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IN FOCUS: White Gold - A Cultural History of Climbing Chalk

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 UKC Articles 27 Jan 2022

Wil Treasure traces the origins of the white stuff in climbing and its controversial route into the sweaty hands of British climbers, some of whom formed an opposition group named the Clean Hand Gang, and considers its modern-day impact on ethics, ecology and access.

'Chalk is a symbol, a delible mark of progress. A sign of what was to come, as well as who had come before. Chalk is the climber as athlete, but it was also the climber as dreamer, as romantic and full of the contradiction of being an individualist within a culture.'

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 SiWood 27 Jan 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

I thought from the title I was going to get an article about the Dover sea cliffs !

In reply to UKC Articles:

Liking the new article layout, it does however feel very cramped on desktop! Some padding in there so that the text and images has some space to breathe would be very beneficial to the reader  

 Phil79 27 Jan 2022
In reply to Garethza:

"This resistance coincided with another major change, at least for the UK: the construction of the M5 motorway, which was extended into Cornwall by 1977"

Good article, but someone better tell the Cornish they have a motorway!

Post edited at 09:56
In reply to Garethza:

Good point, have added a bit more breathing space!

 Wil Treasure 27 Jan 2022
In reply to Phil79:

Of course I checked when it was extended and forgot that crucial detail!

 Sean Kelly 27 Jan 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

I used chalk the first day I start teaching and have used it ever since!

 Offwidth 27 Jan 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

Excellent article Will. I'm still blown away by how much John Gill was ahead of his time in his climbing style and in pushing the world limits of climbing difficulty (bouldering V9/f7C in the 50s and The Thimble easily being the equivalent of E6 6b highball above a railing in 1961). Rgold (a UKC forum US contributor) made the following points about The Thimble on Supertopo in 2010, which still apply:

"The guardrail was there when Gill did it, and there were no pads and no spotters. At the time, 5.12 was two grades harder than the hardest climbs anyone was imagining. Gill didn't do it with a support crew of spotters, encouragers and reporters who would cheer him on and then post dispatches to the media on the accomplishment. Gill was totally alone, engaging in a private quest, with no expectation of any kind of recognition and barely any vehicle for conveying it. He had nothing even remotely resembling the level of protection enjoyed by modern boulderers, and instead faced not only the hard ground but that guardrail. If someone now would do a 5.17 highball without pads or spotters and no film crew preserving every move for posterity and then make no effort at promotion other than a passing comment or two to some friends, we might have an analogous event."

The UK purist position always seemed rather invented to me given the historical damage from nailed boots, climbing delicate rock in the rain,  some mass stripping of vegetation for new routes, aid climbing on delicate rock and a long history of tactics that were often a long way from an idealised onsight ethic. Chalk use was just one of many potential problems. It is still causing controversy today (yet another report here of some boulder problems plastered in it this week) but we need to look at all the environmental impact issues collectively. On our most popular gritstone boulder problems, brush damage is IMHO a more serious an issue than chalk.

Edit: I should add that isn't the 'pof glassing' at font mainly due to pof and chalk mixing?

Post edited at 10:11
In reply to UKC Articles:

The last time I climbed with Steve Findlay (probably 2010), down in the south west, he took my chalkbag and wouldn't give it me back for the whole day. To be fair, it didn't have that much of an impact on my climbing - if anything I got a bit faster as I wasn't wasting time chalking up.

 ian caton 27 Jan 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

Good article but i think it overplays Gill influence. I am sure he was the original but the big influence here was Livesey, who operated on a different level to the rest. Or at least that is what the climbing media had you believe.

I think a turning point in the uk was an article in Mountain 31, January 1974 called 'Brave new world'. After that chalk seemed to take off but 'The tincture of benzoin' didn't. 

 duncan 27 Jan 2022
In reply to ian caton:

Livesey and other British climbers discovered chalk on their trips to the USA in the early 70s, so were the grandsons and daughters of Gill. 

Livesey’s notably professional attitude to raising climbing standards meant he had no qualms about importing it to the UK and his alpha male status encouraged its adoption amongst his fellow west Yorkshire climbers. The bouldering culture of the area - unusual in the 70s - further encouraged chalk use. The advantage of chalk was particularly clear on early climbing walls of the area like Leeds Uni. ultra-polished and heated to sun-tropical temperatures. 

I’m interested to hear Pat Ament discovered chalk independently. It wasn’t Pat Ament that claimed this by any chance?! His biography of Gill is well worth reading, even though it tells us at least as much about the author as the subject. 

 Pedro50 27 Jan 2022

I remember the BMC Buxton conference in either 1973 or 1974, a film of The Naked Edge was shown and the use of chalk was widely booed by the audience. We were all at it within a year. 

 Wil Treasure 27 Jan 2022
In reply to duncan:

> I’m interested to hear Pat Ament discovered chalk independently. It wasn’t Pat Ament that claimed this by any chance?!

You guess right. Interestingly I slightly toned down Ament's reference to his own use here.

