As a relative newcomer to bouldering, pFs James Swann took time out from behind the cameras to learn what it is about the art of bouldering, and particularly bouldering in Fontainebleau, that has so many people hooked.
The attraction of Fontainebleau is often in the beauty of its simplicity.
Everyone down the wall has a story about and a longing for ‘Font'. That fabled land of magic and soulfulness, where shafts of sunlight shimmer through peaceful, leafy canopies to dance across the surface of never-ending boulders littered with wholesome, mouth-watering problems. It's a rite of passage for climbers everywhere and to not have experienced it leaves you with a feeling of exclusion from a rather smug clique - motivation enough to go, if not just for the exquisite bouldering.
Maximising time on the rock in Font - Ned Feehally, Tom Newman, Dave Mason and James Blay using heavy duty battery lamps to illuminate the rock during a dry spell.
The first thing you notice about Font however, is that everything looks the same. The same straight-as-a-die roads flagged by recurrent forest leading to another cross road or roundabout, whereabouts a confluence of yet more rule-like carriageways lurk, waiting to whisk you off into yet more similarly regimented woodland. Traffic thunders by as a sense of stale repetition sinks in. Where's the magic? You'd be forgiven for thinking that your first visit to this celebrated venue was a damp squib of an experience, especially given the high frequency of professional ladies touting their ware's in every other layby.
Truly stunning boulders and rock formations are commonplace in the forest.
But with most car parks providing just a short walk-in it's not long before the forest of Fontainebleau reveals to you exactly what you'd hoped for. Amongst the magic of the forest, coloured circuits of rock (locally referred to as parcours) lie in wait, ready to draw you deeper under their spell. Embarking on one of these circuits is one of the true pleasures of bouldering. As you follow small coloured arrows and numbers around the rocks, time becomes irrelevant and the pressures of life are lost to a world of focus, sequencing and shared experiences with friends old and new. The simplicity of bouldering and the enjoyment and calm that it brings is realised here more than in any local indoor crypt.
The coloured, numbered, arrows of the circuits (parcours) become familiar after a while, serving as guides to the problems.
In order to become a true Bleausarde, all manner of techniques must be mastered. Crimps, gastons (a form of crimpy side-pull), undercuts and perhaps most importantly, slopers, all play a part in the genetic make-up of many Font problems. It is the sloper- a hold that relies on open-handed pressure and an inward squeezing of the arm to emit friction and torque on the rock's surface- that separates the majority of Font problems from those in other venues. To obtain the higher grades of 7a to 8c without encountering one of these muscle-busting holds is a rare feat.
An open hand slap reaching for the infamous 'sloper.'
For mortals such as myself however, the safety and comfort of the introductory parcours offer enough of a challenge, whilst the serene surroundings supply more than necessary pleasure to the senses to provide a welcome respite from climbing. The higher areas such as 95.2, 91.1 (allegedly so called due to their height in metres above sea level) and Cul de Chien even offer beach-like surroundings, where sand provides excellent landings and the pretence of a beach holiday, without the hours sat bored on a beach towel.
Tranquil surroundings at 95.2 Fontainebleau.
Landings are something that newby boulderers should take into account, as the lack of ropes in this sport mean that a fall from just a few metres can result in a nasty case of sprained-ankleitis. Spotting itself is an art form that should be studied prior to undertaking a Font trip, as is how and where to place bouldering mats. The big difference between bouldering indoors and outside is that out in the natural world one must learn to top out by mantling over the summit of the boulder, a process which focuses the mind expertly and requires sound footwork - or if you're anything like me, precise and well practised use of the knee and a good measure of thrutching.
The author focused on the problem and firing all attention at one move.
The very fact that we are able to experience this inspiring venue at all is down to years of work by the original Bleausards, taking it upon themselves through passion alone, to work at and rationalise the hidden problems into the openly accessible park-like areas that exist today. With interest from the climbing fraternity being registered as early as 1900 there is a real sense of history to Font, manifested in the physical markings on the rock but more so in the act of simply standing still for a moment between the trees and boulders of the forest and imagining what must have gone before.
The author taking time to consider the moves on a problem at 95.2.
It was not until the 1940s that the circuits seen today were properly established and the iconic numbered, coloured, arrows sprang up across the more significant areas. The development of the circuits and improved access to the forest has clearly done wonders for the sport of bouldering by attracting climbers in their thousands to the region, which is why it is just as well that there are so many problems to choose from. Where there is popularity, however, there is also an issue of environmental impact. The volume of traffic to Font boulders has naturally accelerated the ageing of the rock on certain problems, particularly to those in the lower grades, and respect and understanding must be applied to climbing methods in order to secure the future of the area as a world-class bouldering venue.
