By Alan Wechsler
What goes up must come down. But not always easily. Take Tower of Power, a spicy, twenty-five-foot route at the Nine Corners bouldering ground in the southern Adirondacks. Bouldering is simply rock climbing without rope, close to the ground. But close is a relative thing.
Though not technically challenging, Tower of Power requires a head for heights. Even with three crash pads down below—thick foam pads to cushion the landing—a climber on top of the route risks a dangerous fall. In bouldering lingo, climbing this high is known as “highballing.”
Last year, Mira Schwartz of East Chatham was climbing at Nine Corners with her boyfriend, Ken “Murph” Murphy of Albany, and their friend, Nyle Baker. Murph went up, or “sent,” the route with no problem. Mira followed. No problem.
Except for one thing: she couldn’t get off.
Tower of Power is located in a part of the Nine Corners called Middle Earth, a maze of house-size rocks. To get down, the climber must leap over a wide gap onto a neighboring boulder. The consequences for falling short are unpleasant to contemplate.
Murph jumped without pause.
Mira paused. “I don’t know if I can do this,” she declared.
“Just jump the five-foot gap.”
“I am five foot,” she replied.
They stared at each other across the void, wondering what to do next.
A tour of Nine Corners
To be sure, Nine Corners is an adventurous place. It’s said to be the largest bouldering site in the Adirondacks. Located north of Caroga Lake, the place is a labyrinth of giant erratics—boulders left behind when the last glacier melted thousands of years ago. It’s an easy mile-long hike from Route 29A, through the woods and across a dam of riprap, likely built by loggers more than a century ago.
The dam created Nine Corners Lake, now a popular party spot. It’s common to find beer cans and other trash near the lake. The boulders, in contrast, are beautiful to look at—huge blocks of moss-covered gneiss, occasionally adorned with striations of pink or white quartz. Non-climbers often walk among them, staring up in awe.
But they’re even more beautiful to climb.
Baker, who is in his late twenties, acted as my guide during my visit. A Crown Point native, he started out as a rock climber but was attracted to the social aspect of bouldering. In climbing, he explained, you’re often alone on the rock, talking to your partner only at belay stations and your friends only afterward in the bar. In bouldering, climbers work together on “problems” (or routes). While one is climbing, his or her friends shout advice and yell “C’mon!” to give encouragement in the tough spots. It’s very convivial. Like a party with sore fingers.
“I like to talk to people, see how their day went, what’s going on in their personal life,” said Baker, who works in Poughkeepsie as a welder.
We’re planning to meet a few of Nyle’s friends at Nine Corners. It’s only 10 a.m.—late for a climber but early for the bouldering scene. So we walk around, admiring the formations and the routes.
Bouldering at Nine Corners dates back to the spring of 2002, when a gang of avid climbers started coming here instead of or in addition to the more established McKenzie Pond boulders near Saranac Lake. Some of them, such as Dave Buzzelli of Syracuse, a highway engineer for the state, had been driving more than three hours on weekends to get to the McKenzie Pond area. Nine Corners was much closer to their homes.
Buzzelli, who is in his early forties, had been a traditional climber of cliffs until he was nearly killed in an incident at Poke-O-Moonshine. While he was leading a climb, some rocks fell and broke his ribs. Since then, he has been hesitant to climb high. On the advice of a friend, Andy Schiederich, he took up bouldering. The two of them—with other friends—started putting up numerous routes at Nine Corners. On days when it was too wet to climb, they’d be there anyway, scouting out new routes and cleaning moss off them.
When I met Buzzelli later in the day, he told me, “We picked the best stuff, the lines that are most obvious.”
One of the climbers even wrote a guidebook for the boulders, though it was never published. Eventually, the climbers decided to give it to Jeremy Haas, one of the two climbers who published Adirondack Rock in 2008. The information was incorporated into the book.
Some climbers might be protective of their secret area. But climbers at Nine Corners say they welcome strangers. “We don’t care,” Baker said. “We need people to come up here and clean off all the problems.”
The book devotes eight pages to Nine Corners.
It includes a photo of Buzzelli, climbing shirtless on a route called “Ball Buster.”
These days, Nine Corners sees a lot more visitors than in the past. While I was there, at least two parties were first-timers. One couple came all the way from Rochester to check the place out.
There’s certainly plenty of room for everyone. The book lists more than a hundred boulder problems. And if you don’t mind exploring, there are still plenty of new problems to be found—such as in an area of Nine Corners known as Stonehenge.
“There’s boulders everywhere!” Baker said.
In fact, given the speed at which moss grows over clean rock, it’s hard to say if a “new” route was climbed a few years ago and forgotten.
“I’m sure in four or five years when we all move away, some kids will come up here and say, ‘This could be a new climb,’” Baker said of today’s established routes. “And the cycle continues.”
A rock and a hard place
Finally, Ken Murphy and Mira Schwartz arrived, followed a short time later by Justin “Jut” Sanford, a twenty-five-year-old landscape architect from Broadalbin, just south of the Park. Jut was freshly recovered from a night of drinking. “I had my last cocktail at 3:30 a.m.,” he told us.
“I don’t know how you do that,” Baker said.
“I’m living the dream, baby.”
They start climbing on easy routes called “Stairs” and “Can You See My Eyeball.” Easy being relative, of course.
The bouldering scale of V1 to V16 is not entirely comparable to the more well-known Yosemite Decimal System used to rate traditional rock climbs. In the United States, rock climbs are rated from 5.1 to 5.15, with 15 being hardest. But the easiest boulders begin at the equivalent of about 5.9, a level that might give trouble to even experienced climbers. Because of this, most boulder problems are out of the reach of most beginner and many intermediate climbers.
That’s not a problem for this crew, though. They soon headed to harder stuff, such as “Pop or Drop” (V4) and “Try or Cry” (V9). Jut pulled out a brush attached to the end of an expandable pole and started to brush chalk onto the holds to help with grip.
“It’s mostly for my mental psyche,” he said as a cloud of chalk filtered through a shaft of sunlight. He pointed to a sharp hold. “That’s the one that bites into you,” he said. “I want to do this while I still have skin.”
After that, they went to the Tower of Power, the relatively easy climb followed by a scary jump—too scary for Mira. The boys took turns jumping back and forth as Mira tried to figure a way down. Jut even chimneyed up the space between the two stones, offering to let her use his back as a bridge.
“I know my limits,” she said finally. “I can’t do that. Sorry, guys.”
Finally, they had an idea. Baker grabbed a thick log and used it to bridge the gap. He held one end, and Murph held the other. Then Mira grabbed the log, dangled from it briefly, and climbed up the other side.
“This could be the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Baker said, making ready to jump the gap after her. He pointed to the log: “Get that stick out of my way!”
Eventually Buzzelli and other climbers showed up, and groups formed and reformed around various problems. They bandied about words known only to climbers: gaston, tic-tac, barn door.
The day was still young. There was a lot of rock left to climb.