Bouldering near McKenzie Pond

Hey, you got a problem? Bouldering buffs can help you solve it

By Alan Wechsler

Steve Cahill thinks hard about his next move. Photo by Pat Hendrick

One thing you can be sure of when you go bouldering: The names of the climbing routes (or “problems,” in the sport’s lingo) are going to be entertaining.

Take the bouldering mecca off McKenzie Pond Road near the village of Saranac Lake. “Glass Pants,” “Unexpected Suicide,” “Two-Pack Shacker,” “Sketches of Pain” and “The Actual Edge of Gumby” are just a few of the quirky labels.

I’ve come with a bunch of regulars from Lake Placid. Kevin Clark, 36, owner of the Lake Placid Mountaineer, is of the old school, in the sense that he doesn’t know the names or ratings of many of the problems. “I just come here to work out,” he says.

With him is his daughter, Candace Raymond, 13; his friend Steve Cahill, 44, and Neil Donnelly, 26, who also works at the store. We’ve brought with us a crash pad the thickness of a futon mattress, which Clark throws down on the ground before each climb.

After a few ascents at the First Set, we follow a well-worn path through the woods to another group of boulders and make our way to a short, overhanging problem that requires a climber to hang horizontally off two “buckets,” or large, hand-swallowing holds, as legs are repositioned for the final crux. “This is a brain-bender of a problem,” says Clark. “All the holds are good, but you hang upside down, and your brain’s all messed up.”

Cahill ascends the route quickly. Clark follows but has a little trouble at the lip. Donnelly is not quite so elegant. He falls twice, struggling to slap a hand on the sweet handhold above the overhang that will allow him to make it. A third try and – “I’m too pumped, damn it!” – down he goes.

From there we go to a problem called Sudden Death. It’s a left-leaning crack that rises up to an overhang that the climber must surmount. Clark calls it “The Beast.” “This stinks,” he says, looking at the drop zone, a sloping apron of rock. “This is one you want three pads for. It’s never my favorite climb – it feels bad. It’s such a head game.”

But after contemplating this for a few minutes, he begins the climb. At the crux, his leg starts to quiver – a sure sign of losing it – but at the last minute he finds the right move and swings over to the top.

“At least you made it look hard,” Cahill tells him.

Bouldering is not without risk. One of Clark’s friends broke a leg after falling four or five feet. He knows others who have twisted ankles. Usually, he says, the climbers land on their feet, but they sometimes land on their back. Spotters try to protect the boulderer if he falls.

“Any sport comes with its inherent danger, and it’s something you have to respect,” Clark says. “Climbing over your head or pushing yourself beyond your limit can put you in harm’s way.”

Getting a toe-hold. Photo by Pat Hendrick

As the Lake Placid gang took turns examining an even more difficult climb, I wander over to find Kip and his buddies. With Kip is Arien “Groover” Cartrette, who more than anyone else may be responsible for putting McKenzie on the bouldering map.

It’s not that Cartrette was the first to climb the routes (that bit of trivia has been lost to history). But after he and his friends “sent” nearly every route, he posted the information on the Internet three years ago. It was also included in a guidebook titled New England Bouldering, released last year by Wolverine Publishing.

That annoyed some older climbers. “I was climbing there for a long time,” says Christopher Hyson, 50, a physician from Lake Placid, who has been coming here since 1981. “I had my own names for things. The guy who did the Web site just came in, put in his own names on it and left it at that.”

Hyson misses the solitude at the McKenzie boulders. Now, there are nearly always other climbers here. But he still enjoys watching fellow boulderers push the envelope on routes he would never have tried himself. And he’s not losing any sleep over the guidebook. “In the bigger picture,” he says, “it’s really just a bunch of boulders.”

Like many pastimes in the wild, bouldering has its issues. Critics say the crash pads thrown on the ground damage plants. They also frown on the practice of scraping lichen, moss and other vegetation off the rock to clean new routes.

At the McKenzie boulders, access is another issue. There is no parking area or official trail. Generally, climbers park along the side of the road and follow a path across a narrow strip of private land to the boulder field, which is on state land. The state Department of Environmental Conservation is working to improve parking and access.

Later in the afternoon, I catch up to the Lake Placid team just as they are venturing deeper into the woods. Cahill, having joined forces with a group from Vermont, is taking everyone on a bushwhack to a secret set of boulders. The site is so unknown that no trail leads there, and Cahill is careful to take a different route each time so he doesn’t create one.

Alas, the boulders are so well hidden that we can’t find them. We head back to the rocks we know, throw down our pads and take turns working on a long traverse with almost no handholds and diabolical foot placements. We’re all just having a good time on the stone. I never even find out what the route is called.

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