Forget all that strength training, campusing and hangboarding you’re doing. If your climbing shoes aren’t sticky, or your palms and fingers are greasier than a Kentucky hippie’s taint in August, you are going to have a much harder time staying on the rock. In other words, Yer Gonna FALL!
The technology behind climbing-shoe rubber has progressed by leaps and bounds in the last 30 years, mostly in response to a highly informed consumer base that has demanded the stickiest rubber possible. Today, all climbing rubber is relatively quite good, with some brands such as Five Ten and Vibram standing out (in my opinion) as exceptional.
Chalk, however—which, in this context, can be thought of as “shoe rubber for our fingers”—has been relatively ignored by climbers. There seems to be a common assumption that all chalk is the same.
Au contraire, my little cabbage heads!
Like most climbers, I’m willing to go to great lengths to discover and employ both techniques and equipment that will yield for me even the most infinitesimal gains in performance. Why? Because so often the difference between falling and sending is that extra 2 percent.
I’ve experimented over the years with finding ways to increase my skin performance, doing everything from making a house rule to never do dishes the morning before a climbing day (and to use dish gloves otherwise), to more climbing-specific tips like working in a few rounds of Antihydral several times per year, to using Mammut Liquid Chalk (especially in humid conditions), and so on.
But one thing I’ve never really considered is the brand and quality of my chalk. I’ve always just assumed it’s all the same, and since I go through chalk by the bucket load, I’ve always gravitated toward using whatever I can get the cheapest deal on which, usually, is Frank Endo chalk—the stuff that nearly all gymnasts use and costs roughly $2 per block (2 ounces).
That all changed when the founders of Friction Labs, a new chalk company based in Denver, Colorado, reached out to me with the bold claim that they make the best, and purest, climbing chalk and if I started using it I would DEFINITELY send my project!
OK they didn’t actually say that last part, but that’s what I heard in my head.
I was intrigued, if skeptical, and volunteered to put their proprietary blend of magnesium-carbonate to the test, feeling pretty confident that I wouldn’t notice any real difference.
Wow, was I wrong! This chalk is awesome. The best compliment I can give to Friction Labs is that I didn’t even notice or really think about their chalk while climbing. I was focused just on the route and the movement, not on how my hands felt. I realized I had to chalk up way less, and my hands never felt greasy or wet (which sometimes they do and I have to wipe my hands on my pants before going for another dip of the bag).
After going fully a muerte on one burn to reach the chains on the crag warm-up, I lowered, looked down and was totally surprised to see bone-white palms.
Over the years, I’ve tried it all and never really had much of an opinion. The only chalk I didn’t like was Metolius Super Chalk, which seemed to be rather inconsistent in its quality: Some of the bags I’d buy were great; others, however, left me feeling extremely greasy. Today, I stick with Frank Endo blocks. Cheap, tried and true.
The real confirmation that Friction Labs chalk was superior to my Frank Endo chalk was when I asked about six friends to do a blind test, rolling/crushing one pebble-sized grain of each respective brand between their thumb and index/middle fingers. It was universally agreed upon that the Frank Endo chalk left a relatively slippery/greasy feeling, while the Friction Labs chalk felt much drier and even sticky. Indeed, after several minutes of just milling around the crag, the Frank Endo chalk had worn off the skin of most of my friends, while the Friction Labs chalk remained.
Kevin Brown and Keah Kalantari are the two mad scientists behind Friction Labs, which they founded last January. The science behind their product is quite interesting and I’ll try to explain it briefly, though their website also does a great job of explaining this as well.
Kevin Brown started climbing at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, 20 years ago. He moved to Denver for a job and to be closer to bouldering at Mt. Evans, his favorite area. He was also one of the founders of the Denver Bouldering Club co-op. Recently, Kevin, a self-proclaimed “science geek,” began researching what chalk is made of and discovered that it contains three major components: magnesium-carbonate, calcium-carbonate and calcium-sulfate.
“When I searched on the difference between magnesium-carbonate and calcium-carbonate,” says Kevin, “I found references to calcium-carbonate being ‘chalk board chalk’ and that it gets slimy when wet.”
Kevin continued his research, and found a chemist from Texas who had noted that magnesium-carbonate traps water inside of its crystalline structure, while calcium-carbonate attaches water on the outside of its structure, thus perhaps explaining that slippery/slimy feeling.
Friction Labs claims that what makes their chalk superior is its higher ratio of magnesium-carbonate (the dry stuff that keeps water inside its molecules) to calcium-carbonate, calcium-sulfate and other impurities (the slippery stuff that keeps water outside its molecules).
This claim is based on a study they conducted in which they sent chalk samples to a lab to have each chalk sample tested using Xray fluorescence, which is a process that can determine how much magnesium-carbonate, calcium-carbonate and other stuff is in each blend. The study shows that Friction Labs has the highest ratio of magnesium-carbonate to the other stuff.
This study doesn’t really have a huge impact on me because of the obvious reason (that it was funded by the very company who comes out looking best), but also because it doesn’t attribute the other results. It keeps the results anonymous—only mentioning which brands were included in the test, but not how each one fared, something I’d like to know.
Also, this science has been questioned online, including this thread on Mountain Project. Is this report valid? I don’t really know. It doesn’t really influence my opinion just as Friction Labs’ own scientific study doesn’t really influence my opinion. My own real-world tests found that Friction Labs chalk is the best chalk I’ve used.
One major critique is that their chalk doesn’t come in normal blocks. It arrives pre-crushed in one of three particle sizes, all of which are given these fun names: Bam Bam (coarse/chunky), Gorilla Grip (medium-chunky), Unicorn Dust (finest powder).
Hands down, I preferred Bam Bam to the other three. And I actually wish it was even chunkier.
The Big Question is, do I like Friction Labs chalk enough to become a regular customer?
I’m not sure. Their chalk is expensive. First of all, to get the best deal on their chalk, you have to sign up for a monthly delivery plan in which you commit to buying a certain amount each month. A small 2.5-ounce bag is a whopping $8/month! To give this context, a 2.5-ounce bag is roughly the equivalent to one block of Frank Endo chalk (sub $2)—in other words, over four times as expensive as what I use now.
The more you buy, the more affordable Friction Labs gets. A 7.5-ounce bag (the largest size offered) will cost $14/month, which comes out to just under $2/ounce—better, but still twice as expensive as a block of Endo.
I guess it comes back to that idea of what I’m willing to do (and spend) to give myself that extra 2 percent. After, that 2 percent makes all the difference …