Bouldering on the rise

SARANAC LAKE – When glaciers receded about 12,000 years ago, they changed the Adirondacks forever. The large ice sheets shaped mountains, carved rivers and left behind sandy eskers.

Many of those features have blended into the landscape. Other elements they created, such as large boulder fields, seem out of place.

One such area is McKenzie Pond Boulders, a large collection glacial erratics located on state land between Saranac Lake and Ray Brook, just a short walk in from McKenzie Pond Road. The 10- to 15-foot tall rocks are like giant monuments from a different era.

“It’s kind a mystical place,” said Lake Placid doctor Chris Hyson. “It’s almost like an art gallery.”

But for Hyson, McKenzie Pond Boulders is more than just a mystical place in the woods near his home. It is an area where he has spent countless hours straining his muscles and testing his balance with climbs up the sides of these large rocks.

Hyson is a boulderer.

Now in his late 50s, he has been rock climbing in the Adirondacks since he was a child, when he would visit the Adirondacks with his family.

He first visited McKenzie Pond Boulders in the early 1980s, but he didn’t start visiting them regularly until he moved to Lake Placid in 1989. At that point, he was working as a doctor at the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake and would stop at the boulders on the way home from work.

Back then, the area was mainly frequented by locals. Sometimes Hyson would see climbers such as Pat Munn or Jeff Edwards, but most of the time he was alone.

“There were a whole lot less problems (a term that means routes to those who climb boulders),” Hyson said. “Most of the boulders at McKenzie Pond were pretty well grown in.”

After Hyson started climbing consistently at McKenzie Pond Boulders, he began to clean routes, thinking that one day others would use them.

That didn’t happen for the first few years after Hyson moved to Lake Placid, but then in the mid- to late-1990s, activity started to pick up. By 2002, McKenzie Pond Boulders had generated enough attention that a group of boulderers decided to make a 10-page guidebook detailing the various routes there.

Today, the area is more popular than ever. “Adirondack Rock,” the definitive rock climbing guide for the Adirondacks, says it’s home to the best bouldering in the Park. On most dry summer days, the roadside next to McKenzie Pond Boulders is loaded with cars that sport license plates from all over the Northeast.

“I’ve noticed over the last four years an influx in Canadians coming down to boulder at McKenzie Boulders,” Broadalbin boulderer Justin Sanford said. “Not only (because of) the easy access, but the quality of the boulder problems themselves are pretty good.”

In general, bouldering has become more popular in the Adirondacks. Other places such as Nine Corners, north of Caroga Lake, and a set near Snowy Mountain in Indian Lake have also become well known in these circles.

There are a few reasons for the surge in Adirondack bouldering in recent years. One is that more people are using climbing gyms in urban areas and have a desire to get out on the weekend.

Bouldering has also developed more as its own stand-alone activity over the years.

“Bouldering started out as a training tool for (rock climbing),” said Saranac Lake climber Matt Weich. “Now, I’d say modern-day bouldering for a lot of people is an end in itself.”

Bouldering is different from climbing in that most people don’t use anchors or ropes. Instead they free climb. Their only gear consists of chalk, special shoes and a 4-inch-thick foam crash pad.

Some people climb solo with only the crash pad below them for safety. Others have spotters whose main goal is to ensure that if a climber falls, he or she lands upright on the pad.

On the other hand, rock climbers are usually hooked into a rope that is secured to the rock face. They can ascend cliffs hundreds of feet high.

“One of the aspects that is attractive to a lot of people, especially young people, is it’s a very social sport,” said Dave Buzzelli, who learned to boulder at McKenzie Boulders. “It’s not like trad(itional) climbing when you have your partner, and your partner’s a hundred feet up the cliff.”

Buzzelli, who lives in Syracuse and is an engineer for the state, turned to boulders after he lost his confidence as a rock climber. That happened following a few near-death accidents.

“I had a group of friends that were getting into bouldering, and they were trying to convince me to go bouldering,” Buzzelli said. “Finally, one day I went with a friend, and that’s where we drove up to McKenzie Pond.”

Buzzelli has been hooked ever since and has helped develop many of the routes in Nine Corners and Snowy Mountain, places that he now frequents more often than McKenzie Pond Boulders because they are closer to his home. Still, he holds McKenzie Pond in high regard.

“There are these large, massive, house-sized boulders – glacial erratics – that’s very appealing to a boulderer,” Buzzelli said. “Nine Corners looks more like talus. It looks more jumbled. McKenzie Pond is a more pure place. I think it holds slightly better quality problems.”

McKenzie Pond Boulders is an aesthetically pleasing place where an average person might want to visit on a leisurely walk. Hyson recalled this about when he first starting going there.

“When you look at those boulders, their shapes are quite amazing,” Hyson said. “I thought of it as a place to boulder, but also as a pleistocene sculpture garden.”