Use Colored Chalk to Leave No Trace

White Chalk Damages Rock Surfaces

olunteers with the Pikes Peak Climbing Alliance scrub white chalk off boulder problems
Volunteers with the Pikes Peak Climbing Alliance scrub white chalk off boulder problems at The Blowouts at the Garden of the Gods, Colorado. (Stewart M. Green)

While most climbers use white chalk to dry their hands when rock climbing, the use of white chalk is also controversial. White chalk is banned outright in many climbing areas like the Garden of the Gods in Colorado and Arches National Park in Utah because its long-term use damages the rock surface on cliffs and boulders, particularly on porous sandstone cliffs, and it also creates unsightly white blobs on dark rock.

Chalk Stains are Unsightly

It’s important that climbers follow a Leave No Trace ethic when climbing to lessen the physical and visual impact of a million or so American climbers on the crags. It’s important to remember that climbers are only one group of users at most climbing areas and that climbing does have a lot of impact on cliff environments. We can help lessen our impact by using either colored chalk or no chalk at all whenever possible. Climbing chalk stains are unsightly, which makes land managers ban the use of white chalk, requiring instead that climbers use colored chalk which matches the hue of the rock or not use chalk at all.

Colored Chalk at Garden of the Gods

At Garden of the Gods and Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs—chalk is banned by the Colorado Springs Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services. On the department’s website is a list of the Technical Rock Climbing Regulations and Guidelines, one of which states: “The use of chalk (calcium carbonate) in conjunction with technical climbing and bouldering is prohibited. A chalk substitute that does not discolor the rock may be used.”

Climbers Ignore Rule and Continue Using White Chalk

While colored chalk is readily available at Colorado Springs climbing shops and at the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center, most climbers at both parks flagrantly disregard this regulation and use white chalk while climbing. The Pikes Peak Climber's Alliance, a local climbing organization, schedules a couple chalk clean-up days every year at the Garden of the Gods to scrub the white blotches off the sandstone.

National Parks Require Colored Chalk

There are parks, however, that do enforce their colored chalk rule. One is Arches National Park outside Moab. A couple years ago when I was climbing Off-Balanced Rock, a 200-foot-high tower close to the main park road, a ranger watched us through binoculars from a pullout and then hiked over to see if we were using white chalk. When he saw we were using colored chalk, he thanked us but he did tell me that he gives tickets to climbers who are caught using white chalk.

Ecological Impact of Chalk Use

The environmental effects of white chalk are often minimal, especially on non-porous rock like granite, gneiss, and quartzite which usually does not absorb chalk mixed with sweat and tends to easily wash off with rain. But other porous rock surfaces such as sandstone and limestone absorb chalk, leaving white blemishes and polish behind. It is difficult to clean white chalk off sandstone surfaces, especially since cleaners and solvents that may damage the rock should not be used and any brushes should have soft bristles. The effect of chalk on plants, lichens, and wildlife on cliffs still needs more study, but it appears that chalk use generally doesn’t harm cliff environments.

Tips to Lessen Chalk Impact

Here are a few tips to lessen your chalk impact when you’re rock climbing:

  • Use colored chalk that matches the color of the rock surface that you’re climbing on.
  • Use white chalk sparingly in dry climates. Chalk on overhanging faces that rarely get wet can linger for years.
  • Avoid ticking or marking handholds and footholds with chalk marks. If you do tick the holds on routes and boulder problems, wash them off when you’re done.
  • Use liquid chalk or other types of drying agents that don’t have color since they leave no trace of your passage on the rock. One type is the Metolius Eco Ball, which is a non-marking substitute for regular climbing chalk. The powder inside the Eco Ball is virtually clear on your hands and leaves no visible marks on the rock; it also has a “chalk feel” for chalk maniacs.
  • Carry and use a small brush like a toothbrush (not a wire brush which damages the rock surface) to clean chalk off handholds and footholds.