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October 1990

Erratic Pleasures

Micro-climbing the Adirondacks

For decades, Adirondack climbers have quietly cruised the woods in search of their favorite “micro-climbs”—large boulders (some cliffside castoffs, others glacial erratics) that offer a unique form of climbing called bouldering. Rock-climbers’ delights lie scattered along the bases of Adirondack peaks or set mysteriously amid otherwise benign topographies. No affinity for hundred-foot drop-offs is necessary to enjoy these ascents, the requisite paraphernalia is minimal, and, best of all, a single boulder can contain multiple short routes within a few feet of each other. Bouldering usually keeps the feet a jumpable distance from terra firma, and the boulderer requires only proper footwear, an enjoyment of gymnastic movement and access to a rock taller than the outstretched hand to participate.

To work out a difficult bouldering move or sequence of moves requires time, all day perhaps, as the boulderer makes an attempt, falls off a few feet, then tries again until a practiced flow develops; the gamesmanship of climbing is nowhere more evident than in this sub-sport. This gymnastic approach to rock movement differs fundamentally from that of the crag climber, who utilizes control and deliberation to ascend dangerously unfamiliar heights as quickly and prudently as possible.

Bouldering has always been part of Adirondack climbing history, but according to pioneer Jim Goodwin the term was not even heard in the area until the early 1970s. Climbers decades earlier, though, had practiced and trained on the accessible boulders of Chapel Pond and Sentinel Boulder, at Johns Brook. “We’d fool around on them a little before going up to climb [higher faces],” Goodwin recalls. In the 1950s and 1960s, mountaineering clubs also used boulders to introduce neophytes to the basic movements of rock-climbing before roping up on airy routes.

The origins of organized bouldering, however, lie across the Atlantic, in the cool spruce-and-pine environs of France’s Fontainebleau Forest. Thirty-five miles southeast of Paris, the sandstone boulders of Bleau had traditionally been climbed by early alpinists as training for their Alps ascents until Pierre Alain founded the Groupe de Fontainebleau du Club Alpin, in 1930; this  club  sparked the evolution of bouldering. Alain and other like-minded climbers established ten- to eighty-foot routes up the scattered forest boulders. Paint spots were applied to the base of each climb (thus color-coding them according to difficulty), and by sequentially ascending similar colors a “circuit” of twenty-five to eighty routes could be completed. Alain became so enamored of bouldering that after a historic (and difficult) first ascent in the Alps, he said to his partner, “It’s been a long time since we’ve done any serious climbing. I suggest we get back to Bleau.”

In modern-day America, John Gill personifies the bouldering tradition. A native of Alabama, Gill first began climbing in the 1950s, when he was a high-school student, on the sandstone outcroppings of northern Georgia. His interest led him to gymnastics, and for the next fifteen years he developed and refined body movements which he then applied to bouldering. Gill’s intense commitment to specialized training, and his extraordinary ability to envision dynamic moves where other climbers saw only blank rock, set a physical and philosophical standard by which much American climbing has since been judged.

Today, there are few climbers who spend the majority of their “vertical hours” on boulders. One of the best of these, says Adirondack-guidebook author Don Mellor, is Todd Eastman, of Lake Placid. Eastman, who believes that bouldering is the best way to introduce people to climbing, is the dean of a select group of climbers who have always taken their bouldering seriously. For Eastman, bouldering embodies the best that climbing has to offer: maximum difficulty with minimum danger in pristine settings. Ironically, the present craze of climbing on artifical indoor walls provides the same combination of difficulty without danger, but forgoes the natural environment, an element that many traditional boulderers refuse to forfeit.

As much as Gill espoused the visionary, creative side of bouldering, Eastman appreciates the discovery process. “We treat them like tiny climbs,” he says of his bouldering outings. The process he describes is simple and direct. “You find boulders, you explore them, then you climb.”

Because the Adirondacks does an efficient job of hiding many of its best boulder routes beneath lichen or moss, some required preparation by Eastman and his cohorts. “We’d unearth these things, scrub them off, then wait for them to dry,” he explained.

A strong preservationist attitude, though, keeps Adirondack bouldering aficionados from unnecessarily altering the rock. Low-impact climbing is their creed, born of a desire to maintain the exploratory air of their activity. Because bouldering can usually be pursued at a leisurely pace close to the ground, its devotees worry about the potential abuse of popular bouldering sites. It is not surprising, then, that information on favorite mini-routes is seldom shared with strangers and is never reported in the climbing guidebooks.

But there are several High Peaks sites where the environmentally minded neophyte may try laying hand to real stone. In addition to the Johns Brook and Chapel Pond boulders, Pulpit Rock, on Lake Placid, has bouldering routes. There are short bouldering
challenges atop Noonmark Mountain, and at Poke-O-Moonshine, climbers Mark Meschinelli and Geoff Smith have gone so far as to establish a circuit, à la Fontainebleau, on cliffside boulders. For the rest, the aspiring boulderer is advised to lace up his or her
shoes and go looking for places where ascent, albeit a short ascent, can be enjoyed unfettered by equipment, climb ratings and competition.

Jim Vermeulen wrote “Walking Papers,” a guide to Adirondack guidebooks published in the 1990 ADIRONDACK LIFE Outdoor Guide. He lives in Syracuse.

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