 Wil Treasure 27 Jan 2022
In reply to ian caton:

> Good article but i think it overplays Gill influence. I am sure he was the original but the big influence here was Livesey, who operated on a different level to the rest. Or at least that is what the climbing media had you believe.

I think you're right in terms of influence, but it was imported from the states. Certainly in terms of making it acceptable in the UK Livesey's routes are really significant.

> I think a turning point in the uk was an article in Mountain 31, January 1974 called 'Brave new world'.

I don't think I've actually read this, but I probably have a copy so I'll take a look, thanks. 

 pec 27 Jan 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

I like the T shirt with Livesey being told off, I might have to get one made.

 Misha 27 Jan 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

Never mind not using chalk (not that big a deal if you don’t have sweaty hands and the rock is dry), it’s that upside down fingers around your eyes owl impression thing which I find impossible to do properly… Oh and front or side levers, how are they even possible for a mere human?

Climbing without chalk really isn’t a big deal. It’s all the other stuff which is impressive. 

1
 Phil Kelly 28 Jan 2022
 Offwidth 28 Jan 2022
In reply to Phil Kelly:

Was that satirical?

In reply to Misha:

> Oh and front or side levers, how are they even possible for a mere human?

> Climbing without chalk really isn’t a big deal. It’s all the other stuff which is impressive. 

Have you seen John Gill's website? www.johngill.net The sections on gymnasts in climbing and bodyweight feats of strength are particularly good.

In reply to SiWood:

> I thought from the title I was going to get an article about the Dover sea cliffs !


What's happening down there these days? I remember a time when the 'Thunderdome' or whatever it's called was all the rage in the magazines, has it all fallen down?

In reply to ian caton:

> After that chalk seemed to take off but 'The tincture of benzoin' didn't. 

I tried it for a bit - I have a feeling Ian Parsons of this parish put me up to it.

 Mick Ward 28 Jan 2022
In reply to Wil Treasure:

> You guess right. Interestingly I slightly toned down Ament's reference to his own use here.

Iirc chalk was routinely used by gymnasts. Both Gill and Ament were gymnasts (independently!) In the '60s both were interested in pushing the boundaries of physical difficulty in climbing - which obviously meant bouldering. I would have thought that using chalk for bouldering (climbing gymnastics, as they'd have viewed it) seemed a logical step. So it would be entirely understandable that they'd use it independently. However whether this did actually happen, I don't know.

The first time I heard of chalk use in climbing was in the summer of 1974. At the bottom of the Cromlech, Jim Erickson (FFAs of Naked Edge and NW Face of Half Dome) showed me a little muslin chalk bag. Neither of us used it. Jim was/is famous for his strict ethics. Out of deference to local sensibilities I've never used chalk in Ireland - though now seemingly it's OK. More fool me. 

By 1975 it was starting to be used in Yorkshire, both on the walls and on the crags. When Ken Wilson did a rant about John Allen on the FFA of Great Wall, he did a great job of publicising it. By 1976 it was almost de rigeur in the Peak and Yorkshire.

Mick 

 Wil Treasure 28 Jan 2022
In reply to Mick Ward:

Pat and John certainly started using chalk for climbing independently. The part I toned down was Pat's assertion that in the late 60s he was the only one using it (besides John). There certainly weren't many, but there were plenty of references to other gymnasts in particular using it occasionally by that time, although it was a few more years before it became mainstream.

 Mick Ward 28 Jan 2022
In reply to Wil Treasure:

I believe that Greg Lowe was yet another gymnast/highly talented boulderer. Were they mass producing them? I would think he was active then - and possibly using chalk too. 

Mick 

 Phil Kelly 28 Jan 2022
In reply to Mick Ward:

when I interviewed Arthur Birtwistle, he told me that he was himself a gymnast who used chalk.

I I’ll have to dig out the recording of the interview but I’m almost certain he told me he used it in a climbing context as a test initially but that he decided it wasn’t worth pursuing beyond that. This would have been late 30s/early 40s.

Phil

Post edited at 14:17
 Mick Ward 28 Jan 2022
In reply to Phil Kelly:

Hi Phil, that's really interesting - the first time I've heard of chalk being used in the UK before the 1970s. 

Was it Shadbolt or Pye (or someone like that) who used limpets for DWS on Sark, tapping them so they'd cling on tighter? I guess many climbing innovations (e.g. DWS) were tried before their time. Maybe John Syrett's padding out of the boulders below Propellor Wall (with rucksacs) was the precursor to pads (and then Airlie with her infamous mattress under Master's Edge).

Over the years I've met a couple of people on the crags who said they were engineers working on cams for protection - but Ray Jardine got there first. 

'There is no idea like the idea whose time has come.' (Am probably misquoting as usual.) 

Mick 

1
 Dave A Allen 28 Jan 2022
In reply to Mick Ward:

Whatever happened to coloured chalk?

