It’s the bouldering Mecca of the World but if you haven’t been, then it can be as bewildering as any other foreign climbing destination...
Fontainebleau conjures up images of fierce problems and even fiercer climbers. Lats the size of a ships’ sails, ribs like a xylophone and a six pack seem to be pre-requisites for success. Add to that the constant references to perfect conditions that only seem to occur when there’s snow on the ground and the mercury is plunging and it’s hardly a beguiling picture for the average British climber.
A classic Font bouldering scence: The forest, the boulders, pads and the company of your friends. Photo: Adrian Berry
However, it was Fontainebleau that opened my eyes to the delights of bouldering. I’ve never been there in freezing conditions, I tend more towards the barrel than the six pack and I don’t even know where my lats are supposed to be. My memories of Font are of warm spring and autumn days and the colours that go with them, t-shirt and shorts, lazy lunches and siestas. I’ve even managed to polish off a few good problems too.
Fontainebleau has something for everyone. The forest is a thing of beauty all year, but in spring and autumn it comes into its own. The climbing is as various as the climbers who visit, slabby, thuggy, technical and delicate, it constantly surprises and galvanizes.
See Font as a chance to have most of the tough climbing decisions taken out of your hands. Just spot a likely massif in the guide, make sure it’s got a suitable circuit (see glossary below), pack the pad with enough French sticks, cheese and tomatoes to see you through the day and head off. Find the start of the circuit and that’s it. The rest of the day will fall rapidly into place, a blur of entertaining problems, shared endeavour and laughs. Spot your mates, delight in their triumphs and take the piss when they fail. What more could you ask.
Dan Webber (right) popping for the jug on Big Jim, Font 6c, Petit Boi. The same boulder (left) but in the Spring! Photo: Matt Heason
The forest is full of easier circuits that will appeal to the average British climber. Here are a few of my favourites. Only a few mind – I want you to discover the rest for yourselves.
The name lacks a certain poetry for sure, but it refers to the height above sea level of this particular massif. Rightly famous for its brilliant Blue and Red circuits, it also has an excellent Orange. Find the main area, head west and watch out for Orange problems. Less busy than the rest of the massif, the landings are generally superb and there’s a bit of everything – thuggy straight ups and long traverses.
Popular with mountain bikers pulling unbelievable stunts on the boulders, Beauvais is a complex massif. Aim for the car park on the D75 and you’ll find the perfect Orange circuit for an apprentice Bleausard. The boulders are generally smaller than at other areas, yet the problems are still challenging. Equally, the Blue and Red circuits that intermingle with the Orange may well tempt you to try something a bit harder. If you are a family group then the White children’s circuit is a delight for follow-my-leader.
Anna - on a planetFear Font Technique Coaching Hoilday - at Franchard Isatis. Photo: Adrian Berry
Isatis has one of the best Red circuits in the forest and is commensurately popular as a result. Its Orange circuit suffers from that very popularity, so much better to walk all of two hundred yards and enjoy the comparative seclusion and quietude of the Hautes Plaines Yellow circuit. Popular enough to ensure that the paths stay clear and the problems clean, it still has a sylvan charm that is an antidote to the Isatis crowds.
The eponymous boulder around which this famous massif lies is a geological marvel. Peppered with pockets, you could spend all day on it. But that would be to miss out on the best traditional circuit in the forest. The Elephant Orange is an ancient circuit designed to train for the alps. It therefore combines more in its length than any other circuit. To do it properly, you should boulder hop your way round, never touching the ground. It includes a mini gorge along which you must traverse, an enormous slab and more climbing than I’ve ever been able to complete in a day. Now, there’s a challenge.
Where to stay?
If you visit Font in a large group (8-10 people) then a Gite (like the one above) will only cost about £50 each for week and is a far more pleasent than a tent for spending a rainy day in. Photo: Kathleen Tamanaha
Milly-la-Forêt is an excellent base for operations with its picturesque market square, bars, patisseries and shops. With easy access to the Trois Pignons area it is an excellent introduction to Font. However, viable alternatives abound. Arbonne, Larchant and Barbizon all have the necessary coffee and croissant outlets.
If you’re part of a group of any size, there’s really only one way to enjoy Font and that’s in a gite. Why camp when you can live in comparative luxury for fifty quid a week? Check out the Gites de France website for info on nearly every gite in the forest. Two Departements cover the area, Essonne and Seine et Marnes:
Somewhat expensive camping is available at La Musardière right in the heart of the forest:
For a list of campsites in Seine et Marnes:
Alternatively, you can crash at a cheap hotel such as Formula One or Mister Bed, both of which are cheap but not necessarily cheerful!
If you’re going for more than five days, there’s really no alternative to driving. Ferry crossings are frequent and usually cost around £60. Once you hit the other side of the channel, you’re only four hours from your first boulder problem. If, however, you’re aiming for a quick hit of less than five days, the train or plane come into the equation. It’s perfectly possible to fly from Manchester to Paris for under £100 return. However, book well ahead and Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris can be had for as little as £60. Add car hire at £30 a day and it looks a cheap option.
Fontainebleau Climbs by Jo and Françoise Montchaussé and Jacky Godoffe published by Baton Wicks is an excellent selected guide. Bleau by Steven Gough is also good if you can get hold of one. There is also a Jingo Wobbly guide, Fontainebleau Magique.
Circuit – A number of boulder problems of similar grade. Each will be numbered and discreet arrows will indicate the direction of the next problem in the circuit. Same colour dashes indicate link up boulders to keep you off the ground.
Yellow Circuit – Usually problems up to English 4b. However, don’t be surprised if some of the problems feel hard or verge on the bold. Will vary from location to location.