Wild Country's James Blay climbing through the moves of a problem at the idyllic 95.2.
No trip to Font would be complete without a debate regarding the use of pof (dried resin) versus that of chalk as to which, if any, accelerates the degeneration of the rock. The use of chalk on these sacred stones can often invoke the passion of the locals, or indeed anyone championing the use as pof as an alternative. A spot of personal research on the pros and cons of both is encouraged to avoid attracting unwanted hostilities. It is considered good practice (not just in Font) that if you must use chalk, make sure you clean it as thoroughly as is practical after your session with non-metallic brushes, removing excess dust and chalk.
Non-Metallic brushes used for cleaning holds during and after bouldering, helping to reduce the impact of chalk on the rock.
For those looking for maximum friction against this fabled rock the cool season runs from October to April, bringing with it the real possibility however of having a wet trip with few dry days. Otherwise it's time to head for the lower, more shaded areas come the height of summer, but conversely the heat of summer can cause the rock to ‘sweat' and so limits friction.
Weather in Font can be changeable in the cooler seasons. James Pearson tackles Carnage at Bas Cuvier during a spot of snow. This day was preceded by clear skies and followed later in the week by some fairly 'warm' days as well.
Whether you're new to the world of body tension, deft precision and cranking hard or have the callused hands and achy elbows of a veteran Bleausarde the magical, sun-blessed forest of Fontainebleau will always welcome you in wondering and send you away contented. And, of course, should it rain there's always the magnificence of the French food and wine to fall back on.
Font Kit List:
Maps & guide books:
IGN 2417 OT - Foret de Fontainebleau coupled with
Baton Wicks Fontainebleau Climbs known as the purple guide, available in French and English. The book provides a good amount of info on the circuits however the maps for the bouldering areas themselves aren't that clear, hence use it with the IGN map.
Essential Fontainebleau by Stone Country provides a selection of some of the best offerings from Font's bouldering areas, but it doesn't provide a detailed run down of the circuits.
Jingo Wobbly produce Fontainebleau Magique, the guide is in French and English and lists 50 of the best circuits from all of Font, shying away from the super popular areas and looking more to the quieter parts of the forest.
7+8's - Chances are if you've got this guidebook you've already visited Font.
Climbing shoes - Click for planetFear's range of climbing shoes.
Bouldering Pad - Depending on how many of you go to Font on a single trip, you may be ok with grouping a number of the slimmer bouldering mats on the market. However it's recommended that you buy thicker, although a lot of the landings at Font would be considered good by Peak District standards, some aren't and the more protection you can give yourself, the better. Click for planetFear's range of crash pads.
Alternatively Maisonbleau rent pads out - Owned and run by Brits, Neil and Chris Hart, Maisonbleau is a complex of 4 Gites at the South West corner of the Fontainebleau forest. Their website can be found here>>>
Chalk/pof/neither if you can help it.
Soft, non-metallic brushes to clean holds before and after use
Towel/mat for drying and cleaning feet
Cheese, bread and wine
Little bleeders,small yet troublesome.
Accommodation - Maisonbleau - The maisonbleau is a new gite complex in the heart of Fontainebleau, just minutes away from the major climbing and walking areas of the trois pignon and the magical Fontainebleau forest. Offering a friendly a relaxed array of gites to suit all, set within 2500 square meters of stunning gardens in a peaceful village location, just 2.5km from Malesherbes. Staying at Maisonbleau comes highly recommended and thanks go to Neil and Chris for looking after us on our recent trip to the forest.
http://bleau.info/ - Considered the primary online resource for all things Font, if it's about Font and not on this website, it's probably not worth knowing.
7s & 8s, Bart van Raaij, 2002.
Keith Bradbury recently produced the film Between The Trees, which follows the achievements of bouldering sensation Tyler Landman when he visited the forest last year. Rapidly gaining cult status and considered essential viewing for any Font fans, the film is available by download and DVD from http://www.unclesomebody.com/blog/ Truly worth watching for inspiration and an 'inside view' before departing on a trip.
John Horscroft produced an article for planetFear - Fontainebleau for Mortals - An Intro to Font, back in 2007 John's article looks more at specifics of circuits and some good areas for Font newbies. Definitely worth a read for more information.
All Images - Dave MacFarlane, planetFear.
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