At age 19, Shawn Axelrod passed out cold while climbing with friends. He was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, underwent open-heart surgery, and thought he’d never climb again. “It’s still a chronic problem,” Axelrod says now, 30 years later. “Life-threatening,” in fact.
But it was only a year before Axelrod’s climbing hiatus ended; he’d healed and gathered enough strength to get back on the rock, albeit with a different agenda. “Being exposed to that type of challenge made me refocus my life on making an impact somewhere,” Axelrod says. He no longer cared about sending hard grades. The simple fact that he could climb was enough for him; being outdoors served as a vehicle for Axelrod to appreciate nature in a way he might have otherwise overlooked.
After Axelrod met his first wife through climbing, they moved into a truck and eventually migrated west from the Northeast to Boulder in the ‘90s. The birth of his sons and a full-time job squeezed climbing out of his life for the first time since his accident. During this time, climbing garnered a popularity that surprised Axelrod when he finally returned to the sport once his sons were old enough to tag along. The biggest shock, however, came when the family took a trip to the desert. Amidst the golden and ruddy brown cliffs, Axelrod noted, “There was a terrible amount of white chalk everywhere. It just seemed unethical.”
This observation spawned an idea, which has since become his life’s pursuit: if climbers used colored chalk, the chalky smears left along rock faces would blend in the with the rock, rather than leaving bright white stripes and polka dots visible from hundreds of feet down below.
For Axelrod, this idea that has become his company, Climbing Addicts, can all be distilled to simple “Leave No Trace” policies. “It’s a full circle perspective,” he explains. Chalk use shouldn’t be omitted from the commonplace wilderness ethics refrain that is not only decades old, but expected of everyone who spends time outside: minimize impact, respect wildlife and wild spaces, be considerate of other visitors, and properly dispose of waste. Especially as climbers, “we have a little bit more of an intimate relationship with the outdoors than a casual weekend-goer in Eldorado Canyon,” Axelrod says. “We go places most people don’t go, so those areas are more pristine.”
In Axelrod’s opinion, the more pristine, the more necessary protection becomes. “I don’t leave trash, I pick up trash. I hyperfocus about staying on the trail.” Axelrod says. “When we go to the cliffs, we impact the area. We can be sensitive to that. We need to take that sensitivity further and see the whole picture and as far as aesthetically, we’re impacting wherever we go.”
Climbing Addicts is family-owned and operated. Alongside Axelrod are his two sons, Bryan and Matthew, who help in sales, product design, development, and packaging. Axelrod’s girlfriend Holy Craychee does all the graphic design work, and her daughter, Bella, helps out wherever she can, too.
The chalk is made at an American manufacturer in Alabama, using a dry, non-toxic process that Axelrod prefers to keep a secret. He will divulge, however, that the only two ingredients are chalk and the coloring agent. Axelrod developed this process after extensively researching existing colored chalk manufacturers and found none that met his environmental standards.
With new products surfacing on their website every week, Climbing Addicts is accruing a base of followers. Jim Smith, climber and owner of the Colorado Springs’ gear and adventure shop Mountain Chalet, says, “When Climbing Addicts called, we were excited to give it a try. It is a fine powder with a great texture and feel; not gritty at all. Also, you got a nice even coating after dipping your hand into your chalk bag just once. We liked it a lot.”
The company just signed on their first athlete ambassador, Mary Catherine Eden, a climber and climbing guide based out of Moab, Utah. “She’s been a really great role model for how we envision Climbing Addicts’ chalk to be used, and we really respect the works she does in her community,” Axelrod says.
Axelrod envisions a day when he can take his sons for a climbing trip to Eldorado Canyon or Indian Creek and gaze up at the venerable walls without being distracted by swathes of white chalk markings. “We’re not interested in how hard people are climbing,” he says, “but how people are climbing.”