Bouldering comes of age

Guidebook author Justin Sanford climbs Live Free or Die near Green Lake. PHOTO BY TOMÁS DONOSO
Guidebook author Justin Sanford climbs Live Free
or Die near Green Lake.


Years ago I often used to see a line of cars parked along McKenzie Pond Road outside Saranac Lake and wonder why they were there. There was no trailhead there, no house, just nondescript woods.

Eventually, I learned that those woods harbored a collection of giant boulders and that people would drive for hours to climb them. Not just any people, but hard-core climbers willing to abrade their fingertips on tiny crimps, strain their biceps on overhanging rock, and curse the sky as they labor up routes that are often less than ten feet long. That is, boulderers.

Bouldering began as an offshoot of rock climbing, a way for people to train for “real climbing” on cliffs, but it has long since evolved into a sport unto itself, with its own lingo, gear, and rating system.

And now it has its own regional guidebook: Adirondack Park Bouldering, by Justin Sanford, who with his friends has spent countless hours over the past decade developing bouldering routes in the Adirondacks.

Sanford’s book, which he published himself, arrives forty-eight years after the Park’s first rock-climbing guidebook. How times have changed. Trudy Healy’s rock-climbing guide (since superseded) was a mere 108 pages and small enough to slip into your back pocket. It featured line drawings of cliffs and several black-and-white photos. Adirondack Park Bouldering contains 316 pages and is filled with color photos, color maps, and color diagrams of boulders. It’s proof that bouldering and self-publishing have come of age.

Sanford divides the book into six regions. Within these are twenty-two established bouldering areas, with a total of 866 routes—or “problems,” in the sport’s parlance. Readers might be surprised to learn that all but six of the areas are in the southern Adirondacks. The largest area is Nine Corner Lake, located north of the hamlet of Caroga Lake. It boasts fifty-nine boulders with 282 problems, about a third of the book’s total.

Perusing the Nine Corner Lake section, which is nearly forty pages long, gives an idea of the work that went into the book. It opens with a description of the area, a short history of the bouldering there, and directions. This material is followed by a topo map showing the approach trail and then a more detailed map showing an overview of the bouldering area.

Because of its size, Nine Corner Lake is divided into six zones. Zone A alone has twenty-five boulders with a total of 133 problems. A map of the zone contains a drawing of every boulder and shows the location of every problem. Each problem is numbered and color coded (green for easy, yellow for moderate, red for difficult). In addition to the map, Sanford offers photos of most of the boulders, with the routes drawn in, again numbered and color coded.

So much for the visuals. Every route contains a short description, usually a sentence or two, such as: “Start at the base of the arête. Climb straight up on good holds.” Problems are grouped by boulder. The name of each problem is highlighted in green, yellow, or red corresponding to its general difficulty. In addition, you’ll also find the precise difficulty grade, which in the Adirondacks can range from V0 (easy) to V13 (extremely hard).

Most of the 866 problems in the book range from V0 to V4. Only twenty-one are rated V10 or higher. This might leave the erroneous impression that bouldering in the Adirondacks is easy. The fact is that even easy and moderate bouldering problems are hard. The moves required by a V1 problem, for example, are comparable to those required by an expert rock climb.

Sanford awards one to five stars to the problems he recommends. One star is “worth climbing;” five stars is “one of the best in the Adirondack Park.” Most routes get at least one star, but Sanford is not overly generous. Out of the 282 problems at Nine Corner Lake, only four get five stars.

Adirondack Park Bouldering By Justin Sanford Southern Adirondack Climber, 2016 Softcover, 316 pages, $40 Available only on the author’s website: southernadirondackclimber.blogspot.comhigher.
Adirondack Park Bouldering
By Justin Sanford
Southern Adirondack
Climber, 2016
Softcover, 316 pages, $40
Available only on the author’s website: southernadirondackclimber.blogspot.comhigher.

In gathering and organizing a massive amount of information, presented in both graphics and text, Sanford has created an indispensable guidebook for anyone interested in Adirondack bouldering. That said, the book has design flaws. Overall, the layout is rather dense, with little white space between blocks of type and between type and graphics. There are no chapter or section pages to indicate when you reach a new part of the book. (This shortcoming is offset somewhat by colored page edges—a different color for each bouldering area.) The book has a fair number of ads, which is understandable, but was it necessary to clutter the table of contents with thirty-two corporate logos? And then there is the title. The cover says New York: Adirondack Park Bouldering. It seems to me that Adirondack Bouldering would have sufficed.

I doubt boulderers will care about such stuff if the information is on the mark. To test the book’s reliability, I took it to the boulders at the base of Chapel Pond Slab near St. Huberts. The book describes twenty-two problems on nine boulders. I had seen some of the boulders in previous visits to the slab but never climbed them before. I found the map of the area, the drawings of the boulders, and the descriptions of the problems to be spot on. Using the maps and photos, I located without difficulty all the routes I was looking for.

I spent an hour or so wandering among the boulders, including one garage-size behemoth named Goliath. Almost all the problems on Goliath are projects, meaning they have not been successfully climbed yet. Not being much of a boulderer, I didn’t expect to bag one of the first ascents. I gravitated toward the easy routes and found one to my liking called Death Dance, a V0 on another big boulder. Sanford gives the problem two stars and describes it thus: “Climb the tall face using good edges and rails.”

Although the problem was easy, with plenty of holds, I ended about twenty feet off the ground. Death Dance seemed like a miniature rock climb. In the lingo, a problem this long is called a highball. Well, I was high up and I did have a ball. I walked off the sloping back side of the boulder, grateful for having been goaded to explore a collection of ancient rocks that I had ignored in all my previous visits to Chapel Pond Slab (to climb the slab itself).

No doubt Adirondack Park Bouldering will lead many to similar adventures.


This story originally appeared on the Adirondack Almanack, the Adirondack Explorer’s online news journal.