SWS Managing Editor discusses environmental impacts of rock climbing chalk in the November/December 2018 editorial letter
This simple safety command signals that a rock climber has started climbing a route. It’s also how I’m starting this editor’s note. I’ve climbed for more than two years in local rock climbing gyms, and recently sport climbed outdoors at Red River Gorge in Kentucky for the first time. Trips of this nature involve hiking to the crag carrying pounds of gear, including magnesium carbonate, more casually known as “chalk.”
Before climbing, climbers rub chalk on their hands to improve their grip on the rock or hold. At the crag, you typically can spot white smudges all over the rock where countless climbers have gripped a certain crack or pocket.
When it rains, some of this chalk presumably rinses off the rock and into the soil and nearby streams. According to the 2017 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report by the Outdoor Foundation, more than 4.9 million people engaged in sport climbing, indoor climbing or bouldering in 2016. It’s safe to say that a lot of chalk was used in 2016 alone.
After light research and reaching out to a chalk manufacturer, I’ve found little information on the dangers of climbing chalk for the environment, especially by way of storm water, but perhaps more scholarly research exists outside my purview. According to Climbing Magazine, magnesite occurs naturally, but its impurities are stripped away for climbing chalk. It also doesn’t naturally enter the environment in such large amounts. In the water industry, nearly any foreign substance that enters waterways-whether through runoff or other means-is unwelcome. We want to avoid any negative impacts on our drinking water and aquatic life. With this in mind, I imagine the excessive amount of magnesium carbonate washing off the rock has negative effects, but I don’t have the science to support it.
The environmental impacts don’t start at the crag. According to Climbing Magazine, mining magnesite creates many environmental hazards. The dust from mining settles in the mining area, and when it comes in contact with water, such as rainwater, it forms a hard crust on the ground, harming plant and microbial life. Arguably, the consumerism from the sport that supports mining magnesite is more detrimental than its use at the crag.
The long-term environmental impacts of magnesium carbonate mingling with storm water may still be a mystery. For now, each climber must decide if they are using chalk ethically and sustainably, or if they even need to use it at all. It will be a question I’ll ask myself next time I’m at the crag.