Bouldering at McKenzie Pond, Adirondack State Park, USA
The Adirondack state park is a massive 6 million acre expanse of wilderness in the Northern reaches of New York State. The park lies close to the Canadian border and offers an attractive mix of pristine lakes, wild rivers and rocky cliffs; all of which add interest to the miles of rolling hillsides and dense forest. The Adirondack park is certainly a beautiful wilderness, but it’s fair to say this probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind for us Europeans when we think of American bouldering. If you are crossing the Atlantic specifically for a bouldering trip, then it would be silly not to venture to one of the world class venues the USA has to offer. Places like Hueco Tanks, Bishop, and Colorado have justifiably carved their way into the Ivy League of bouldering destinations and deserve a place at the top of your list. But if you find yourself in the New York area, Southern Ontario or in nearby New England, then the ‘dacks are well worth checking out. This region – including some great looking venues in New England - seems like more of low key bouldering destination, but one that is well worth looking into. This summer I spent a few days in Lake Placid, as part of a stop off on a road trip from NYC to Canada. I climbed at a very accessible and great quality bouldering venue called McKenzie Pond. McKenzie Pond is billed as the best bouldering in the Adirondacks, but I am convinced there is plenty more that is yet to be discovered. The area is famed for its adventurous trad climbing and some excellent looking ice climbing in the long cold winter months, and it certainly has no shortage of rock. I nearly crashed the car on several occasions because I was scanning the forest in search of granite, spurred on by clean swathes of granite in the distance, and the many boulders poking out of the trees or resting on the shores of the rivers and lakes. For now though, let’s focus on the established circuit at McKenzie Pond.
The boulders are located between the towns of Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. The NY 86 road runs between the two towns, and from this road you will want to take the CR 33 McKenzie Pond road (on your right if travelling from Lake Placid) and drive for precisely 0.9 miles (I measured it after going too far on the first attempt!). Park in a narrow layby next to house number 253 (house and parking are your left). Don’t park in the area opposite (this has signs stating parking is not allowed). A small trail leads from the no parking signs into the woods to your right and the first boulders immediately appear. The boulders are grouped into three sectors, and sector one can be seen from the road if you look carefully through the trees.
I was really impressed with the quality of the bouldering at this venue. The online topo sums up the ambiance of the area nicely; “McKenzie Pond is like most Adirondack climbing, quiet, pristine and wooded…” So far, so good. I disagreed with the next line, however, as the topo goes on to say; “… with flaky, sharp granitic gneiss – beautiful place, poor rock”. In my view this couldn’t be further from reality – the rock was of excellent quality, sharp in places but smooth and sculpted in others, and never “flaky” on the popular lines. The quality of the climbing was also superb, with a mix of highballs and short problems. Several of the more eye catching climbs forge their way up proud lines on the bigger - house sized - blocks and these might well have you checking the medical cover on your travel insurance policy! Despite the topo somewhat under-selling the rock quality, the boulders clearly get a bit of traffic. All the classic problems were clean and many had signs of chalk. The style of climbing is well varied, with an eclectic mix of slabs, arêtes, walls, cracks and steeper problems. Overall, the granite demands a fairly precise and technical approach but this won’t be unfamiliar to climbers who’ve encountered this rock type elsewhere. Grade wise, the best problems I came across were around the middle of the grade spectrum – from V4 – V8. There is a distinct lack of hard problems (V11 +) although the potential seemed undeniable, and a few of the projects identified in the topo looked a lot like hard classics in waiting.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but it gives my impression of the best of what’s on offer, in the random order that they came to mind:
- Hooker V3: This takes a soaring line up the highest part of the first block you get to. The holds are all pretty good, but it is high!
- Flux Capacitor V7 (V8 sit start): An excellent harder problem which takes an uncompromising line up a steep arête.
- Slot Machine V5: Frustratingly tricky at the grade, this climb features an excellent dynamic move to a small pocket. The sit start project is also very good, and hard.
