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Reaching for the chalk bag: Does it actually help?

Stefanie | March 27, 2017

“I can’t climb without chalk!” Be honest—do you feel the same way? Sometimes it really does help when it’s hot and your hands can’t get a firm grip on slippery holds. But sometimes what’s really helping may be the reassurance reaching for the chalk bag gives us.

Dipping your hands into the chalk bag, dusting them off, dipping them back into the chalk bad, dusting them off again, then continuing to climb. When I first started climbing and saw a climber do this, I didn’t understand it. How does that make sense? And do you really need that much chalk?

Just to be clear—even though I rarely use chalk myself, I have nothing against chalk and am not trying to start a pro/con debate. What I’m interested in is the personal attitude—maybe even conviction—that goes along with this ritual and may have even more of an effect than the chalk itself.

The chalk bag as loyal companion

“You didn’t bring your chalk bag? You won’t catch me doing that! I always bring mine…,” a climber who I’d just met on the side of a cliff once said to me while making a surprised face.

He went on: “I can’t really climb without it. Using chalk just calms me down, makes me feel sure that my fingers won’t slip. It helps me climb better—especially after a fall, the short break really makes a difference.”

Without a doubt it can help your fingers get a better grip, especially when it’s hot or the holds are really small—then I’ll usually reach for the chalk myself.

But I thought this climber’s statement that dipping his hands into his chalk bag had a calming effect on him was really interesting.

That a subconscious habit can be a source of an inner feeling of security because you think “I have chalk—so my fingers won’t slip”. And that it might actually help you feel calmer while you climb.

Chalk bag Chris before climbing
One more reach for the chalk bag before it’s time to get started!

The power of habit

Especially before competitions, many athletes have similar habits that give them a sense of security:

The habit makes them feel like everything is as usual, that it will work out.

Same habit, same result.

Those of us who don’t participate in competitions also have these kinds of habits. Most habits play out subconsciously, without us actively thinking about them. But perhaps there are habits we can actively acquire to help us feel more focused and committed when we climb.

I firmly believe our posture has considerable influence on our mood and energy.

If I stood there with drooping shoulders and made a face that says “Okay, sure I’ll give it a try ... but I probably won’t get very far …”—how do you think I would climb? Full of energy and determination? I don’t think so.

Even if I’m not always sure that I can tackle a certain route, I noticed that it helps me a lot to assume a straight and confident body position beforehand.

chalk and yoga before climbing tree pose
Assuming a strong upright position before climbing is sure to have a different effect than starting your climb with drooping shoulders.

Ideas for helpful climbing habits

On the spot, I can think of the following habits that may be a helpful climbing support by boosting your self-confidence and concentration:

A few positive thoughts that may be helpful:

  1. Those who like to use chalk: “With chalk, my fingers will have a good grip”
  2. “My climbing shoes will let me take very precise and secure steps”
  3. “I’ll take deep breaths and use all my possible strength”
  4. “I’m flexible and will adjust my movements to fit the route”
  5. Maybe you also have some ideas that you’d like to share in the comments?

In summary

With habits that give us a sense of security, we can notice a big difference in our climbing.

That may mean reaching for the chalk bag, standing in an upright position and taking deep breaths or maybe even a certain way of putting on our climbing shoes or remembering a previous climbing success.

Of course these habits aren’t a guarantee that everything will go exactly the way we’d like when we climb—but they can help create the right conditions to make it possible.

What suggestions do you have to put yourself in a more confident or focused state before climbing?

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2 thoughts on “Reaching for the chalk bag: Does it actually help?

  1. Chalk.
    I have noticed experienced trad climbers chalking up whilst scanning the route for gear and the next few moves. Perhaps it helps the thought process.

    1. Hi Phil, right. That reminds me to listening to music while studying or doing something else that relaxes the mind or sharpens the concentration. And well, trad climbing is totally different to e.g. bouldering, I think. Concentration and a powerful state are crucial. Thanks for your comment!

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