The hid­den en­vi­ron­men­tal cost of climb­ing chalk.

The hid­den en­vi­ron­men­tal cost of climb­ing chalk


WHEN THE GOD­FA­THER of boul­der­ing, John Gill, started at Ge­or­gia Tech in 1954, lit­tle did he know that his en­roll­ment in a gym­nas­tics class would lead to a ma­jor ad­vent in climb­ing: the use of gym­nas­tic chalk. “I turned out to be pretty good at the rope climb, but you have to chalk up be­fore you start,” re­calls Gill. “And I thought, ‘Well, if you chalk up for this, you might as well chalk up for a climb too.’”

That au­tumn, Gill brought chalk on climbs at Stone Moun­tain, Ge­or­gia, and on late-night builder­ing ex­pe­di­tions around Ge­or­gia Tech. Re­calls Gill, “We’d sneak out of the dorm or fra­ter­nity house and go around cam­pus and climb on the build­ings, tak­ing a rope with us. And I used to take a block of chalk and put it on my fin­gers be­fore I climbed … I’m sure we left some in­ter­est­ing hand­prints.” When Gill ex­panded his climb­ing reper­toire to in­clude Cloud­land Canyon, Ge­or­gia, and later the Te­tons, he con­tin­ued bring­ing chalk and show­ing oth­ers how to use it. Within a decade, peo­ple were smear­ing the stuff on crags world­wide.

Now 80 and liv­ing in Pue­blo, Colorado, Gill still keeps a block of chalk in his bed­room. He hasn’t used it since he stopped climb­ing more than a decade ago, but for Gill the block rep­re­sents a life­time of mem­o­ries. Gill started climb­ing in high school in At­lanta— far from the bur­geon­ing climb­ing com­mu­ni­ties out West. Per­haps as a re­sult of this iso­la­tion, he found his own tra­jec­tory, prac­tic­ing boul­der­ing as a sport in its own right and train­ing fiendishly for feats of strength, grace, and dy­namic move­ment on the boul­ders when no one else was do­ing so. A key part of his art was the chalk he used to dry his hands.

But what Gill used wasn’t or­di­nary chalk—it was a des­ic­cat­ing com­pound called mag­ne­sium car­bon­ate that, says Michael Sil­ver, climber and CEO of the high-tech ma­te­ri­als com­pany Amer­i­can El­e­ments, is also an abra­sive: “It both keeps your hands dry and im­proves your grip—your abil­ity to cre­ate some fric­tion be­tween you and the [rock],” he says. Try your project armed with a bag of reg­u­lar (black­board) chalk—cal­cium sul­fate, which would sim­ply color your hands white—and you’ll quickly see the dif­fer­ence.

That said, the science is far from set­tled, with some stud­ies even show­ing that ap­ply­ing chalk re­duces fric­tion, per­haps by cre­at­ing a lu­bri­cat­ing layer be­tween rock and skin. (See “Use of chalk in rock climb­ing: sine qua non or myth?” in Jour­nal of Sports Sciences; for a counterpoint, see “The ef­fect of mag­ne­sium car­bon­ate (chalk) on geo­met­ric en­tropy, force, and EMG dur­ing rock climb­ing” in Jour

nal of Ap­plied Biome­chan­ics.) But that hasn’t stopped it from be­com­ing big business. To­day, there are more than 20 com­pa­nies sell­ing the stuff, each push­ing their unique twist. There’s chunky chalk, block chalk, liq­uid chalk, col­ored chalk—even “herbal” chalk made with men­thol.

There are hold­outs. Patag­o­nia founder Yvon Chouinard has long es­chewed chalk, as does the Colorado free-climb­ing pi­o­neer Jim Erick-

White smears run for miles up and down the moun­tains and hills in south­east­ern Liaon­ing Province, China, where the mag­ne­site used to make chalk is mined and pro­cessed. But it’s not snow—it's mag­ne­sium car­bon­ate dust.

son. There was even a group of Brits in the 1970s known as the “Clean Hand Gang,” in­clud­ing Steve Find­lay and Pat Lit­tle­john, who all re­fused chalk. But by and large, a chalky-handed climber cling­ing to a crimp has be­come the im­age of the sport. And for good rea­son: Gill says he doubts his spe­cialty—dy­namic mo­tion—would have de­vel­oped the way it did with­out chalk. It’s pos­si­ble that other ad­vances like­wise hinge on chalk (can you climb 5.15 with­out it?). Which makes it all the more in­cred­i­ble that we know so lit­tle about the white pow­der.

