What year did climbers start using chalk in the UK and what region?
I don't know exact year, but the first (free) ascent of Great Wall at Cloggy was presented in the mags with the caveat "but uses chalk". 1974 I think, a 15 year old John Allen.
I'm guessing it was in that long, hot summer of '76 that chalk really got popular
I first saw chalk, for climbing, in 1974 - but we didn't use it. John Allen famously used it on Great Wall in 1975. If I remember correctly, it was beginning to be used more widely in 1976. Most of the top climbers, who were using it, were Yorkshire/Peak based but very active in Wales/the Lakes.
As doubtless you know, it wasn't 'allowed' in Ireland, so I never used it there. Then, some time (in the 1990s?) mysteriously it was allowed. Most odd. I'd stopped going back, so I've still never used it there.
Having witnessed chalk being used on rock, I made myself a chalkbag (using some surplus ventile material, left over from making a double-ventile anorak - what fun we had then!) The chalk came (as calcium carbonate) from a chemists in Chapel-en-le-frith. That would be late 1970s IIRC
I used it pretty much from when I started in 1976. We bought blocks of 'light magnesium carbonate and broke them up into improvised chalk bags... (https://www.ukclimbing.com/photos/dbpage.php?id=325110)
Hi Mick, I hadn’t realised JA’s 1st ascent of Great Wall was so early. Tapton School turned out some exceptional climbers! I thought that the John Gill biography was a contribution to the uptake of chalk, but the first edition was 1977. JA writes about Ed Drummond using a massive chalk bag at Froggatt in the ‘70s. I wonder if it came into the U.K. via Europe or the US?
First time I saw chalk was November 1973, Ron Fawcett was using it at Almscliffe, he said he'd brought it back from Yosemite. I used it in Yosemite in 1974 and brought some home but didn't really use it here till about 1977.
Hi Paul, I remember John Allen's ascent of Great Wall because I was in Wales that weekend and a mate saw it. He knew Chris Addy, who seconded, but had no idea who John Allen was. From what Steve said, there was lots of banter flying around, nobody taking things too seriously. Well, we were young...
The previous year, Jim Erickson had shown me a muslin bag of chalk buried deep in his rucksac. It seemed as though I was witnessing a great secret! Jim had (and, I gather, still has) a particular, very strict set of ethics. I got the impression that top US climbers (Wunsch, Barber?) were using chalk. And maybe they'd got the idea from boulderers such as Ament and Gill?
Back then, apart from dark horses (e.g. in Dresden!) the top climbers seemed to be British (particularly Yorshire/Peak, i.e. the cream team) and US (Long, Erickson, Barber, Wunsch and, a little later, Kauk and Bachar). There was a fair degree of interplay and rivalry twixt the two. It was only later, when British climbers were running up routes in the Verdon, that the French took heed and sport climbing was born.
So I would think that chalk came to the UK from the US, not Europe. But (as ever!) I might be completely wrong. And there are always dark horses, plugging away in obscurity. Somehow I've always found them the most interesting...
P.S. According to Bill Turner, the late Iain Edwards did the FFA of Great Wall (with Bill seconding). Iain was a classic dark horse, a talented, bold and strong climber - and a good guy, whom I remember with affection. So future Cloggy guides really should have the FFA altered. No disrespect to John Allen; he didn't know.
The history of chalk goes back to John Gill's extraordinary bouldering exploits, which began, I think, in the late 1950's. Gill had gymnastic training, and imported chalk from that activity to climbing. He simply carried a block with him from boulder to boulder, using it mostly just on his fingertips.
In the 1960's, the Tetons were the crossroads of American climbing. Gill did some impressive bouldering at Jenny Lake, and climbers passing through from all over the country noted what he was up to (very often without understanding it at all, as he was climbing two full number grades above the prevailing standard). I brought the idea of chalk back East from those encounters, and climbers from Colorado and California presumably did the same. At the time, having a few chalk crumbs in your pocket to dust your fingertips on a hard crux on a hot day was about the extent of usage.
Yosemite climbers, however, had problems that went beyond a fingertip dusting, as sweaty hand jams on a hot day could be slippery. And so they invented the chalk bag (I've heard it was Jim Bridwell) so that the whole hand, back and front, could benefit. I think this was probably late sixties; I know chalk bags were in use in Yosemite in the early seventies.
