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Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

Wild Walls | Why Fontainebleau Is The Ultimate Proving Ground For Your Bouldering Skills

Font in France is an amazing naturally-occurring outdoor climbing gym

Words & photos by Mike Brindley

If you’ve ever sat and watched a tame animal, chances are you’ve noticed it. The little moments when its true nature shines through, and you see it for the wild beast it once was. Unyielding to the will of humans, beautifully in harmony with its environment, and potentially a little bit treacherous if crossed…

Come back from a trip to one of the world’s most popular bouldering destinations, and you may well have the same sorts of feelings about regular bouldering in a gym. You can see a glint of that wildness in the activity indoors, but surrounded by bricks and mortar it’s not quite on the same level.

Still, however different natural rock is to the man-made equivalent – carved from plastic and wood at an indoor climbing centre, the latter is a great training arena for the former. And if you’re into bouldering, be thankful, because just across the Channel lies an absolute mecca of a testing ground. Hundreds of naturally-occurring boulders scattered liberally through a forest just an hour or two south of Paris. It’s like seeing an indoor centre reimagined in its natural habitat, and they call it Fontainebleau…

 

Now chances are you’ve seen or heard of Fontainebleau (‘Font’ to the Brits, or ‘Bleau’ to the French) if you’ve been doing the climbing thing for a while. Posters litter the noticeboards of bouldering centres up and down the country advertising trips. Conversations about people’s Font ‘projects’ are hard to miss as people return home with a route they couldn’t quite get, and plan to go back to work on more (AKA – a project). It’s probably the worst kept secret in the bouldering world…

“Talking about your indoor exploits to a recent Font visitor is a little bit like describing a small petting zoo to someone who’s just come back from a wildlife safari…”

Then again, it’s the cornerstone against which other bouldering routes and grades are checked, prompting childish jabs like ‘sure he can climb V6 indoors, but look at him struggling on that Font 6A [equivalent to an easier V3]’. Anecdotally talking about your indoor exploits to a recent Font visitor is a little bit like describing a small petting zoo at the county fair to someone who’s just come back from a wildlife safari, however much you enjoyed it, it’ll always feel a little bit inferior.

And Font reverence hasn’t come about without good reason. Whether you want to rub it in people’s faces or not, bouldering in Font is a much gnarlier, wilder experience than the one found within the well protected walls of a climbing gym. As with slightly less expansive but equally revered Yorkshire gritstone, it’s a learning experience in itself, but thanks to the simplicity of the discipline, all of it can be easily accessed by almost anyone, and if you haven’t already been convinced to venture out into the forest, here’s a whole heap of reasons to get out there ASAP.

To climb at Fontainebleau you will need: climbing shoes, chalk (and a brush), bouldering mats, and a Guide Book. Here’s a little bit of advice as to what to expect…

Holds

Any given route at Font will more than likely challenge you to redefine what you think of as a climbing hold… If you’re only used to well highlighted, colourful indoor plastic routes, this effect will be multiplied tenfold. But bear with it.

In its natural habitat, even on reasonable grades, a ‘foothold’ can be little more than a tiny ledge, or a small dimple. While you might associate this with routes well beyond your ability indoors, all this means at Font is that you’re being asked to trust your footwork and technique. Take your time figuring those out, re-approach, breathe deeply, be precise and chances are it will hold, regardless of what your brain is telling you.

The same often goes for your hands, which are frequently expected to cling onto slopers [see pic above] (curved banks of rock with no ‘lip’ at the top), smoothed over by the weathering of the rock with light ripples that help you find some friction. Slopers should be familiar to most, but at Font the exception comes in the fact that you’ll often find them at the top of a boulder as a means of ‘topping out’ (climbing onto the flat top of the boulder to finish the route). If you’re used to finding a comforting jug [link, definition] placed on a manmade route to tell you that you’re finished this can be unnerving, but again they’re more solid than you think – you’ll be surprised what you can hold on to when your adrenaline’s going at a million miles a minute.