SO WHERE DOES mag­ne­sium car­bon­ate come from? Cur­rently, “100 per­cent of the [mag­ne­sium car­bon­ate] that’s in the sport is com­ing from min­ing,” says Brian Kel­leghan, owner of Bi­son De­signs and in­ven­tor of the Bi­son Chalk Ball.

Chalk comes from a min­eral called mag­ne­site, found in un­der­ground de­posits all over the world. It’s whitish or clear, as hard as a penny, and por­ous enough to stick to your tongue. The min­eral is used for other ap­pli­ca­tions be­sides chalk, from lin­ing steel kilns to mak­ing lax­a­tives. “Chalk is a huge com­mod­ity item, and our in­dus­try makes up a part of that… but a small amount,” says David Lawrence, owner of Joshua Tree Skin Care. World re­serves of the non-re­new­able mag­ne­site sit at about 12 bil­lion tons, mean­ing it will sup­ply us for hundreds more years. Mag­ne­site is mostly com­posed of mag­ne­sium car­bon­ate, but it has other sub­stances, too. To make climb­ing chalk (or lax­a­tives), you have to strip away those im­pu­ri­ties.

“It’s not that com­pli­cated,” says Sil­ver who, to be fair, owns a ma­te­ri­als com­pany that cre­ates things like op­ti­cal laser sys­tems. If you had mag­ne­site ly­ing around, you could prob­a­bly do it at home. Through a se­ries of baths in hy­drochlo­ric acid and bak­ing soda, the var­i­ous chem­i­cal com­po­nents of mag­ne­site get fil­tered un­til it’s just a wet paste of pure mag­ne­sium car­bon­ate sit­ting in a tub of salt­wa­ter. The paste then goes into a fil­ter press, a gi­ant ac­cor­dion-like ma­chine that com­presses to wring out the water. Then the paste gets heated in an oven and crushed. “Once you get to a nice, fine par­tic­u­late, it’s pack­able ma­te­rial; you can take it and put it into a pack­ing ma­chine and pro­duce blocks,” says Sil­ver. Those blocks get sent to sup­pli­ers who might add their own spe­cial sauce—Joshua Tree Skin Care, for in­stance, adds es­sen­tial oils, while Me­tolius adds a pro­pri­etary “dry­ing agent”—and then into chalk bags all over the world.

“You could eas­ily be climb­ing a moun­tain that con­tained the same chalk you’re us­ing on your hands,” says Sil­ver. “There’s this one ma­te­rial that comes from the same point in na­ture from which we’re de­riv­ing the plea­sure of climb­ing. It’s kind of cool.” But that’s not the whole story. In fact, it’s only the tail end of the process.

“YOU CAN LOOK it up on Wikipedia, I guess,” laughs chalk-fa­ther Gill, when I ask if he knows where mag­ne­sium car­bon­ate comes from. But there is no Wikipedia page. In fact, there is lit­tle info about where the in­dus­try gets its chalk. Some com­pa­nies, like Petzl, claim the information as pro­pri­etary, while oth­ers, like Fric­tionLabs and Rogue Fit­ness, say, re­spec­tively, that their chalk comes from “all over the world” and “over­seas.” How­ever, brands like Black Di­a­mond, Me­tolius, and Joshua Tree Skin Care say that they get their chalk from China, mostly north­east China. (Kel­leghan gets Bi­son Chalk from a plant in Tai­wan.) Ac­cord­ing to Matthew Hulet of Evolv Sports, which in ad­di­tion to shoes also sells chalk, most of the chalk on the market comes from a hand­ful of sup­pli­ers in China.

In fact, China pro­duces 70 per­cent of the world’s mag­ne­site. Most of that pro­duc­tion—both min­ing and pro­cess­ing—is con­cen­trated in a small corner of Liaon­ing, a hilly in­dus­trial province in north­east China be­tween Bei­jing and North Korea. Here, gritty fac­to­ries dot the land­scape, and the cities lack the luster of the larger me­trop­o­lises to the west and south. Yet, some­how, a white min­eral from the bow­els of this unas­sum­ing re­gion has found its way onto rock faces all over the world.

A hand­ful of min­ing and pro­cess­ing com­pa­nies—like the “China Met­al­lur­gi­cal Im­port and Ex­port Liaon­ing Mag­ne­site Com­pany”— in Liaon­ing pro­duce the mag­ne­site. White smears run for miles up and down the moun­tains and hills sur­round­ing cities like Haicheng, in south­east­ern Liaon­ing, blan­ket­ing build­ings in the un­der­ly­ing val­leys, giv­ing the ap­pear­ance of a ski re­sort. But it’s not snow—it’s mag­ne­sium car­bon­ate dust, a re­sult of both the min­ing process and poor fil­tra­tion of air­borne par­ti­cles dur­ing the cal­ci­na­tion, or heat­ing, process.

