The Ritual of Chalk

A climber's hands an a chalk bag

Like the probing face of a star-nosed mole, my fingers rummage the powdery contents of the little cloth bag: magnesium carbonate, MgCO3, “an inorganic salt that is a white solid,” occasionally used as a laxative, it’s a taxidermist’s trick to mix the stuff with hydrogen peroxide when bleaching skulls. I switch hands back and forth into the bag while I consider my course of action. This is the ritual of chalk.

Sixty years ago, Gill imported its use from gymnastics, where it served as a grip aid on the various apparatuses. “When I demonstrated the efficacy of chalk—which I had bought at the Jackson Pharmacy—most climbers were instantly seduced,” he wrote, “although some purists initially rejected it as unethical (Chouinard had qualms).”

The western rim of the canyon cleaves a long, straight sliver off the edge of the setting sun, sends it beaming down through the bare tree branch lattice and straight into the shadowy space between me the granite monolith. The climb is tall—taller than I’d like, given my single sketch pad slumped over roots and rocks at the base.

Smooth-cornered chalk clumps tumble lightly under the motion of my fingers. I pore over the rock for ghostly traces, signs of previous passage. For every stab of anxiety, I compress a clump, feel it fracture and disintegrate into tiny fragments and dust. I rub it between my thumb and forefinger and it fills the contours of my fingerprints, absorbing the fine moisture.

I withdraw my hand and a pale cloud expands into space. The golden sunbeam catches it and throws each meandering particle into high-definition relief against the dark hillside. I press two columns of breath through my nose, blasting the dust into turbulent whorls.

Finally, I put the bag down and clap once. The report echoes off the cottonwood trees and into the shadows. The chalk is everywhere now, filling the air around me. I can feel it dancing in my lungs, taste it in the back of my throat. It tastes as close to nothing as anything.

I make contact with the monolith—skin, chalk, stone. I move up, away from the ground, buoyed on invisible currents, lit by the winnowing sunlight for a moment, just before the canyon drops fully into shadow, leaving me and the chalk dusk in the cold blue space, doing our little dance for no special reason.

Top 10 Most Popular Posts of 2012


I started The Stone Mind less than a year ago, in February 2012. In some ways, it feels like I just started. In other ways, it’s like I’ve been writing it forever. At first it was just a way to keep me working with words after I left my job as a magazine editor. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted the blog to be about. I posted product reviews, photo galleries, an interview or two, personal essays, even a short story. As the months passed, things came into their own focus, and now most of my posts deal with climbing, nature (human and otherwise), and Eastern philosophy, and the many ways in which these topics connect, overlap, and inform each other.

In 2013, I plan to explore these topics further, while at the same time reserving the right to strike out in new directions — this blog, after all, is nothing if not an experiment and an act of personal passion.

Before moving ahead, however, I thought it might be nice to take a quick look back at the most popular posts of the past year. Here are the Top 10 (out of more than 100), ranked by page views. For various reasons, these are the ones that have garnered the most eyeballs. There are many other posts that are dear to me on this blog that have received only a fraction of the views. I know time and attention are the Internet’s most precious commodities, but if you like any of the posts listed below, you might consider taking a moment to poke around in the archives, too. Either way, I hope you find something that interests you.

As always, thanks for reading.

–The Blockhead Lord

Top 10 of 2012

  1. How to Spot a Climber in the Wild
  2. Couch Crushers to Widgeteers: 10 Climbing Personality Types Identified
  3. It’s Not Cool To Care
  4. Can You Cold-Brew Coffee With A French Press?
  5. From Chalk to Salve: Crap Climbers Put on Their Hands
  6. 50 Shades of Plaid: The Unofficial Uniform of Outdoor Retailer*
  7. Seven Deadly Sprays
  8. The Rotpunkt Method
  9. RIP Urban Climber Magazine
  10. Master of Movement or: Why Bear Grylls Is Running Through the Desert

*This “50 Shades of Plaid” ranking does not include the tens of thousands of page views if you add up all the separate images in the gallery — with those it would easily be the top post!

