Justin Sanford doesn’t talk about his recent back surgery like it was a big deal.
“I just had some bulging and degrading disks,” he said. “They just took out the painful nerves.”
Sanford works as a landscape designer in Saratoga — a desk job, not a career that’s particularly hard on the spine. So his chronic back pain and spasms were something of a mystery.
He went to a number of specialists in his search for answers.
“They all asked me if I’d been in a car accident, my spine was so compressed,” he said. “Then I had to tell them about my after-work activities.”
Sanford is a boulderer. In his free time, he hikes into the Adirondacks and climbs the massive jagged stones scattered through the park — all without the benefit of ropes or harness. Bouldering is the wild-eyed little brother of conventional mountain climbing.
“It’s freedom,” he said. “You don’t have 20 pounds of gear on your back. It’s just you and the problem.”
It’s worth looking at some bouldering terminology. What conventional climbers might refer to as a route, boulderers call a problem.
“It’s all about problem solving,” he said. “The boulders might not even be that high. It’s not always about the physical thing. It’s about figuring out what to do to get to the top.”
All problem solving involves trial and error. In life, that can mean some extra work. In bouldering, it means falling from significant heights onto specialized mattresses. A few tumbles are expected and not a big deal for those who know landing techniques, but years of drops eventually will compress a spine.
And Sanford has been falling for nearly a decade. When it comes to bouldering in the Adirondacks, he’s royalty.
“When we first started,” he said, “it was just me and a group of friends hiking out and looking for problems.”
Bouldering was born elsewhere. It was used in places like Colorado as training for conventional climbers for decades. But when Sanford got hooked by a buddy at Herkimer County Community College in 2004, the Adirondacks weren’t known for their boulders.
Sanford moved back to Johnstown after college and met a group of guys with climbing names like Kippy, Peaches and Groover. They formed the first wave of Adirondack boulderers. They were pioneers.
These days, wiry young climbers make trips from Canada and all over the United States to navigate problems Sanford helped discover, perfect and post on various blogs. But even as recently as five years ago, his crew had the boulders to themselves.
One of their favorite spots was a field of boulders across a rock dam at Nine Corner Lake, about 20 miles north of Johnstown. It’s a place of magnificent stones, big hefty rocks with fitting nicknames like Stonehenge and Tower of Power. Even when climbers are absent, chalky handprints mark painful ascents.
Sanford wrote a guide to the Nine Corner boulders, complete with hand-hold progressions, and published it online. He did the same for a number of other spots all over the park.
Then, in 2008, Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Haas published a full climbing guide to the Adirondacks. A few of Sanford’s boulders were included, and the sport started to grow.
“Back in the day,” he said, “I could boulder at Nine Corner for a full weekend and see maybe four other climbers. Now, it’s 30.”
It’s a hard number to determine. People sign in, but there’s no real tally for boulderers.
The state Department of Environment Conservation’s Region 5, which covers Nine Corner and McKenzie Pond, two popular Adirondack bouldering sites, doesn’t keep track of climbers, according to spokesman David Winchell.
“I’ve been with the DEC for 26 years,” he said. “The first time I heard about bouldering was maybe 10 years ago. It’s been growing ever since.”
Officials at the Adirondack Mountain Club could not provide further information.
All Sanford knows about numbers is that he ends up cheering on total strangers at all his old haunts.
Back on the rock
Like the original fan of an indie rock band, he has mixed feelings about his personal pastime hitting it big. One of the main pleasures of bouldering, he said, is the solitude. There’s just the rock and a few friends.
“Really,” he said, “I’m happy to see it get popular. Climbers are generally a very inclusive group.”
Even if it grows further, to a Colorado level of popularity, Sanford always will be able to find his solitude. The Adirondack park is big and evenly scattered with boulders.
“There’s more than a lifetime of bouldering here,” he said.
Sanford is working on new problems at Second Pond, Snowy Mountain and Good Luck Cliff, but pioneering has taken its toll. Many of the original pioneers are gone. Groover started a family and got out of the game. Peaches lives in Tennessee, and Sanford recently had back surgery.
Part of being the first is making the first mistakes in the highest places.
“It’s called highballing,” he said. “Anything over 30 feet. That’s my favorite type of bouldering. You have to concentrate so hard, it’s like a surreal state. There’s nothing else in the world.”
The problem is that falling from 30 feet will compress a spine, no matter how that spine lands.
After highballing boulders like the Tower of Power — and taking the inevitable falls — Sanford had to see a doctor.
“They’d just cringe when I told them what I was doing,” he said.
Weeks after back surgery, when the spasms stopped, he went back to climbing.
“I’m more careful now,” he said, “and I don’t highball as much, but I plan to boulder for the rest of my life.”
For more information and to see Sanford’s boulder guides, visit http://southernadirondackclimber.blogspot.com. Sanford’s friend Scot Carpenter, also known as Kippy, also runs a bouldering blog at http://adkbouldering.blogspot.com.