The cliff is not your driveway.
I was walking down the carriage road at the Gunks recently and came across some chalk graffiti on the cliff at the base of some popular climbs. It covered perhaps a 10 foot wide swath of rock. There were flowers, stick figures, and “I was here” type scribble – clearly drawn by children. My immediate gut reaction was dismay. What kind of parents would let their kids draw all over the cliffs in a nature preserve with sidewalk chalk? I love the natural beauty of the Gunks and believe we should leave no trace. And here was a blatant example of climbing-parent sanctioned graffiti. I would never let my children do such a thing and I felt this was the wrong way to keep your children occupied while you climb. When I talked to some friends about it, the reaction was split between “that is just WRONG” to “why worry, it will wash off”. Well if the drawings are under an overhang they will not wash off. This is not like a smooth blacktop driveway, totally exposed to the elements where chalk will wash off or wear off easily. But some of the responses brought up an ethical dilemma. Almost all climbers use gymnastics chalk to improve their grip. Sweaty hands or not, it is a psychological crutch for most of us. Chalked hands leave marks all over the cliff, and in most cases it doesn’t get to wash off because of overhangs, or being embedded in various nooks and crannies of the rock. Is it wrong for children to leave sidewalk chalk marks on the cliff but OK for adults to leave climbing chalk all over the holds?
There are a couple of arguments here. One is the difference in intent. Chalked holds are a side effect of climbing. In most cases we aren’t doing it intentionally, it is just a by-product of climbing. Whereas blatant encouragement of chalk graffiti is marking up the cliff on purpose. Kids are not learning any lessons to leave no trace or even that it is not acceptable to draw all over property which is not theirs – whether it’s someone else’s driveway or a nature preserve’s cliff – OR perhaps sidewalk chalk is the gateway medium to more permanent forms of graffiti. When those kids are teenagers, will they have the land stewardship ethics to resist writing stuff like “Joe & Sue 4Ever” in marker on the rock? The harder argument is whether climbers should be leaving chalk all over holds in the first place. If we are truly to follow leave no trace ethics, then we shouldn’t be using chalk at all, or for that matter, nests of slings for anchors. As for me, I admit I use chalk, but I try to minimize it by using a chalk ball and only when conditions warrant it. I try to set an example for my children to avoid using chalk as much as possible and definitely don’t write on the cliffs! Even when they made pretend walls of rock or other imaginary structures or collections while playing outside, I would warn them that they will have to take it apart when they’re done so it leaves no trace. We aren’t always perfect examples for leave no trace ethics, but we should try to be a good influence on our children and make them aware of minimizing the marks they leave behind.