From Chalk to Salve: Crap Climbers Put on Their Hands

You might have noticed that rock climbers are obsessed with their hands. Hang out at any crag, and you’ll observe people constantly examining the epidermis of their hands for damage, tamping their tips with the end of the thumb to test the skin’s resilience, trimming nails, filing calluses, taping sore digits, and otherwise tending to wounds that might impede progress on future climbs. It is a scene from some depraved, chalk and dirt coated, self-serve manicure salon.

Little surprise, then, that in pursuit of ideal skin conditions, climbers also apply a wide array of substances to their battered mitts. There is a veritable medicine cabinet worth of crap we dab and slather on our hands so we might climb better, climb longer, climb more often. Below, an abridged list in three sections: drying agents; salves, balms, and oils; and moisturizers. If I’ve left out anything, which I almost certainly have, please add in the comments.


In climbing, moisture is friction’s enemy. Sweaty fingers or humid air can reduce your ability to crank by up to 32% (I just made that up). Accordingly, we climbers are constantly looking for ways to dry out our skin and maximize our ability to stick to small, sloping, or otherwise shitty holds. Below are several specific brands of drying agent, for illustrative purposes, but keep in mind that many companies make chalk, liquid chalk, resin powder, and even scented chalk.

Gym Chalk (aka, the classic)

Claims: Helps absorb moisture, non-toxic
Magnesium carbonate
Downside: Leaves unsightly white marks on the rock and your clothes.



Herbal Chalk 

Claims: “Calm your mind and ignite your power to make the move with this spice powered herbal chalk” and “Sooth your sore finger tips, worn thin from days of throwing yourself at a rock, so the last pitch is as fun as the first!”
 Magnesium carbonate, organic extracts, natural sources of menthol.
Downside: Um…
(Pictured: Joshua Tree Fire Herbal Chalk)

Colored Chalk

Claims: “Selected to match common rock colors. The result is a chalk that provides performance climbers demand but does not leave behind unsightly white stains. Rock Chalk is all natural, nontoxic and washable.”
Magnesium carbonate blend with all natural pigments.
Downside: Requires a separate chalk bag for each rock type you tackle.
(Pictured: Terra Rock Colored Chalk)

Liquid Chalk

Claims: “solves the issue of keeping your skin coated with chalk on long boulder problems or intense routes were it is impossible, or too strenuous, to take a hand off for a dip in the chalk bag” and “And then there are the environmental benefits – use liquid chalk and the normal trail of white paw marks will be greatly reduced.”
: Alcohol, magnesium carbonate, magnesium hydroxide, colphonium, hydroxypropylcellulosum, styrax bezoin.
Downside: Alcohol component can over-dry. Some liquid chalk contains resin (rosin; see below).
(Pictured: DMM Liquid Chalk)

Rosin (or Resin)

Claims: Improves grip (couldn’t find any claims with this particular product, but that’s the long and short of it).
Powdered pine resin (colophane), often with additional fillers.
Downside: Creates a glassy (read: frictionless), black coating where used (Fontainebleau, anyone?) . Over time makes the rock almost unclimbable unless you continue to use rosin.
(Pictured: 8c Plus Colophane) 

Antihydral Cream

Claims: “One little dab of the cream, rub it into your hands and your hands will stay bone dry for hours or days” (from “Methenamine is a condensation product of formaldehyde and ammonia and in solution it releases formaldehyde at a rate depending on the acidity of the medium. The resultant anhidrosis is essentially the result of precipitated protein plugs in the sweat duct” (from a scientific study found here). “This stuff has been a game changer by helping me keep my largest organ in better nick” (from Andrew Bisharat’s review on
(Active) Ingredients:
Downside: Danger of extreme cracking and splitting due to over-dryness. Unless you live in Germany, you’ll have to mail order from shady foosball e-commerce site.


