Strip away all the trappings and chalk sits incredibly close to the core of climbing. Safety aside, chalk and shoes are all you really need to climb, at the end of the day. If you’re a sweaty-handed chap like me, chalk might even be more critical to your climbing than your rock shoes.
In my thirteen years of climbing, I don’t think I’ve ever sent a route without chalking up at least once, but chalk is something many of us take for granted. It’s just always there. Climbers didn’t always have chalk, though...
Chalk, as we climbers know it, is very different from the blackboard chalk that the schoolyard bully used to stuff up your nose (...or did that only happen to me?). While both blackboard chalk and chalk used for climbing are carbonates, blackboard chalk is generally calcium-based, usually calcium sulfate, also known as gypsum (CaSO₄) or calcium carbonate (CaCO₃).
Rock climbing chalk, meanwhile, sees it origins in gymnastics chalk and lifting chalk, which was originally sometimes sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO₃), but most commonly magnesium carbonate (MgCO₃), the same base used in most climbing chalk today. Gymnasts and lifters use chalk for the same reason climbers do: its anti-sweat properties. It also is used to improve friction between a lifter or gymnasts skin and the bar or weight, improving overall grip. Although it’s not clear when exactly the practice began, chalk has been around and in use for as long as modern gymnastics has existed. Gymnasts originally referred to it as “mag” due to its composition. (Interestingly enough, gymnasts use a variety of other substances for grip, including honey, mixtures of beer and sugar, and melted gummy bears).
Chalk was brought into the climbing world in 1954, by John Gill, the guy who invented bouldering. Before Gill, climbers would usually just wipe their pants if their hands got sweaty, or take a handful of dirt and rub it between their palms. That wasn’t exactly an optimal solution from a performance standpoint, for obvious reasons.
A gymnast by training, Gill realized that gymnastic chalk’s remarkable properties as a drying agent, which in turn dramatically enhanced grip, would translate perfectly into climbing. As opposed to the common viewpoint that climbing was an extension of hiking, Gill saw climbing as an extension of gymnastics. During the 1950s, Gill increasingly visited climbing areas to establish short, dynamic routes, what we today would call a “boulder problem.”
His practice of bouldering was essentially a marriage of the dynamic movements of gymnastics with the vertical progress of traditional climbing, which before Gill, was extremely static in nature. Naturally, to bring this dynamism into the world of climbing would require an increased emphasis on grip. Gymnastic chalk was the perfect solution.
Gill’s contribution of both chalk and dynamic movement to climbing can’t be overstated. An early issue of Alpinist described Gill’s efforts as “the beginning of modern climbing in America.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Climbers have been using chalk ever since. That said, it’s evolved in myriad ways, and is quite different from the standard chalk of old. New styles and forms have evolved (most recently, a new germ-killing chalk).
The chalk of today typically comes in three forms: a fine powder (which is either loose or placed in chalk balls), blocks, and liquid. While many choose the types of chalk they use based on personal preference, each has its benefits and drawbacks.
Loose chalk is perhaps the most common form of chalk at gyms. This is for several reasons. It’s the easiest to share, with refillable chalk buckets for communal use common at many gyms (at least before COVID-19).
It’s easy to dip your hand into a buddy’s chalk bag and cover your hands in a layer of chalk before a route. It’s also the easiest form of chalk to apply while climbing.
There are plenty of drawbacks though. It generally doesn’t last as long (nor is it as effective as) liquid chalk, and it’s easy to overuse and waste it. Loose chalk is also extremely messy. It gets everywhere. We’ve all had our eyes blinded by the spray from a top-roping gumby’s chalk bag as they come off the wall and swing into another rope. Not fun (that said, a good chalk ball can mitigate the latter issue).
Block chalk isn’t that different from loose chalk, except that it comes in a block. You can break off little crumbs, pop ‘em in your bag, and rub them down into chalk dust. Some athletes also take the whole block and rub it into their grips (gymnasts) or on their hands/back (powerlifters, if they are doing really heavy squats). It’s somewhat less messy than loose chalk, at least in terms of storage, and due to the nature of its solid state, you tend to waste less of it.
Loose chalk, or crumbs of block chalk, are great options for longer, traditional climbs, since you can take it in a chalk bag and chalk quickly while on the wall, in the middle of a route or at a belay.
Liquid chalk is quite different from block and loose chalk. It typically comes in a tube, and a small amount is squirted on as a paste prior to a climb, then rubbed in and allowed to dry. The benefits of liquid chalk are numerous.
For one, it doesn’t leave residue and mess like loose chalk does, both on holds and in the surrounding area. It’s also the most practical option, since coating your hands in liquid chalk provides dry hands for much, much longer than dipping them in a bag of loose chalk. Liquid chalk is the only chalk proven to be low emission in the air, making it great for indoor use in particular.
It's also much easier to get the correct amount of chalk needed, no more, no less, when using liquid chalk. Usually one coating will work for an entire session. It’s also a much more calculated application. If you’re climbing crimps, you can only coat your tips, for example. This way, there is no wasted chalk.
I’ve been climbing all my life, and for years I never really considered liquid chalk. That said, I’ve been converted. Liquid chalk is the best option for the modern single-pitch climber and boulderer, from an ethical standpoint, from a practical standpoint, and now, from a hygienic standpoint.
Both in a climbing gym and outdoors, liquid chalk is kinder on the rock and the plastic. It’s less messy and wasteful. It doesn’t leave nearly as much residue behind (usually none whatsoever), and it requires less chalking up, plain and simple.
In another vein, the age of COVID is upon us. Liquid chalk is personal and practical. No sharing chalk buckets or chalk bags, no chalk dust irritating your eyes, mouth, and nose.
Even better, Friction Labs new Secret Stuff Hygienic Chalk is a liquid chalk which also doubles as a germ killer. There’s not much more you could want when climbing during a pandemic.
Owen Clarke is a veteran climber and climbing journalist. He is a columnist for Rock & Ice, Gym Climber, and The Outdoor Journal, and has been climbing for 13 years. Follow his thoughts in his opinion column, “The Choss Pile,” published every Thursday on Rock & Ice.