Limestone gripes: a slippery issue

Posted by Peter Burnside on 30/03/2016
The BMC grading squad: but can we tackle the polish instead of regrading?

Increasingly the classic routes on limestone are becoming so polished that the original grades are meaningless. There is of course an argument that the grades should simply be increased but what if the polish could be removed?

Every schoolkid knows that the test for limestone (calcium carbonate) is to add a couple of drops of acid, usually hydrochloric. The rock fizzes impressively, as bubbles of carbon dioxide gas are released.

Could we use acid to scour back the polished surface? Well yes… and no. Simply spraying a route with an acid is not going to work. Unless the acid is in a very strong concentration (and imagine the impact on flora and fauna if that was the case), it needs to remain on the holds for some time. A spray would be too general, not sufficiently targeted, and would eat away at other parts of the rock. As it ran down the cliff, whole areas would be affected by it.

No rest and recovery

Attempts to leave areas of limestone unclimbed to see how long it takes to lose the polish by natural weathering have not been encouraging. Even after several decades the polish persists.

Non-slip solution

But supposing we could keep the acid in place on the holds for long enough to roughen it up. Based in Bolzano, a stone's throw from the Dolomites, Italian company LeerPa think they have found a solution in the unlikely place of house redecoration. Old buildings, particularly stately homes and palazzos, often have remarkable decorative features hidden away under layer upon layer of ancient paint. The solution is to apply the paint stripper in a thick layer and then add a fabric backing to keep it in place. Left for several hours or even days, this enables the paint to be lifted off in one piece as the fabric is peeled off.

Experimenting with the concept on limestone, LeerPa's scientists claim to have come up with a patented system which stays in place whilst it dissolves the polish and can then be peeled off a day or two later. The fabric used will rot down if not recovered and the stripping compound is biodegradable; a very neat solution to the problem of limestone polish.

They sent us a sample to try out, but unfortunately all the instructions were in Italian!

Our tests

We sent the sample kit to the BMC Laboratories. Firstly we needed to find some polished limestone to try it out on. Fortunately one of our "researchers" had a memento piece that had come away in his hand whilst climbing on the Avon Gorge. This was generously donated to the cause and we applied a little more polish with some sandpaper.

Pre-treatment

The treatment

The paste is mixed and then applied liberally to the hold. A fabric sheet (these come in a variety of sizes) is pushed into the paste.

      

The really clever thing about the system is that the paste contains microbeads which have far stronger acidic properties. These cause pitting in the surface which greatly increases friction.

The result

Conclusions

We realised after the experiment that the plastic film that seemed to be part of the packaging was actually an integral part of the system. Had we covered our repairs with the film it would not have dried out so quickly and the effects would have been stronger. A problem with the Italian instructions but the system clearly works.

Coming to a crag near you

So this summer expect to see areas of limestone crags fenced off with sick routes bandaged up. We intend to start by restoring some of the classic limestone climbs of the Peak District. Which ones should we choose? 

Send your suggestions to info@thebmc.co.uk or comment on our Facebook page.

UPDATE:

Thanks to those of you who posted a comment on the article or on the BMC’s Facebook, or emailed us with your suggestions. It seems that quite a few of you would like to see us get to grips with this slippery issue, but unfortunately it’s currently beyond us and we were simply April Fooling.

However, if you do have a serious climbing or walking related issue you wish to discuss and think the BMC can do something about it, then consider taking it to your local BMC area meeting.

What happens at BMC area meetings?

BUY: Peak Limestone North from the BMC shop.

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Anonymous User
01/04/2016
i for one would like to see more testing before it is applied to classic routes! like how long will this new rough serface last is it as durable as naturally weathered rock? if it polishes up again it 12 months all you are doing is disiolving a route! its like whitening youre teeth with peroxide it works but it doesnt do them any good. what happens if it rains during application,are the residues left behind harmfull to the skin?if the soloutin is dried before the reaction is complete the next time it rains the acid will reactivate and continue to disolve whatever it has now been washed onto. and would not be happy having my ropes and hardware anywhere a mineral acid! not to mention the potential abuse of such a product, is acid etching the new chipping? i work with mineral acids on a daily basis they are very unplesnt things and extremly harmfull to the enviroment if the proper precautions are not used! having said all that i would love to see the soloution to the polish problem and who knows this mite be it but before we go spreading it all over our beloved limestone outcrops there sould be extensive field testing for the study of longterm effects not just on the rock but the people and the equipment that will come into contact with this product. Tom
Anonymous User
01/04/2016
I like this idea. Would it be strong enough acid to round off sharp edges on uncomfortable hand holds? Save my precious skin. Could it possibly open some thins crack to accept bigger, stronger gear too? Not only would it make the routes climb able, but safer too. A Norwegian friend of mine Sloof Lirpa was looking into this but failed to find a way to keep the acid in place. This looks ideal! ;-)

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