While drying agents help you perform on the rock, climbers turn to this class of hand schmutz to help their poor, battered hands heal. Split tips, bloody flappers, and weeping tips? No problem! Just rub on some herbal compound, and you’ll be cranking like it never happened! Truth is, the only cure for truly damaged skin is time, but these various treatments might speed the process a bit…

Joshua Tree Climbing Salve

Claims: “Effective in treating dry, chapped skin, chafing, abrasions, scrapes and cuts” and “moisturizes and promotes healing without softening calluses that the body produces for protection.”
 Beeswax, sunflower oil, jojoba, lavender and tea tree oil, freshly brewed extracts of calendula, echinacea, chaparral, comfrey, myrrh, and benzoin gum.
Downside: Oily consistency leaves anything you touch with a sheen for the first 10-15 minutes after applying.

Tip Juice

Claims: “It soothes. It calms. It nourishes. It relieves. It promotes skin renewal. It keeps you climbing.”
Ingredients: Unlisted on the website, but is made by hand with “no machines, just pots and pans. Using only the finest natural and vegan ingredients”
Downside: You just put something called “tip juice” on your hands. It was made in some British dude’s “pots and pans.” And you paid to do it.

Metolius Climber’s Hand Repair Balm

Claims: “Antiseptic blend speeds healing and promotes new skin growth.”
Beeswax, almond oil, apricot oil, Shea butter, cocoa butter, mango butter, St. John’s wort, calendula, chamomile, chickweed, plantain, comfrey leaf, olive oil, aloe vera, jojoba, wheat germ, and a blend of tea tree and lavender essential oils.
Downside: Like Joshua Tree Climbing Salve, can be oily.

Climb On! Bar

Claims: “This one product can soothe burns, cuts, scrapes, rashes, cracked cuticles and heels, tissue nose, road rash, diaper rash, abrasions, poison ivy…any skin issue that needs deep moisturizing and nourishing.”
Yellow beeswax, apricot kernel oil, grapeseed oil, wheatgerm oil, essential ois of Citrus vulgaris, lavender, lemon, vitamin E.
Downside: Potent herbal scent.

Crimp Oil

Claims: “Produced especially for climbers who are healing injuries” and “will keep your fingers in good form and less susceptible to tweak when applied after each session” and “quickly eases pain from sore tendons, joints and muscles and supports the daily abuse of hard climbing and solid crimping” and “It can be very effective in case of sprains for example for boosting micro-circulation in addition to cryotherapy” and “Crimp Oil is also very effective in cases of migraine.”
Helichrysum italicum, peppermint, lemon eucalyptos, lavindin super, wintergreen, geranium, equisetum arvense.
Downside: Extreme hippyfication.


Common climbing wisdom has it that lotions can soften the skin, leaving you more prone to damage in future outings. Personally, cold weather and constant chalk application make my hands so dry, I’d be cracked and bleeding if I didn’t apply some sort of lotion routinely throughout the fall and winter. I’m not alone. Many climbers have found a use for moisturizers in their arsenal of skin-case treatments. Since dry skin is by no means limited to the vertically minded, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of acceptable lotions out there. Here are a few that I like or that have been recommended to me by other climbers:

Mane and Tail Hoofmaker

Claims: “Originally developed for horses to moisturize dry, cracked, brittle hooves. Since applied to the hoof by human hands, over time many of those using Hoofmaker on their horses noticed dramatic improvement in the condition of their hands and nails.”
 Water, distearyldimonium chloride, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, glycerin, stearamidopropyl dimethylamine lactate, cocos nucifer oil, cetyl alcohol, Polysorbate 60, Steareth 20, Glycine soya oil, DMDM, hydantoin fragrance, methylparaben lanolin, PEG-150, stearate propylparaben, hydrolyzed collegen, PEG-25, castor oil, sodium chloride,  allantoin, olea europaea fruit oil, benzyl sallcylate, citronellol, geraniol, hexyl cinnamal, butylphenyl, methylpropional, limonene, linalool, hydroxyisohexyl-3-Cyxlohexene, Carboxaldehyde, Yellow 5 (C1 19140), Yellow 6 (C1 15985).
Downside: Look at that ingredient list! May lead to uncontrollable snorting, neighing, and desire to run wild through the hills.