“Three to four years ago, there was a protest in Haicheng about the pol­lu­tion of mag­ne­site plants,” says Tianyi Zhang, a stu­dent at New York Univer­sity who grew up near the min­ing re­gion. “Some plants were built right be­side the Haicheng sub­ur­ban res­i­den­tial area. The res­i­dents com­plained about the ter­ri­ble smell of mag­ne­site gases.” But the big­gest prob­lem with the mines is the dust. “Once the harm­ful dust drops on the ground, it gath­ers and forms a hard shell,” says Zhang of the crust of hy­dro­mag­ne­site—cakedup chalk dust that has been ex­posed to water. And that dust has a huge im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment and lo­cal peo­ple.

De-Hui Zeng, an ecol­o­gist at the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences in Liaon­ing, has spent years cat­a­loging the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts of his province’s mag­ne­site plants. His sam­ples from the land sur­round­ing the mines and fac­to­ries have im­pli­cated mag­ne­site min­ing in large-scale plant death, soil degra­da­tion, and re­duced mi­cro­bial ac­tiv­ity. Due to what Zeng calls “underdeveloped tech­niques,” the dust “ac­cu­mu­lates and mi­grates to the plants and soil, which di­rectly de­stroys plants’ pho­to­syn­the­sis and res­pi­ra­tion, and re­sults in ex­tremely wors­ened soil physic­o­chem­i­cal prop­er­ties.”

As Zeng wrote in a 2011 re­search pa­per, “Land recla­ma­tion in such min­ing ar­eas has be­come a great chal­lenge for en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment and eco­log­i­cal restora­tion. Re­me­di­a­tion mea­sures have not been suc­cess­ful: The sur­vival rates of tree plan­ta­tions is poor, and the yield of the few crops that do sur­vive is very low.”

But it’s not all bad news. While China of­ten gets a bad rap for its lax en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, the coun­try is work­ing to limit pol­lu­tion. “We have an op­er­a­tion in China, and there was a time back in the 1990s when there was vir­tu­ally no en­vi­ron­men­tal re-

stric­tion. I mean, lit­er­ally rivers caught on fire,” says Sil­ver. “But China has stepped up. There’s no doubt about it.” In 2017, China shut down dozens of mag­ne­site plants for vi­o­lat­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions as part of a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar cam­paign to clamp down on air pol­lu­tion, and min­ing com­pa­nies are im­ple­ment­ing so­lu­tions—like in­stalling bet­ter air-fil­tra­tion sys­tems—to ad­dress the dust. “It sounds crazy, but I would have se­ri­ous doubts whether the EPA would do more than China to reg­u­late new min­ing,” says Charles Har­vey, a climber and en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist at MIT.

And it’s not as if chalk is the only type of gear that has an en­vi­ron­men­tal cost. “If it’s not grown, it’s mined,” says Kel­leghan, and he’s right. From the alu­minum in our bin­ers to the rub­ber on our shoes, ev­ery­thing we use is de­rived from some up­stream source of raw ma­te­ri­als. All prod­ucts come from some­where, and that some­where has likely ex­pe­ri­enced en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as a re­sult.

So what’s an eco-con­scious climber to do? “As much as we want to be en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, it’s an in­cred­i­ble co­nun­drum,” says Kel­leghan. But there are lessons to be drawn from un­der­stand­ing where your chalk comes from, namely be­ing cog­nizant that the choices we make about what we buy have spe­cific im­pacts. What was sur­pris­ing to me in re­search­ing this story wasn’t just where the chalk comes from; it was the fact that some chalk sup­pli­ers didn’t seem to know ei­ther. As the sup­ply-line dis­tance from ma­te­rial ex­trac­tion to con­sumer pur­chase grows, it’s more im­por­tant that sup­pli­ers learn where their prod­ucts come from, and share that information with their cus­tomers.

This doesn’t have to be bad for business. Some ap­parel compa- nies, for ex­am­ple, pub­lish the ad­dresses of the fac­to­ries that make their cloth­ing. What if we held out­door com­pa­nies to a sim­i­lar stan­dard? Climb­ing has al­ways been tied to en­vi­ron­men­tal ethics, but if climbers want to ex­pand that ethic be­yond not tram­pling plants at the crag, then ask­ing for trans­parency about our gear is a good place to start.

The next time you take a pow­der shower or tick up a boul­der with aimers that could be seen from outer space, think about the re­source you’re us­ing, and how it got to you. There is a cost, an im­pact, and a whole un­seen life in a sim­ple block of chalk, some­thing it would ben­e­fit us all to con­sider.



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