Looking at the first picture, most of us immediately noticed the huge words written in black paint. While there might be a few of us out there who simply recognized these words as the romantic gesture that the artist intended, many of us ask ourselves in horror what kind of jerk would so selfishly deface this beautiful boulder. Our boulder. This boulder with the perfect diagonal crack that was obviously created with climbers in mind. Why else would it have such great holds?
The second boulder is in much better shape. Sure there's a bit of old spraypaint, but it's so faded that we probably wouldn't think twice about it. Instead, most of us focused immediately on the line of sweet incut crimps and sidepulls, gently rising up and left to top out on the ledge.
Let me let you in on a little secret. To the average non-climber walking down this trail, there's not a whole lot of difference between the two pictures. While we look at it and see a boulder problem, they see a bunch of crap on the rocks.
Need a couple more examples?
The first is just the same boulder seen from a more direct angle. Notice the chalk circles extending 2-3 inches away from the useful part of the holds. The second is a couple of the footholds on the same boulder. Once again, the area covered by chalk is far bigger than the hold itself. The third is obviously my hand with chalk on it, only I didn't have my chalk bag with me. Hmm. The fourth picture is possibly my favorite. This is the starting jug of a single-move V0 problem. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that this amount of chalk would be justified on a harder problem. I think it looks ridiculous in any case, but especially so on such a large hold, with the top of the boulder low enough that an average person could reach it while standing.
As climbers, people already think we're a little strange. We're not out there making millions of dollars tossing a ball around, with the greatest risk being a career-ending knee injury. Most of us are either going to school or working full time, and then spending our free time doing something that could get us seriously injured or killed. We're already a liability to the landowners where we climb, whether it's private land or administered by a park service. Many of them aren't exactly thrilled about us being there, and one of the best ways to ensure continued access to our favorite areas is to show the people in charge that we're a responsible user group. Covering things with chalk is not the way to do that.
I'm not saying don't use chalk. Although I know a few people who always climb without it, I'm not one of them. But there's a difference between putting a bit of chalk on your hands and caking chalk onto everything you might possibly touch. To be honest, I'm not even sure what leads people to do it. Is it to give them extra friction? In my experience, a little bit of chalk provides dryness, but more than that just fills in the spaces between the grains of the rock and creates a smoother surface. Is it so they can see where the holds are faster? If that's the case I would offer two suggestions. First, I'm fine with the concept of small tick marks if they're cleaned up after climbing. But 4 inches of chalk for an inch wide hold might be overdoing it. Second, if it's an area that you'll climb in more than once, spend time learning to read the rock. Every kind of rock has it's own distinctive shapes and textures, and often when climbing in a new area we feel like it's all we can do to stay on. But once we've learned to read the rock, are eyes are drawn to even the smallest footholds right away and the same climbs become much easier.
So if it bothers me so much, why am I here typing about it instead of out there doing something to fix it? At the moment anyway, it's because I came home to wait for the plumber, so this became the only option. But when I am out climbing instead of sitting at the computer, I try to bring brushes with me to clean up whatever boulder I'm on at the time. No need to take time away from climbing, since we need to rest between problems anyway. I just use that rest time to brush off some of the holds, which actually helps my climbing because I'm not as tempted to jump back on right away.
Taking care of our climbing areas doesn't stop there. Some people bring out a grocery bag to clean up loose trash. Others (who know how to do it properly) do a bit of trail maintenance. From time to time, local organizations put together official cleanup events, which in addition to the actual cleaning are a great chance to meet other climbers in the area. They also make it clear to land managers and other user groups that climbers can be responsible stewards of the environment, not just those people who cover the boulders in white stuff and rip off pieces of rock whenever they pull too hard. Trust me, it's an image we want to promote.
I'll admit, I haven't always been this uptight about our environmental impact, but that changed a few years ago when my sister started to work for Leave No Trace. They're a great organization with plenty of good information on how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. For anyone in the greater DC area who is interested in getting out for an organized cleanup, the Mid Atlantic Climbers host some awesome events, and work hard to help us keep access to our favorite rocks. Whatever you do, just remember that no action is too small to make a difference, for better or worse.