Crossing the (white) line.

/Posted by Posts by Marmot Mountain Europe GmbH

"Towering above me, the huge wall of limestone seemed endless; it looked impossible for a human to scale. White chalk covered patches on orange rock drew me in, marking the way; someone had been there before. I tied in, excited to see how far I’d get…"

Chalk has been around for a while now. Magnesium-Carbonate, MgCO3. It dries sweat on the climber’s hands and fingers, greatly improving grip, especially on warm days, or on those scary routes when a little fear sets in! When I was a young kid just starting up, chalk had only just been discovered by climbers, and there were some who felt it was cheating, like using aid. But most saw the advantages, and readily filled their chalk bags with the white stuff. In many ways chalk improves the experience of moving over stone, the increased grip allows a better flow and prevents that sudden unexpected slip off when least expected.

But it doesn’t just stay on the hands, it is transferred to the rock. This doesn’t really damage the rock, and is washed away in the rain, but often our chalk marks may stay there for days, or weeks, or months… or even forever on the really steep cliffs! A good or bad thing?

I overheard a climber at the cliff the other day; “I love it when there are no tick-marks or chalk on the holds. I get to work it all out for myself and have a real experience, just like the person who found it first”. Many of us think that, but hearing it made it really clear. It’s a tricky balance. Chalk can be brushed away with a soft brush, but often this is a real ball ache. And for many, the patches of chalk are inspiring, helping a little to show the way, especially on really complex rock with hidden holds. It can be frustrating to fall off the last move only to find the hidden huge hand-hold just out of view. But this is the game we play.

Climbing as it should be

Chalk on hand holds is probably here to stay. But the next level is the ‘tick-mark’; a white line drawn onto the rock with a lump of chalk. They can be useful for hidden holds, or with dynamic moves, or reaching around a blind bulge. Again, these may well be washed off in the rain, so what’s the problem? Two things. Firstly, they look bad! Clearly drawn by man, they are not part of nature. To a non-climber, I imagine they look awful, and maybe paint climbers in a bad light. Secondly, they certainly give the game away, if there was any doubt about where to slap your hand, now there isn’t! And personally, I’ve been led astray by these on many occasions, grabbing a hold that didn’t work for me; maybe that’s my own daft fault! The answer really is to brush these marks away. It is not difficult. It probably only takes a few seconds and leaves the next climber to have their own adventure. If you arrive to find tic-marks everywhere, brush them off before you even start!


The white stuff.

Less is more. You only need a dusting to absorb the sweat and oil on your hands. Too much chalk actually makes friction worse, particularly on porous or granular rock like sandstone or gritstone, as it packs out the natural roughness of the hold, making it feel less ‘grippy’. A shovel full of chalk smeared onto the rock leaves you a hand hold made of, well, chalk! (not grippy!)

If you can see the hold, do you need a tick mark? Is it actually a waste of chalk? But maybe a mark is useful, to instantly locate a hand or foothold perfectly, especially if it’s a little hidden. Be considerate. A few dots may be enough. But don’t overdo it, and brush them off with a soft brush when you leave. After all, you don’t want your mates behind you to have free access to all your hard-earned beta!!

Text & Photos:
Steve McClure

Steve McClure
United Kingdom
May, 2021
The Good