I remember climbing at my local center on a hot day, working on a slabby slopey project where it felt like every time I tried and fell, I had to get out my brush and clean every damn hold again. It was annoying to have to spend as much time cleaning as I did climbing, but at least it was forcing me to rest between tries (something I’m terrible getting myself to do). I’d taken a buddy under my wing, he was in that early phase where people just love to throw themselves up the wall constantly for about 45 minutes before ripping all the skin off their fingers and burning out all the muscle in their forearms. I turned to him after cleaning my hold for the fiftieth time and said,
“Hey man, do you need any chalk? It’s hot today!”
He looked down at the white chalk on his dark skin and said, “no problem man, there’s so much chalk on the holds I don’t need any extra”. Then carried on.
The truth is, when pulling yourself up V0s and V1s excess chalk isn’t going to be a problem. There’s usually so much space and friction on the holds a little isn’t going to bother anyone. But once you start using crimps and slopers, once you’ve experienced climbing ten foot up, balanced on one toe and tried desperately to swap hands on a sloping hold that someone else has left caked in chalk, you’ll really know the value of a good brush and a clean surface.
In my experience things are a different outside. People are less concerned about keeping holds clean; we expect the elements to do it for us and it’s just easier to see chalk on a fluorescent orange hold at the gym than in some little pocket on grey gritstone. I used to see people using wire brushes to clean off the excess, something that always made me a little uncomfortable, but I haven’t seen for a few years now.
In his blog Ben Moon argues we shouldn’t be brushing down holds nearly as much as we do (after acknowledging he has done a lot of it himself and that his own company sells brushes), arguing it’s what’s leading to them becoming polished and resulting in routes getting significantly harder, or at worst unclimbable. I’m not about to argue with a climber of the caliber of Ben Moon, but I do feel like what we’re climbing on makes the biggest difference. On sandstone I’m inclined to agree, it’s softer and more liable to be damaged; but gritstone, in my experience at least, is incredibly hardy and it seems unlikely that anyone who isn’t seriously deranged is going to be brushing the stone enough to make an impact, as long as they’re not using wire-brush that is. All bets are off inside, holds are much, much more in use, but they’re regularly cleaned with power hoses before being put back on and repositioned in the ideal place. If the setter decides there’s not enough friction, she/he can just choose another.
Brushing down the holds is a big part of the ritual to preparing myself to send a hard problem and not one I’m going to give up in a hurry, especially inside. However, it’s good to bear Ben Moon’s advice in mind, especially on soft rock, and think about whether we’re doing more harm than good.