Do I need plaster …?
This is a really common question for new climbers. And the answer is not always clear.
Climbers tend to use plaster to keep their hands dry while climbing. The main reason for wet hands is sweat. But natural moisture and water in one direction can also wet the climber’s hands. Plaster can be used to deal with these issues.
When we talk about chalk, we are not talking about your type in elementary school. This type of gypsum has a calcium carbonate base. Calcium carbonate crumbles and separates when wet, so it is not very suitable for mountaineering. Mountaineering plaster has a magnesium carbonate base that absorbs water (or sweat).
There are three main options for climbing gypsum: liquid gypsum, loose gypsum and gypsum ball.
Liquid gypsum has really found its niche because it is the original gypsum that is currently allowed in rock clubs, due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Liquid gypsum has a calcium carbonate base and is mixed with alcohol. When you wear it, the alcohol evaporates (and kills the Corona virus!), Leaving a thin layer of plaster on your hands.
The big advantage of liquid plaster is that it tends to stay on your hands for a while. The downside is that you can not put it in a plaster bag, so it is difficult to “plaster” in the middle of the floor. In addition, if you have even the smallest cut or bite on your hand, using it will be very harmful, because alcohol burns …
Loose gypsum is primarily used by boulders and is usually placed in a large gypsum bucket. It is easy to pour and often covers a stone stadium in a curtain of gypsum fog. I don’t really use that much loose plaster, except to fill in gypsum pellets.
Some plasters come in the form of bricks that must be divided into loose gypsum. However, this option is cheaper and more effective.
Gypsum balls are cloth balls filled with gypsum that can be placed in a gypsum bag. They are often filled and can easily be filled with loose plaster. Because gypsum balls are not so dirty and last for a while, this is my personal “go to” gypsum.
The question of whether you need plaster depends on the type of climb you have.
Most mountain climbs are not that difficult. The vast majority of Alpine trails that are regularly climbed around the world are 5.7 or easier. And even when the routes are harder, the main axes are short. In this type of ascent, plaster is not really necessary. You can usually escape without it.
If you are climbing a steeper mountain, you need to consider where to hang your chalk bag. The standard point, at your end, is likely to be covered by a package. Alpine climbers who need plaster often move their bags from their package to one pelvis or another. This usually means that it is easier to access with one hand or the other. Gypsum balls are easier in this case, because the ball can be pulled out and used with both hands.
In most other mountaineering environments, plaster is a good idea. However, in some areas there are Leave No Trace considerations. Mountaineers and birdwatchers do not like to smear plaster on the rock surface. However, it is possible to buy colored plaster for certain areas. Before using any type of plaster, make sure you know the local ethics.
Classic plaster bag with belt.
Finally, you should note that gypsum is transported in two ways. Slate often uses gypsum buckets, so they do not have to carry gypsum. Most other climbers, however, use gypsum bags because they can be strapped or fastened to the belt. If you are doing something longer than the eight-move boulder problem, a plaster bag is a better option.
-Jason Di Martin