Use of ‘chalk’ in rock climbing: sine qua non or myth?
Magnesium carbonate, or ?chalk?, is used by rock climbers to dry their hands to increase the coefficient of friction, thereby improving the grip of the holds. To date, no scientific research supports this practice; indeed, some evidence suggests that magnesium carbonate could decrease the coefficient of friction. Fifteen participants were asked to apply a force with the tip of their fingers to hold a flattened rock (normal force), while a tangential force pulled the rock away. The coefficient of friction ? that is, the ratio between the tangential force (pulling the rock) and the normal force (applied by the participants) ? was calculated. Coating (chalk vs no chalk), dampness (water vs no water) and rock (sandstone, granite and slate) were manipulated. The results showed that chalk decreased the coefficient of friction. Sandstone was found to be less slippery than granite and slate. Finally, water had no significant effect on the coefficient of friction. The counter-intuitive effect of chalk appears to be caused by two independent factors. First, magnesium carbonate dries the skin, decreasing its compliance and hence reducing the coefficient of friction. Secondly, magnesium carbonate creates a slippery granular layer. We conclude that, to improve the coefficient of friction in rock climbing, an effort should be made to remove all particles of chalk; alternative methods for drying the fingers are preferable.