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.