- Slobadon AKA the Eastman Problem V5: This was undoubtedly my favourite problem, and it would be a classic anywhere. It takes a technical line up a blunt prow, saving the crux for its upper reaches. Superb!
- Magnum V6: Another good arête, from a sitting start. A hard starting move leads to good holds in juggy slots and an easier top out.
- Ian’s Favourite problem V5: A nice wall starting on crimps – easier than it looks thanks to a good foot rail for the first moves.
- Great Roof of China V3: A steep start leads to an awkward upper section that rewards perseverance.
- Shtickums V4: This problem starts on a great looking arête that cries out to be climbed, before moving leftwards across the wall. The legendary American boulderer John Sherman is rumoured to have busted his ankle on this problem, so take care!
- Cartwheel V9: This one is all about power and timing - apparently!
When to visit and other tips
A drawback of bouldering in the Adirondacks is that the season is pretty limited. The best times to visit are in spring and autumn; the summer is unbearably hot and the winter is ski season (/polar vortex season if last winter is a sign of things to come). Reasonable conditions can usually be found, however, from late March to late May, and again in the autumn, from late August to early November. I went in early June and it was too hot to do anything too challenging, but perfect for a nice circuit of lower grade classics. If you do visit in the warmer months, you definitely don’t want to leave the sanctuary of your car without insect repellent. The only bug spray I find to be effective is the 100% deet stuff, so make sure you are well equipped with this. Poison Ivy is also an annoying hazard that may be unfamiliar to us Brits, so find out what it looks like and steer clear of it. If you take any food into the woods, be careful to seal it up to avoid the attention of one of the 4000 black bears that call the Adirondacks home. Using ‘bear-proof’ containers is probably not a bad idea. There are two climbing shops in Lake Placid, Eastern Mountain Sports on Main Street and the High Peaks Cyclery at the other end of the village. Both sell chalk, bug spray and other essentials.
Where to stay and eat
My recommendations for food are the ADK Café and the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery. The ADK Café is in Keene – a village about 14 miles away from Lake Placid. This place is reasonably priced and served one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. The other food looked great too, and it has a nice chilled out atmosphere suited to a post climb dinner. The brewery overlooks Mirror Lake in Lake Placid town, and does great food and beer, and seems to be the social hub of the town as it was busy every night. For lunch, Saranac Sourdough is a good option as it does tasty sandwiches at very reasonable prices. This is conveniently located on Saranac Avenue - the road out of Lake Placid going towards the boulders. Both Lake Placid and Saranac Lake have various options for accommodation. We stayed at the Best Western hotel in Lake Placid, which was perfectly nice, if a little dated. It does have a small pool, Jacuzzi, gym and table tennis if that clinches it for you. Lake Placid is famous for hosting the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1982, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the 1982 games only finished last week. The shops are still full of merchandise and one deserted, dust covered, store seemed like a time capsule which had lain untouched since ’82 (complete with hand written sign on the wall saying “no skate rentals till after the Olympics”!).
Other things to do
As you may have guessed the area is a big winter sports destination during the colder months. It is well known for winter climbing and also boasts a fine looking array of traditional rock routes. Fishing and hiking are also popular here so there are plenty of options for rest days. The park is also home to no fewer than 32 golf courses!
The bouldering is featured in the main guide for the area – “Adirondack Rock” (Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Haas; ISBN-10: 0-9814702-0-3) and also in “New England Bouldering” (Tim Kemple; ISBN-10: 0972160922). There is a pretty useful online topo which is free and can be downloaded here: http://www.newenglandbouldering.com/mckenzie-pond
. If you are heading to the Adirondacks you would also be well advised to check out one of these two informative local bouldering blogs: adkbouldering.blogspot.co.uk
. There are various photos and videos on the internet, including this video
which is an enjoyable watch and features some of the problems listed above.
Inset photos courtesy of Laura Shafer | Header image courtesy of Mixjape
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