2014 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors
On the Rocks
A guide to Adirondack bouldering
by Justin Sanford
My first time bouldering was with a friend who was an extreme kayaker and lived close to Moss Island in Little Falls, New York, a well-known rock-climbing area. I remember feeling overwhelmed as we stood under those cliffs, looking up at the people above us with their ropes and gear. We didn’t have any of that stuff, so my friend suggested we boulder on the shorter cliff faces and outcrops on the backside of the main climbing area. That way we’d avoid injury and stay out of the “real” climbers’ way.
Bouldering involves climbing what’s known as a “boulder problem,” which follows a specific sequence of holds and features that are found naturally on rock faces and free-standing boulders. Unlike other forms of climbing, bouldering is not always about getting to the top of the rock—there are boulder problems that traverse, meaning one side to the other, as well as boulder problems that eliminate key holds, offering the climber a more difﬁcult variation to a problem.
That ﬁrst day of bouldering, my friend and I climbed until the sun set. My forearms and upper body were so sore and exhausted, I couldn’t untie my shoes. Still, I barely slept that night as I thought about the movements and positions my body made as I slowly advanced up and across rock faces that, from the ground, had seemed impossible to climb. The rush of emotion and adrenaline that I felt each time I succeeded, the river below and surrounding views—I was captivated.
This was a sport I knew I had to pursue. From that day on, it transformed my life—everything would involve bouldering in one form or another.
I think bouldering is the purest form of rock-climbing. And it’s one of the most enjoyable. It doesn’t involve the climbing ropes, harnesses, belay devices and passive or mechanical gear that traditional rock-climbing uses to prevent hitting the ground in a fall. In bouldering, you typically climb freestanding boulders or short cliff bands and rock outcrops that range in height from ﬁve to 30 feet. They are attempted with just climbing shoes, climbing chalk (for stickier handholds), nylon brushes (to brush off the climbing holds), a crash pad (a commercially made climbing mat that’s placed on the ground to provide a ﬂat landing surface) and, ideally, a fellow climber or two to “spot” you. Bouldering is a sport of inherent risk: every fall results in hitting the ground. Most falls aren’t from great heights, but they’re unpredictable. And a cushioned crash pad isn’t always enough to protect your body.
The possibilities for boulder problems are limited only by a climber’s ability to come up with a creative solution to the problem in front of him or her—or by a lack of climbing holds.
Climbing holds develop over centuries of weathering and as a result of the composition of the rock. Some of the largest collections of boulder ﬁelds I’ve seen in the Adirondacks are nestled beneath large cliff bands in valleys and gullies and are, for the most part, protected from harsh elements. As a result, they lack enough natural holds for bouldering. Other areas in the park, such as the Crane Mountain Boulders (aka Boulderwoods) or the Snowy Mountain boulders, are smaller collections of glacial erratics that sit precariously in the forest. Exposure to rain, snow, ice and wind means plenty of holds in the form of pockets, dishes, ribs, edges and scoops.
Boulder problems are usually shorter than traditional rock climbs. They typically start from a seated, or “sit-start,” position to add additional hand and foot movements to the climb. The sit-start holds are identiﬁed by the “ﬁrst ascentionist” (the ﬁrst person to successfully complete the climb from start to ﬁnish without falling) and can sometimes add signiﬁcant difﬁculty to a boulder problem.
Problems that are above a climber’s ability but attempted by that climber during numerous outings are called “projects.” In some cases, a project might last just a few bouldering sessions, but many can extend for months, years, even a lifetime. Taking on hard projects can be rewarding—and frustrating. While working out a bouldering project, climbers often break the problem down into individual pieces. The ﬁrst piece might be the section of the problem that was successfully climbed on a ﬁrst session. These easier pieces are memorized so they feel less strenuous and more natural to climb on subsequent visits.
The second piece of the project is the top out, or ﬁnishing moves, on the climb (also the most important part of a boulder problem and should be evaluated before any attempt on a rock climb). There’s nothing more discouraging and painful than successfully climbing all the way to the top of your bouldering project, only to fall on the last few moves.
The last piece involves the most difﬁcult hand and foot movements, or the most difﬁcult sequences of movements. These are known as the “cruxes” of the rock climb. Boulder problems are notorious for having numerous crux moves and sequences—what makes bouldering such a physically demanding sport.
It’s important to mention that anyone who boulders should employ a “leave no trace” ethic. Climbers should stay on designated trails, carry out what was carried in and brush climbing chalk off boulders. Also, it’s against the law to alter the landscape, which includes destroying vegetation, on state land.
