It's almost mythical. Sure some climbers down on the South coast have heard about people going out and climbing the white chalk cliffs that run along huge sections of the South East coast of England but it's not like anybody has ever seen anybody. They're like Snow Leopards. You've seen pictures but you go out and try to find one, it's unlikely you will. Chalk Leopards.
The myth begins a long time ago, back in the Victorian times in fact. The South East chalk cliffs of England were found to be excellent training grounds for the very first wave of Victorian mountaineers looking to set forth and claim the highest peaks of the Alps for Queen and Country. Eventually all the peaks of the Alps would fall and attentions would be turned further a field and with that the chalk cliffs became less and less frequented.
Fast forward 100 years and an upgrade in climbing equipment would have a knock on effect that would breath new life back into the cliffs. Advancements in ice axe design and technology meant that harder routes could now be climbed and the new guard needed a place to practice their skills. The only options open to the southern climbers were a very long drive up north to Scotland (winter only) or a very long drive across the channel to the Alps (winter only). But a few eager souls saw the potential of the chalk as a training grounds for bigger things.
If you could climb chalk you could climb ice. That was and is the belief. Then and now. Chalk is notoriously difficult to protect on lead. You can put bolts into it and they might hold a fall but not always and even if they did then that bolt was invariably so badly compromised that no person in their right mind would ever trust you it again. No the best option is to spend 5 minutes hammering in a warthog. Which is basically a semi-barbed frozen turf nail. Imagine climbing a route where every clip requires 5 minutes of swinging a lump hammer. It's more exhausting than the climbing. The other thing about chalk is it's brittle. More than ice. You can sort of trust ice if you know what to look for. Chalk is a different story. It's a roll of the dice as to whether each tool or crampon placement will hold. It definitely adds an element of excitement to the climbs.
But with all of Chalk's foibles it retains a charm, an attraction. The element of the unknown and perhaps more so, the transitory nature of the routes. Routes can be set one day and a few weeks later they could have totally crumbled into the beaches below. Indeed if you look at any of the very few route guide web pages (https://www.ukclimbing.com/logbook/crag.php?id=11148 for example) you'll see a large amount of routes with red markers to indicate they no longer exist). Chalk gives a climber freedom to create routes of their desire. Imagine perfect cliffs made of blue ice. To an ice climber that would be heaven on Earth. And the fact that they won't exist for long makes them all the more valuable to those who climb them. Fleeting in their magnificence.
I don't know how I got into climbing chalk. I can't put a date on the epoch. One day it didn't feature in my thoughts and then one day it did. And now I and a few more use the chalk both as a training ground as well as a place to explore our creativity in both how and where we climb with our tools. If you're ever down on the South East coast of England swing by sometime. Even if you don't stumble across a chalk leopard, get your tools out and give it a try. Get creative and lose yourself for a while.
One thing is for sure and that is without the chalk I very much doubt that Mantis Tools would ever have been created. Life is a sequence of events shaped by the choices we make.
I'm very glad I chose to climb the chalk, whenever that was.
- Toby C -