Rock climbing is becoming more and more popular, and this worries environmentalists

Even before rock climbing star Alex Honnold’s superb “free solo” ascent on Yosemite’s El Capitan in 2017, rock climbing was gaining ground. Now, with its debut at this year’s Tokyo Olympics, the once niche sport is poised to reach new heights.

Yet the popularity of rock climbing and its sister sport, bouldering (where climbers climb large boulders without the use of ropes or harnesses), raises questions about the adverse effects on the environment of climbing chalk. , a ubiquitous and essential climbing tool.

Made from magnesium carbonate, climbing chalk is the same substance gymnasts and weightlifters use to improve their grip on bars and weights. In fact, it was first introduced to rock climbing in the 1950s by John Gill, who was a gymnast in college before turning to bouldering. Since then, amateur and professional climbers have come to depend on the desiccating and friction properties of chalk and have left their mark on rock faces around the world.

The resulting “chalk graffiti” has become so severe in the United States that parks are starting to restrict its use. Utah’s Arches National Park only allows colored chalk that mostly matches rocks, while Colorado’s Garden of the Gods National Natural Landmark has banned all chalk and chalk substitutes. Native American tribes declared areas under indigenous control off-limits to climbers, not only because of the unsightly chalk marks, but also to preserve spiritually important areas.

Beyond visual pollution, new research suggests that chalk could harm the flora that grows on rocks. The latest study on the effects of climbing chalk, published in October 2020, found that it negatively impacts both germination and survival of four species each of rock ferns and mosses in the lab. Wiping it up doesn’t seem to help; chemical traces on cleaned rocks have altered the pH balance of the rock surface, which could affect the ability of plants to grow there in the future.

This is important because some climbing sites, such as boulders (the focus of the study), are home to unique ecosystems. These erratic boulders – rocks scattered across the world by glaciers at the end of the Ice Age – are islands of vegetation, different from the land on which they rest. As such, they may hold information about this time and how these plants travel.

It’s not even clear if chalk improves climbing performance. Some articles found no additional grip benefit, while others found the opposite. Some climbers may find this useful, says Daniel Hepenstrick, co-author of the 2020 study and a doctoral student at ETH Zürich. But it is more likely to be psychological help. “When you face a problem on a rock, what do you do? ” he says. “You powder your hands and continue. “

(Learn more about the history of rock climbing.)

Worsening of the problem

The potentially problematic nature of climbing chalk adds to its origin. Magnesium carbonate (MgCO3) is processed from magnesite, a mineral buried deep in the Earth. According to Escalation Magazine, more than 70% of the world’s supply comes from mines in China’s Liaoning Province, where satellite photos show magnesium carbonate powder piled up and looking like snow around a mining and mining plant. treatment.

The Chinese government has tightened mining laws to reduce its environmental impact and proposed corrective measures. But De-Hui Zeng, an ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Liaoning, who studies the substance, says his research matches that of Hepenstrick. Zeng says soil samples with high levels of magnesium from mining sites have shown reduced nutrients, low microbial life, and plant death.

Hepenstrick points out that his study, one of the first to examine the effect of chalk on the environment, is far from conclusive. More work needs to be done to understand all the ramifications of climbing chalk. But it’s easier said than done.

The environmental impact of rock climbing, in general, is not well known. Access is a limitation, as most scientists are not climbers. Even in accessible areas, the varying terrain itself can present a challenge in measuring the effects of climbing. “It has been difficult to disentangle the mechanisms that may impact sensitive cliff communities,” says Peter Clark, a PhD student at the University of Vermont who studies cliff ecology.

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Escalation groups such as Access Fund, an advocacy organization that provides guidance to the escalation community, are taking a wait-and-see approach to the Hepenstrick report before making any policy adjustments. “This is data for us,” says executive director Chris Winter. “If there is a conservation issue, we take it very seriously.”

“Clean” climbing?

Until further studies can be carried out, the responsibility rests primarily with climbers, who “care about nature,” says Hepenstrick, himself an occasional climber. “You could let them know that using the climbing chalk in a certain way might have an impact, and they would take note. “

Colored chalk that blends into rocks is one way to reduce eye pollution. It can also help preserve the spirit of exploration at the root of climbing, says Shawn Axelrod, owner of Climbing Addicts, which sells two types of colored chalk. “[Chalk marks] give you the path, ”he says, suggesting that reducing chalk’s visibility promotes the integrity of sports problem-solving. Otherwise, “there is no individuality, no creativity, no challenge to the next step”.

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But while colored chalk may help alleviate visual burning, it doesn’t prevent environmental damage. Most colored chalk contains magnesium carbonate along with other ingredients, which Axelrod has refused to disclose in its own products for proprietary reasons.

Beyond adhering to the “Leave No Trace” goals, there may be other alternatives. Gill says in her day climbers used natural resin, like tree sap and yellow pollen, the powdery substance that seems to stick to everything in spring. But he says those options were brushed aside in favor of chalk.

Natural options aside, the most drastic idea of ​​all may be to skip grip aids altogether. “At the time, a different world. A few brands here and there weren’t noticeable, ”says Gill of the early days of the sport. “My friend [Patagonia founder Yvon] Chouinard refused to use [aids] when we bouldered because he considered it cheating. Maybe today he would say it was an eyesore too, and worse.

Jackie Snow is a technology and travel writer based in Washington, DC Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.