Bouldering in the Adirondacks
When I began bouldering in the Adirondacks in 2004, I was aware of just a handful of climbers who were actively establishing new bouldering areas and creating new boulder problems. Back then there weren’t Adirondack bouldering guidebooks. I focused on practicing my skills at known bouldering areas, such as Nine Corner Lake, in Caroga Lake; Snowy Mountain, in Indian Lake; and McKenzie Pond, in Saranac Lake. My friends and I would watch online bouldering videos by Adirondack locals—Scott Carpenter, David Buzzelli, Arien Cartrette, Jon Strazza, Andy Scheiderich, Garrett Koeppicus and Andy Salo, among others—and try to locate and climb the problems depicted. After a year or so of bouldering this way, I befriended many of these climbers and we’d boulder together. Each session revealed additional bouldering areas and boulder problems, and I began learning how to identify new boulder problems.
I also realized the Adirondack Park had more bouldering than previously thought. Bouldering areas need an abundance of boulders and outcrops with natural holds and features and have to be relatively accessible on state land. To ﬁnd new ones my friends and I turned to online hiking forums, topographic maps, aerial imagery and orienteering maps.
I started documenting as much detail as I could so the larger climbing community would eventually have a comprehensive guide. In 2008, Adirondack Rock, A Rock Climber’s Guide by Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Haas was published. It covered rock climbing on state land, as well as some preliminary bouldering information. In no time the bouldering areas mentioned became hot spots. Then, in 2013, as Adirondack Rock was nearing a revised edition, its authors agreed that bouldering in the park was worthy of its own guidebook. They turned their bouldering information over to me to supplement the information that I’d been accumulating.
My book, Adirondack Bouldering, is slated to be published this August. Though it’s a 200-page guide, it’ll still be an ongoing project as new bouldering areas are discovered and new boulder problems and variations are established. The ﬁrst edition of Adirondack Bouldering includes more than 20 bouldering areas within the Blue Line—places near Old Forge, Lake Champlain, Lake George, Keene Valley and Cranberry Lake, among others—with hundreds of glacial erratics/boulders, a thousand or so boulder problems and countless projects awaiting ﬁrst ascents.
Visit www.southernadirondackclimber.blogspot.com to see bouldering photos and videos and learn more about Adirondack Bouldering.
Chris Hyson—a physician who lives in Lake Placid and works for Adirondack Health—has been rock climbing in the park for 35 years. Hyson embraced the sport in the early 1970s near Washington DC, at a place called Carderock. He says, “The climbing there was mostly top roping and bouldering. Many weeks were spent working out the subtleties of single moves on difficult climbs. Bouldering was an essential part of this, with its focus on short, technical and extremely difficult routes.
“The name John Gill was often brought up for his legendary bouldering feats in the Southeast, the Needles and Colorado,” Hyson recalls. “People trained with fantasies about John Gill’s abilities to do a one-armed, one-finger pull-up and a one-armed lever.”
Bouldering has been part of the local climbing scene for generations: Before World War II John Case was an Adirondack—and international—rope and boulder pioneer; Jim Goodwin and others in the 1950s tackled erratics along with major mountain routes. Hyson began bouldering at McKenzie in 1980. “I had been shown the site by Todd Eastman. For the first 10 years that I lived here I rarely saw another soul there, and the chalk marks left on climbing holds were mostly mine,” he says. “I expanded the range of climbable boulders by clearing garbage … and brush from an array of glacial erratics. My idea was to create something of a Pleistocene sculpture garden for bouldering.”
Other destinations suited to bouldering’s demanding gymnastic style were Chapel Pond and Cascade Passes and at the foot of Poke-O-Moonshine, where there is a circuit of big rocks. They’re still popular today.
Since 2000, Hyson explains, McKenzie Pond “was ‘discovered’ and has seen an explosion of activity on the boulders that had been unearthed during the previous decades. It’s now unusual not to see one or more groups of boulderers there from all over the Northeast.” —Elizabeth Folwell
From our archive: “Erratic Pleasures” (Sporting Scene, October 1990), about the early days of bouldering in the Adirondack Park, www.adirondacklife.com/articles/bouldering
Tags: Aaron Hobson, Adirondack Bouldering, Adirondack Mountains, Adirondack Park, bouldering, Boulderwoods, Caroga Lake bouldering, Crane Mountain Boulders, Justin Sanford, Leave No Trace, Nine Corner Lake bouldering