 Wil Treasure 28 Jan 2022
In reply to Dave A Allen:

John Middendorf sent me his recipe for making rock-coloured chalk (or indeed any colour). It was pretty simple, just mixing in some water-based dyes with no real change in chalk performance. I seem to remember commercially available coloured chalks when I started climbing in the late 90s, but I never saw anyone using them and might be imagining this.

 Mark Haward 28 Jan 2022
In reply to ian caton:

As a young climber in 1982 I remember feeling a little self conscious about having a chalk bag even then, I think it was made by Troll and was called the '6a Chalk Bag'. A note came with it suggesting that chalk was only really needed at UK 6a or above. How attitudes have changed, they seem to be routinely carried on V Diffs. by some. Mind you, from another thread we've seen how difficult some V.Diffs can be... 

 Phil Kelly 28 Jan 2022
In reply to Mark Haward:

I posted a pic of that slip of paper - see above

Phil

 Phil Kelly 28 Jan 2022
In reply to Mick Ward:

Let’s also not forget that the early crowd also practiced jamming before Peter Harding ‘invented’ it. 

 Dave A Allen 28 Jan 2022
In reply to Wil Treasure:

Great article Wil. I'm pretty sure I used  brown chalk in the 90's (unless we both have some form of false memory syndrome!)

Cheers Dave 

 rgold 29 Jan 2022
In reply to UKC Articles:

I'm afraid I played a minor role in the chalk saga and have a point or two to add.  I met Gill in the Tetons in the early 1960's and spent time over the next ten or so years bouldering with him in the Tetons, in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and in the Needles of Custer State Park in South Dakota.  As a youngster just out of high school at the time, I was steeped in the literature of alpinism, but saw bouldering as something immediate, challenging, and fun, and couldn't begin to conceptualize how it would develop and how chalk use would proliferate.  I'm sure John would say something similar.

Although John had already stopped doing longer climbs and was almost exclusively bouldering, I was climbing crags and mountains.  I brought chalk back to the humid East Coast and probably got various climbers using it there.  John's use of chalk was that he had a block and typically dusted his fingertips with it.  This left some residue on small holds but very little on bigger holds---John's boulder problems did not present anything like the white tracks we see nowadays.  When climbing routes, I would put a crumb or two of chalk in my front pockets and dust my fingertips for this or that hard crimp.

I'm not sure chalk usage would ever have reached its current proportions were it not for developments John had nothing to do with.  When chalk reached Yosemite, the practice of dusting one's fingertips didn't correspond to what folks were doing with their hands in the 1960's and 1970's, which was jamming their fingers hands, and fists into cracks.  For chalk to work its magic, it needed to be applied to the back of the hand as much as or really more than the front., I've been told that it was Jim Bridwell who decided that chalk blocks in general and pocket crumbs in particular needed to be replaced by powder, and that the powder needed to be in a bag so that the backs of the hand could be coated.  Thus it was that the chalk bag was born, and this mode of application is what spread rapidly and soon overwhelmed climbing areas with white connect-the-dot route outlines.  Since it was the chalk bags that really caused chalk to take off as a climbing aid, I think if fair to say that Gill was surely the innovator who bought chalk to the climbing scene, but the spread in its usage was not a direct response to his influence, but rather was an adaptation with roots in Yosemite and, apparently, a very high R_0.

 Mark Haward 29 Jan 2022
In reply to Phil Kelly:

Oh wow, a blast from the past. Thanks for pointing that out. I must admit I consider myself more of a 'stumbler and bumbler' than a 'rock technician'. However, I did used to do a good impression of Ron Fawcett going 'Come on arms, do your stuff'. Once I was uttering the famous words whilst climbing in Chamonix when who should nonchalantly solo past but Big Ron himself grinning from ear to ear.

 Mick Ward 29 Jan 2022
In reply to rgold:

As ever, a great post and a really valuable historical perspective. Thank you. I'm sure you're right and it was the powdered variety, in chalk bags, which really spread use. 

In the UK, provincial chemists' shops (e.g. Ambleside, in the Lake district) would suddenly see an influx of scruffy types feverishly buying up magnesium carbonate. We'd then sling it in various homemade bags hung from their drawcords - so you struggled to get them open, particularly in extremis, when you had most need of what was inside. 

I'm sure Jim Bridwell would have been most amused by our antics. 

Mick 

1
 Wil Treasure 29 Jan 2022
In reply to rgold:

It's intriguing how long it took for chalk bags to become the norm, this is a very good point. It's also one of the weirder things I found in the magazines: https://factortwo.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/letter-1-1.jpg

 Phil Kelly 29 Jan 2022
In reply to Wil Treasure:

Classic. 
“touch wood”!

perhaps one of em was later to lose a Friend 1.5 “at the top of Linden“ and place a list note on the Stoney cafe notice board stating “Reward - sex with owner” 

In reply to Mark Haward:

> As a young climber in 1982 I remember feeling a little self conscious about having a chalk bag even then, 

The trick was to disguise it.



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