I don't know how or exactly when the disease spread to Europe and the UK, but suppose visitors to Yosemite were probably a significant vector.
I was thinking last night (as you do) that typically I'd missed out the key element - gymnasts used chalk and both Gill and Ament (and others?) were gymnasts. It's a fascinating likely progression, from Gill at Jenny Lake, to Yosemite, to the UK, to mainland Europe.
Interesting that the French use of resin at Font (then known as Bleau) never became widespread - and thankfully so.
And (for me, anyway) also interesting that it seems to have taken circa 20 years from its inception in Europe for chalk to be 'allowed' in Ireland. The dead hand of censorship!
1977 for me. Lake District. uncontroversial by then. Pretty sure I first saw it on Dedication, lower falcon in 1974.
> 1977 for me. Lake District. uncontroversial by then.
To some of us it's still controversial !!
It is unsightly and disfigures the rock because it takes ages to wear off, in fact on some popular routes it never wears off as each fresh party adds it's own layer. Whilst I can see a justification for it's use on extremely hard routes, I don't think its necessary on easier routes, all of which had been climbed chalk free for decades before it's introduction.
The late Al Evans was very anti it's unnecessary use on most climbs.
I very rarely used it.
I know I am in the minority with this view and fully expect a barrage of dislikes, but I am still to be convinced that it's use can be justified on aesthetic grounds for the vast majority of low to mid grade climbs. A reasoned reply in support of it's use is more likely to persuade me than a load of meaningless dislikes.
I distinctly remember doing laps on Broomgrove wall at the start of the 80s, before taking to using chalk (my mentor had been a clean-hander) when a certain Mr Moffatt came along, started pinging off the tiny slopey edges, and threw toys out of his pram because people had been greasing up 'his' holds!
I reckon it was around 1976 for me, I moved to Basingstoke in 1981 and got severely told off for using chalk on the local brick climbing wall. There was still a strong anti chalk ethos then in some quarters... usually the most vociferous of whom were vdiff climbers
I've never carried chalk, finding it an annoying and messy extra to bring for the grades I climb. However I do remember utilizing the accumulated chalk and dirt at the bottom of the Sobell wall in London.
We were using it on the old Leeds Wall in 1973. Al Mason had been to Yosemite and used it there. At first I think we were using blackboard chalk just rubbed on our fingers before someone found you could buy it in powdered form at Boots the chemist.
In the late 70s I remember having discussions about ' with chalk or without' and found myself in the camp that didn't use it. I've still never climbed with it. In Lochaber it seemed out of place on mountain routes and even at Polldubh crags it wasn't seen. New routes appeared without it in the 80s.
> P.S. According to Bill Turner, the late Iain Edwards did the FFA of Great Wall (with Bill seconding). Iain was a classic dark horse, a talented, bold and strong climber - and a good guy, whom I remember with affection. So future Cloggy guides really should have the FFA altered. No disrespect to John Allen; he didn't know.
Hi Mick, do you have any dates for that?
Cubby put up Chalky Wall on Pinnacle as a bit of a wind up in 76 I think. I’m sure the Creag Dubh loved him for it
Hi, afraid not. There was an obituary to Iain on here, a few years ago, with contributions from several people. I'm pretty sure Bill mentioned it then. Would be worth someone getting in touch with him, and establishing the date, for future Cloggy guidebooks.
I think you have a point. I hate the chalked-up nature of modern routes too. Even so, in places that are hot and humid (like the Gunks in the summer), there is no question that it helps. And the argument that is washes off is bs. Not only does it not wash off in general, but it seems to fuse to the holds. BITD we used to have chalk clean-ups, and anyone who has really tried to get it all off the rock knows you can't.
But there is an aspect that seems always to be overlooked, which is that the chalk prevents deposits of hand grease from building up, which is part of why gymnasts use it. Frequently-traveled climbs would be a whole lot greasier without chalk use, although they'd look a lot better aesthetically.
In the US, John Stannard began to worry about chalk disfiguration way back in the seventies, and invented the chalk sock as an antidote. The use of a chalk sock cuts down on deposits exponentially, and Stannard tested grips on different rock types and concluded that heavily chalked hands were worse than lightly chalked hands anyway. But the idea never really caught on. I think part of the problem is that purveyors of chalk made chalk socks that were too impermeable and basically applied no chalk to the hand---what you want is a thin haze---and of course you have to get used to more frequent re-applications.
