Bouldering in Fontainebleau for Beginners
Posted on November 18, 2013
Just a 45 minute train ride from the centre of bustling Paris brings you to the comparatively sleepy town of Fontainebleau. The town grew up around the vast royal chateau which features some seriously epic external staircases (perfect for a Cinderella exit) and huge and glorious formal gardens. The chateau was used continuously as a royal residence from the building’s establishment in 1137 until there weren’t any Kings (or Emperors) left to visit.
For the Kings and Court Fontainebleau offered one key advantage over Paris – the forest. Members of the court could ride out for fresh clean air and exercise and, of course, a spot of hunting. This predilection for riding down and slaughtering innocent creatures meant that a huge forest park (larger than the current area of Paris) was never cleared for farming or housing and has survived until the present day. So, in short, you can thank Bambi’s mother for taking one for the team to ensure the survival of what is arguably the best bouldering area in Europe.
Fast forward a few centuries and a few Parisian based mountaineers realised that by clambering over the hundreds of boulders in the conveniently located Fontainebleau forest (or as it is referred to by the French climbers, with a typically gallic pout of the lips: ‘Bleau’) they could train conveniently close to civilisation. For this reason, apart from the usual bouldering problems, Font (as the not-as-cool English speaking world refers to the place) is also home to a significant number of bouldering circuits. Basically you pick your colour (let’s say yellow, for beginners) and then go off into the forest and find a yellow dot (or arrow) on a rock with a ‘1’ next to it. You do that problem and will almost inevitably find yourself standing next to a yellow dot with a ‘2’ next to it. You just keep following the numbers. Many of the circuits have over 40 problems in them, so you could be there for a while.
I have never been all that enthused by the idea of bouldering. If I’m going to be more than two meters off the ground I want a rope tied to me. Falling onto a rather firm mat doesn’t really cut it from a I-really-don’t-want-to-break-my-ankle point of view. Also, carrying a big fat bouldering pad around seems like a rather serious inconvenience. However, after a few disgruntled days I discovered that bouldering, especially in one of the world’s premier destinations, has its upsides.
Firstly there is free camping on the edge of the forest, near to the village of Bourron-Marlotte. The toilet is a bit curious (you do your business into a hole that doesn’t have any obvious mechanism for emptying or composting) but at least there is something for your business to go into. The campsite also has a tap which is fast and fresh – excellent for drinking and for washing dishes and yourself, if you don’t mind standing around in a bikini in ten degree weather while early morning walkers stare at you.
However, the fact that we were lucky enough to stay with some friends seriously increased my enjoyment of the trip. Apart from the joy of having three whole extra people to talk to on a regular basis (it turns out that some very clever toddlers can hold entire conversations), the huge friendly home (including guest house) offered some substantial improvements on the pit toilet and tap arrangements.
Visually, the forest is a delight. We visited in October and the early autumn light was magical. The trees were shivering into gold and amber and the sky rolled with impressive blue grey clouds.
Access to the bouldering spots is ridiculously easy. Many of them are right by proper parking lots and ones that require walk-ins are typically still very easy to reach because of the flatness of the land and the very well maintained and marked walking and riding trails. We reached quite a number of places with a child sleeping in a pram.
The conveniently colour coded marking system means that even if you are having trouble reading the guidebook, you can just hop on something of around the right grade and off you go. The selection is simply enormous – hundreds of boulders and problems from crazy hard to child friendly. The rock is (pleasantly) surprisingly sticky and not at all sharp, although its rough texture can wear away a few layers of skin quite quickly. The top outs are famous for the slopers, which the sticky rock supposedly facilitates the climbing of. I didn’t necessarily find this to be the case.
However, I did (eventually and with a lot of very patient encouragement from a rather pregnant pink fairy) find that bouldering at Font could be a lot of fun. It is pretty cool figuring out an interesting sequence that you can look at and study with your feet firmly planted on the ground. It’s also quite nice to just focus on the problems that are interesting and right at your grade – no crawling yourself up 20 metres of boring/yucky/ too hard/too easy cliff before you get to the three awesome moves.
The best part of bouldering at Font though is, somewhat predictably, the picnicking. The person who doesn’t carry the pad gets saddled with the delicious french bread, the local cheeses, the salad box, perhaps a bit of sauccison and some fresh pressed pear juice – all vital accoutrements of a day’s climbing. When hunger strikes – BAM – picnic time! You don’t have to worry about rocks falling on your head or finding a flat spot to relax, no, you are in a beautiful and flat forest. All one has to do is decide which of the smooth grassy (or pine needle carpeted) spots, framed by story book trees, that one wishes to utilise and simply sit down and open the bag. Perfect.