I don’t recall who first told me that climbers use chalk, or when it was. It was likely one of my instructors in the New Mexico Mountain Club around 1987 or so, as we grappled with the slippery basalt jam cracks and face climbs at a toproping area northwest of Bernalillo, New Mexico. I remember borrowing someone’s chalk bag and digging the powder’s grip-supporting action right away, and noticing that I stayed bonded to the rock better in the omnipresent New Mexico heat. Amazing!
I went to the local gear store—the Wilderness Center—and bought my first chalk bag, a neon-green rig in a classic 1980s color scheme. We didn’t have boutique or premium chalk back then, or bagged chalk or crushed chalk. The good stuff was Frank Endo block chalk, which is still one of my favorite chalks to this day. So I bought a few blocks and took them home, keeping the chalk in a Ziploc baggie and filling my bag before each outing.
Like all of us (well, mostly all—I have met two climbers in the past 30-odd years who don’t use the white stuff, and there is certainly an environmental cost associated with its mining and processing), I’ve long used chalk without really wondering how or why it had entered the sport. However, while researching the Climbing Dictionary a decade ago, I was able to pinpoint a specific protagonist and moment: John Gill, the “godfather of bouldering,” in 1954. While French climbers in Fontainebleau were using rosin—tree sap—to make their hands and shoes sticky prior to this, before Gill nobody had thought to use gymnastic chalk for an enhanced grip. Here, then, is the definition and origin story from the dictionary:
chalk n, v : Magnesium carbonate kept in the chalk bag and used, as in gymnastics, to absorb hand sweat and increase skin-to-rock friction. Applying chalk is chalking up (v).
John Gill, circa 1954, was likely the first climber to use chalk. Gill, founder of modern bouldering and an amateur gymnast, first tried chalk on boulders and cliffs in Georgia after taking a gymnastics course at Georgia Tech. A year or so later, after seeing the Tetons guides Dick Pownall and Dick Emerson use forest duff to dry their mitts at the Jenny Lake Boulders, Gill bought a block of “medicinal quality, anti-constipation” chalk at the Jackson Drug Store, and began using it on both boulders and longer climbs in the Teton Range, introducing it to visiting climbers from around the world. In 1958 he inaugurated its use at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, where it was extraordinarily effective on the slick quartzite. In the 1960s, Pat Ament, also a gymnast, began using it on roped climbs in Colorado and California (e.g., the 1964 FFA of Curving Crack, 5.10a, Castle Rock, Boulder, Colorado), and would carry a small block in each pants pocket—his “lightning in a bottle.”
As the idea caught on later that decade, it allowed advances in free climbing.