Whatever---it is too late at this point, except for the occasional area like the Elbsandsteingebirge that has succeeded in always banning chalk. The beginning-climber packages at every major climbing outlet are a harness, a chalk bag, and shoes, and there are by now generations of climbers who have never seen unchalked-rock.
Hi Mick, any idea why the claimed ascent of GW didn’t make the new routes books, mags or guides? That was one of the great problems at the time, and was a big tick.
Probably best to quote directly from Iain's UKC obituary:
'Turned out the ascent of Great Wall was probably the first free ascent but he never told anyone.' (Bill Turner)
'Over the years we did hundreds of routes together and following up on Bill Turner's comments, yes, Iain was amazingly modest about his achievements. He led many, many routes at Tremadog and in the Dales where he eliminated points of aid or did first free ascents - he never boasted about what he'd done and would rarely even mention these climbs.' (Roger Whitehead)
Obviously Bill Turner noted 'probably', not 'certainly', so it would be necessary for a future guidebook writer to confirm the exact date with him (or, if the exact date can't be remembered, at least whether it was before John Allen's ascent).
However I suspect the real clue lies in Roger's comment. It's always seemed to me that Iain never got the credit he deserved. And, in British climbing, he wasn't the only one. It's not as though people do it just for credit but still... fair's fair.
If I remember correctly, Iain did the FA of Guillotine, at Ilkley, at about the same time as Pete Livesey and there was some ambiguity as to who'd done it first. The credit went to Pete, not Iain. Similarly, I think, there was an Al Rouse route at Tremadog (Pretzel Logic?) where the same thing happened. Maybe Iain had been already been rebuffed and just thought, "Sod this!"
Just my theory though. Interviewing Bill Turner and other members of the Baildon Bank gang would doubtless shed light on things. To ask the most fundamental questions: was Iain good enough and did he have enough self-belief to go straight onto Cloggy and free Great Wall? Yes, to both counts.
P.S. It appears that Rowland Edwards did the FFA (solo!) of Left Wall, circa 1964, after progressively eliminating aid, after several visits. Because this was what we'd now regard as working a route and wasn't the done thing back then, he never claimed it. For me however, the most amazing oversight was Barry Brewster doing the FFA of Vulcan, at Tremadog, in 1962(!!!) This had to wait for more than 50 years for confirmation.
I first became aware of chalk use during an ‘outside broadcast’ ( World of sport’?)from Eldorado Canyon in the early to mid seventies. I think the climb was on the wall to the left of the first pitch of Bastille. Anyway, they were using chalk. Such a high profile event probably influenced quite a few in the UK at the time?
Thanks Mick. It’s like a little window into another world, distinct from twitter and YouTube, just doing (cutting edge) stuff for the fun of it. It’s funny how it matters to us old farts, remember poring over Crags Magazine new routes with each new edition? My son and his mates are finding a good indoor/outdoor balance but have absolutely no idea who did the routes first. I guess it’s ancient history now.
Just to add another name in to the FFA of Great Wall. My climbing partner Steve Foster mentioned to me that he had done the FFA in 1975 with, I believe, Hank Pasquill. Not sure of the exact date but I am sure that Steve would have a record so it would be interesting to know when Iain did it. Coming from Saltaire, I climbed quite a bit with Iain and he had never mentioned it to me but as has been mentioned, unlike Pete Livesey, he was not interested in the publicity.
Regarding chalk in the UK I am sure that we used it in Yorkshire in the early 70,s having seen Pete use it when out on the local grit crags.
I used chalk during my first visit to the Verdon in 1976; where I learnt it was Magnesium Carbonate. Aged memory is hazy; but pre-visit we had experimented with crushed blackboard chalk etc on a terrible brick edge climbing wall. As a naive sixteen year old in the South East, there must have been some references to chalk use in the limited climbing press of that time for us to be experimenting.
At least for me, I've never felt the need
> We were using it on the old Leeds Wall in 1973. Al Mason had been to Yosemite and used it there. At first I think we were using blackboard chalk just rubbed on our fingers before someone found you could buy it in powdered form at Boots the chemist.
I remember Alan winding us all up for several weeks about his supply of special "pyramid grain chalk" in blue wrapped plastic blocks and refusing to say where he got it. Not sure how long it it took to realise we'd been suckered.