Eucerin Intensive Repair Extra Enriched Hand Creme

Claims: “Repairs and gently exfoliates dry, cracked skin on the hands and fingers.”
Water, glycerin, urea, glyceryl stearate, stearyl alcohol, dicaprylyl ether, sodium lactate, dimethicone, PEG-40 stearate, cyclopentasiloxane, cyclohexasiloxane, aluminum starch octenylsuccinate, lactic acid, xanthan gum, phenoxyethanol, methylparaben, propylparaben.
Downside: “Contains alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), which may increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, and particularly the possibility of sunburn.”

Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve

Claims: “Allows skin to actually draw and absorb water from the air, forming a “glove–like” protective barrier against moisture loss” and “helps protect against and repair the appearance of severe dryness caused by heavy industrial work, manual labor, neglect, or exposure to harsh elements.”
“A blend of botanical oils including avocado, eucalyptus, and sesame seed, as well as a natural wax derived from olive oil.”
Downside: Super greasy. Super expensive.

How to Spot a Climber in the Wild

As a budding young climber from Ohio in the early ’90s, I was eager to define myself as more than just another Midwestern suburbanite who bled scarlet and grey. Perhaps to feel more like a member of the tribe, I took pride in identifying climbers on the street, Sherlock Holmes style, based on telltale aspects of their appearance — chalky hands, a prAna T-shirt, a rope-worn biner for a keychain. There was something affirming in just knowing… and maybe getting a curt nod from a fellow climber who’d just performed the same analysis on me.

Two decades later, I no longer care whether other people climb or know that I climb. Nonetheless,  I’ve refined my aptitude for picking out one of my own from a crowd. Below and in no particular order, a list of climber traits you can use to profile folks based on looks alone when they’re nowhere near a crag or a gym. Spot the Climber can be a fun game to play while people watching, or a good way to strike up a convo at a boring social event with someone who shares your love of the vertical. But take heed! One must exercise caution when making assumptions, as all of these traits on their own have crossover with other activities, making them “false tells.” And, of course it’s always important to remember that our generalizations are easily shredded by those folks who don’t particularly look like climbers (too tall and lanky, too short and stocky, too much fat, not enough muscle, “wrong” clothes, etc.), but who will teach you a lesson when it comes to moving over stone and ice.

Obviously, this is an abridged list. What are some of the traits you use to identify a climber in the wild?

Battle-Damaged Hands  

The hands are the most critical body part in climbing, and they get used and abused to no end. Climbers are constantly gripping sharp or highly textured rock surfaces, leading to all manner of scrapes and flappers. Climbers’ digits often grow thicker and more knuckly with age, until they take on the appearance of overstuffed sausages and are so bound up with scar tissue and tendonitis they can barely sign the credit card receipt for a new hang board. Crack climbers’ hands are perhaps the most unsightly, with patches of raspberry-textured scabbing from getting squeezed and screwed between two immovable planes of sandpapery stone. Climbing in cold weather, plus the use of drying agents like chalk, liquid chalk, and antihydral, can lead to cracked and split skin. Finally, holding the rope while belaying transfers dirt and fine metal particles onto a climber’s hands, leading to black streaks across the middle of the palms. Oy vey!

False tell: mechanic, construction worker, craftsman

How does that saying go? The hands are a window to a climber’s soul…

Wears Approach Shoes

In order to sure-footedly scramble over rock slabs, teeter across talus fields, and even edge up sections of moderate fifth-class, climbers purchase a special sort of sneaker. From the outside, many of these “approach shoes” look no different from trail runners or even skate shoes, but a true climber knows how to spot the brands (Five Ten, La Sportiva, Scarpa, Evolv, Mad Rock, etc.) that make real approach shoes, and the gluey black rubber (with names like Vibram and Stealth) that give them their secret sticking powers.

