment they walk into the gym or look at their first wall—no chance to learn without it.

When there is no chalk on the wall, each ascent has a higher chance of being an original route. It may cause you to consider new moves or new grips, rather than re-running the route that was used previously. Stand at the base and look up. Do you see the rock for hints that it gives you, or are your eyes drawn to the chalk marks on the wall? There is better beta available than grip marks of others. I almost consider leaving a chalk mark on an outdoor crag or indoor jug like a dog lifting its leg to mark its territory.

The layers of chalk and moisture and oils from generations of climbers begin to create a new layer; a human-made layer that lies slick on the surface of the rock. Long after man is gone from this world, alien races will discover our chalk marks and consider them hieroglyphics. They will land at the base of our great wall conquests and marvel at the advanced markings placed at such high altitudes that it allowed their external sensors to glimpse them from deep space. Scratching the top of one of their many heads, they will telepathically communicate about the wonderment of the placement of these marks. Ripping whole hillsides from the earth, they will fly back to their home world where galactic PhDs are awarded for the interpretation of these chalk writings.

Once at the climbing gym, I looked over and for a moment I thought I saw the Pillsbury doughboy. A climber, arms covered in chalk to the elbows was reaching into his bag, spilling particles of chalk dust on people below. His belayer moved from side to side to avoid the cloud of white descending from above.

Is there a cabal of mining companies conspiring to maximize the output of chalk? Do they sit in their closed-door meetings listening to reports from company scientists on what quantity of chalk must be mined to cover the face of El Capitan? I am sure they are funding new studies to convince climbers to stick their hands into a chalk bag with greater frequency and drive the demand for more production, more profits.

These manufacturers will continue to find new ways to increase the use of chalk with devious product modifications. Different chalk colors convince climbers to match the color of chalk to the rock where they climb. Marketing people add scents to the chalk giving it the smell of lavender or roses. Wouldn’t the addition of taste be an even better modification? At those critical points on the wall, where you stop to consider a difficult move, just toss some energy-boost chalk into your mouth and get that extra power to help push you forward. Or blue cheese-flavored chalk to sprinkle on your kale and quinoa salad when you come back down.

I look forward to the day Big Chalk is brought before a Senate investigation committee. The executives of all the major chalk companies will arrive in their pinstripe climbing shorts, bare from the waist up. Rappelling from the gallery above, they will take their seats at the front of the room. They will dodge and evade questions about the chalk markings on the big walls of public lands, the effects of second-hand chalk dust and the use of open-pit strip mining of rare chalk deposits. They will ignore the questions of Zombie climbers that stagger from crag to crag with chalk covered hands outstretched for more rock, more holds and each muttering; “must use chalk…” They will keep their market growing.

Our sport has seen an explosion of new climbers. Each climber climbs for his or her own reasons and hopes to capture a moment of exhilaration. Not every climb will be epic, but without chalk every climb is fresh and untainted. Every climb will be an expression of what each of us is capable of, and every climb will have a place in our memory. If each day I can experience one climb that is pure and just; clean and sharp; then I can consider that a good day.