I remember seeing Ed Drummond trying Ulysses in 74 or 75 with a colossal home made chalk bag hanging round his knees (and a side runner in Goliaths Groove). Went home and attempted to make something similar.
Much humour round early homemade prototype chalk bags, ("is that your sisters gym knickers?")Someone turned up at The Wall with one with elastic top preventing him getting his hand out of it and some guy trying to use French chalk, that went well!
Love it! If you'd not been sandbagged by Al and had a curry in the Kash, in Bradford, well, could you really say you'd been to Yorkshire?
I remember Steve. Super-fit climber, even by the standards of the day. Another contender.
I agree Paul, it is a window into another world, so far removed from nowadays. But there's something lovely about folk giving it their all, just for the hell of it, not bothered about posterity. Somehow - well to me anyway - it's these ascents which matter most.
I was gutted when Geoff Birtles triumphantly told us that our new route claim on Froggatt had been climbed the weekend before. Just like he crowed with one on Stanage which we were a week too late for. Things fell so rapidly then that it was hard to keep up! Not surprising that there’s still confusion about FAs
In reply to KyassInc:
Do they help you climb better?
I've just added two photos to my profile - walking in the woods yesterday I couldn't believe the state of this boulder
Thanks for posting that. It really is absolutely absurd; a shameful mess. How can climbers leave a place looking like that?
> Thanks for posting that. It really is absolutely absurd; a shameful mess. How can climbers leave a place looking like that?
Sadly, this is nothing new. I lived for a few years in Carlisle in the 1980s. When I saw the state of the sandy bay at Armathwaite I was amazed. The chalk was welded to the holds. That wall gently overhangs and rarely gets rained on. I often think many climbers don't consider how other people view their effect on the environment - or just don't care?
Yes, it shows such an extraordinary disrespect for the rock and, by implication, for nature in general. Don't most of us, as climbers, rather 'love' the mysterious, subtle, intricate stuff that we call 'rock'? The medium that we climb on? To me, it's a bit like scribbling on someone's beautiful painting or drawing, or defacing a sculpture with graffiti.
I agree, it's awful. And it will get climbing banned in some places too, which might wake climbers up a bit.
As I said earlier, there are now generations of climbers who have never seen unchalked climbs and who think chalk deposits are an intrinsic component of the climbing scene. For this group, there is little or no environmental awareness as one would ordinarily construe it.
> I've just added two photos to my profile - walking in the woods yesterday I couldn't believe the state of this boulder
Look at indoor bouldering and climbing centres, how many people do you see without white hands. It’s depressing. We see very beginners plaster their hands before embarking on an indoor jug fest. How does a liberal dusting of chalk help. I think they are in part emulating the better climbers they see, and also the chalking one sees in any televised international comp.
look across any bouldering centre, later in the evening and the air is thick with chalk dust, is this really helping. This attitude translated to outside, and the tick marks all over boulders and routes.
I think there is a middle ground, sadly we are miles away from there at the moment.
I'd go to a doctor/psychiatrist if you're feeling "depressed" about people minding their own business and using chalk on indoor walls...bit dramatic
Actually, a heavy dusting of chalk makes it harder to grip both rock and plastic---that's one of the reasons we have chalk brushes. Slaver it on and then brush it off...
That said, plastic climbed without chalk will, as I mentioned earlier in reference to rock, get get very greasy, and chalk is arguably the better of the two outcomes. So I don't think there is any real issue with chalk in a gym---so what if the holds are whitened?
The real issue is what happens outside. I think the elusive "middle ground" is the chalk sock. I recently found one that actually works well, meaning that, unlike almost all the commercial chalk socks I've seen, it actually lets enough chalk through to get that optimal "haze" on your hands, an amount that actually enhances grip rather than degrading it and deposits far less---if any---of the white stuff on the rock.
Anyone who is interested should check out https://8bplus.com/en/product/65g-chalkbomb/. (I'm not associated commercially or in any other way with 8bplus, by the way.)
Its common for me to have to clean my hands indoors these days, let alone brush holds, as so much chalk overuse is happening. It's rare I need to use any of my own. I don't know why so many people don't realise how chalk works and that if you use too much it worsens grip.
Thanks helin, you photos made it to the hall of shame btw:
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