False tell: Non-climbing outdoorsy types who shop indiscriminately at the REI sale rack, parkour practitioners

Chalky Clothes & Face

First used by gymnasts for grip on various apparati (pommel horse, rings, and bars), chalk, aka magnesium carbonate, serves as a drying agent on sweaty hands. Little surprise, then, that John Gill, godfather of modern bouldering, adopted chalk for climbing way back in 1954. Over the years, chalk has become ubiquitous enough that pretty much every climber at a crag or in a gym carries his or her own bag full of the stuff. Now every popular route and problem has a heathy trail of the stuff leading to the top, and every climber has chalk compacted beneath his fingernails, dusting his hair, forming ghostly hand prints on his clothing, and rattling around in his alveoli (“I think I’m getting the white lung, pop!” *cough cough*). One friend of mine has a funny habit of chalking up immediately before putting the rope in his teeth to make a clip, leaving him with a chalky lip that screams, “I plundered the powdered donut jar.”

False tell: Baker, cocaine addict, gymnast

The tell-tale chalk prints of recently active climber.

Carabiners on Person

The climbing carabiner as we know it today was devised by a guy named Otto around the turn of the 20th century. Originally used to connect to anchors, biners have come into popular favor and are now put to use connecting any two things that need connecting. Many climbers use retired biners to clip a leash to their dog’s collar or hold their keys. Less experienced climbers (or non-climbers) can often be seen using large, heavy, and expensive locking biners for such non-intended uses. A common sight on college campuses, for example, is a $20 locking carabiner dangling from the faux daisy chain running down the side of a The North Face backpack… you know, just in case.

False tell: Pretty much anybody

Careful there, that biner’s only rated to 22kN! (Oh, and your gate’s open…)

Lives In Boulder

The small college / mountain town of Boulder, Colorado, is one of the most climber-dense regions in the world. If someone says they are from Boulder, it is a pretty safe bet that they have a “project” at the “crag,” know how to sharpen an ice screw, or are preparing for an “objective” in the mountains.

False tell: Cyclist, endurance runner, perma-stoned college student, super-wealthy bleeding-heart liberal

F*#$ed-Up Feet

For maximum performance, rock climbers typically downsize their rock shoes. In extreme cases, this crushingly tight, down-turned footwear amounts to little more than a form self-inflected foot binding. But even when climbing shoes aren’t tight, climbing itself is a foot-intensive pursuit. Multiple pitches of tiptoeing up granite edges or torquing toes into splitter cracks will take its toll. The result is bruised, missing, or fungus-infected nails, swollen toe-knuckles, and skin discolored by the climbing shoes’ dye. Alpinists and ice climbers subject their “dogs” to a different form of abuse: frostbite. In extreme cases, this can leave toes black and necrotic, resulting in permanent damage or even amputation.

False tell: ballet dancerendurance runner, dogsled racer 

The medical term for this condition is “Climbers Foot.”

Ripped Back, Lats, and Shoulders

Under the constant strain of a rock climber’s pulling motion, shoulders, back, and latissimus dorsi muscles often tend to grow large — especially in those who boulder or sport climb. Due to this powerful upper-body physique, climber dudes are incredibly prone to removing their shirts, even when it’s cold enough for them to wear a knit beanie. Likewise, climber gals will opt for open-backed dresses or even underwear masquerading as, uh, overwear (see: Verve).

False tell: Gymnast, rower, fitness fanatic, Bruce Lee

Popeye Forearms

It is common knowledge that rock climbing’s constant grip-release motion results in overdevelopment of anterior flexor muscles of the forearm. The result is a large, veiny “Popeye” forearm  that makes it difficult to roll up one’s shirtsleeves. Big forearms, though in many cases genetic, are taken as a point of personal pride amongst the climber set, as they are emblematic of the all-important grip strength.

False tell: ice-cream scooper, professional arm wrestler, body builder

Drives a Subaru

For their generous internal capacity (think: room for packs crammed with gear, crashpads, beer coolers, and all your bros and brosephinas), off-road capabilities, high reliability marks, and relatively good fuel economy, Subaru wagons have become the chariot of choice among climbers nationwide. An informal survey suggests that “Subies” account for a full 67% vehicles in the parking lot of the Boulder Whole Foods. (Toyota pick-up trucks, Honda Elements, Audis, and fixed-gear bicycles make up the remaining 33%).

False tell: Tree hugger, liberal