‘Crimps’ (flat narrow ledges for your fingers) [see pic above], and ‘pinches’ (ridges or blocks that you pinch with your fingers and thumb) can carry the same qualities as foot holds. They may not seem to be physically possible to cling on to at first, but take time for your body to get used to the movement, give it a good brushing [see pic below], and get back at it – if the route’s in the guide book, somebody’s made it to the top…

And as a final note on Font Holds, you may notice the occasional familiar feature from your gym back home. Don’t be surprised. As the Holy of Holies, Font is often given a tip of the cap by hold makers. Note ‘the Heart’ [see pics below] from its namesake route in the image below, alongside its plastic cousin. One guess as to which is easier to hold on to?


Picking Your Line

As is often the way with outdoor activities, additional freedoms are available at Font – not least when it comes to picking your line.

Picking and mapping your movements up a Font problem is not always as straightforward as seeing each foothold and handhold and working out which body positions will work best. Your own personal way of getting up a route (also known as ‘beta’) could well be vastly different to someone else’s. Make the most of the fact that, while the guide book defines some conditions for route completion (occasionally along the lines of ‘don’t use the most obvious holds’, ‘if it’s easy it’s probably not allowed’, ‘use your chin to grip here’ etc.) there’s nothing to say that the way your friend climbed it is the best way for you too.

You may well notice that climbing buddies of a similar height and arm-span take the same approach to scrambling upwards, but there’s nothing to say that you can’t get a bit creative. If you want to heel hook through your arms and around your head, go for it (maybe make sure your spotter is on hand first), and let nature’s rocky canvas be your playground.

Projecting

Don’t forgot when you arrive in Font that you have time and space now on your side – learn the art of the ‘project’, and your sense of accomplishment will go through the roof with each accomplished climb…

Unless you’re planning a fly-by visit, or going at really peak times, one of the best bits about a Font trip is that you’ve got more dedicated hours to focus on one thing. Chances are once you’ve put your mats down at a chosen spot, you’ll be sticking around for a while, and although classic routes can tend to draw a few numbers on a sunny day, even those are nothing compared with the after work crowd at your local indoor centre.

Uncannily, Font problems do tend to get easier with more attempts (up to a point, of course). As your body figures out how you need to move, and memorises the manoeuvres a bit more, things do actually become more automatic and routes are less intimidating than they might have seemed at first.

It’s definitely worth remembering that, erosion and human idiocy aside, these routes should be here for a good long while – unlike gym set-ups that can rotate so frequently that you miss your chance to get them before they change. Pick your projects and work at them rather than running on to the next route right away. Almost everything at Font is difficult at first – embrace your inner hippy, hang around and become one with your nemesis. If you don’t get it, that’s all the more reason to come back in the future…

Weather & Alternative Activities

What should have been a footnote for our Font trip this year turned out to be more of a feature than intended – while sunny skies had blessed those of us who had been in 2015 for the entirety of the visit, almost half of our May 2016 week was plagued by showers.

Don’t worry though, if anything this actually added to the experience.

Every dry day was extra glorious when the sun finally broke through and dried off the rock, and any successful projects we’d been eyeing up felt extra satisfying for it. Even half-dry or drying days offered a few opportunities, and to be honest, some well-needed rest. Plus additional kudos was up for grabs for anything climbed in less than ideal conditions.

Make (even half) a route while it’s still slightly damp, and the hype is real. Just don’t get too carried away – it’s not always quite as glamorous as it sounds – especially if you hit your shins on slippy sandstone in the process.

If you’re going in summer months and the forecast shows a cloud or two, pack a lightweight waterproof, and see if any of these rainy day options don’t tickle your fancy:

Painting, drawing, climbing under sheltered spots, scouting spots, sleeping, sleeping under sheltered spots, Lego, playing the cereal the box game, stretching, drying out, playing the Chrome offline dinosaur game on your phone, kicking a drinks bottle off an increasingly high stack of books, puzzling at why prostitutes choose to hang out by the roadside in the forest, or looking up beta on YouTube for your latest project.

Exploring

While Font is pretty well documented at this point, and most established routes are covered in chalk. There’s no doubt that you still get that feeling of exploration on your visit.

Although a fair few main roads run through the forest itself, once you step beyond the carpark and the marked paths, you can easily end up feeling a little bit more immersed in nature’s bouldering cornucopia than you might have expected.

With maze-like sections thick with 20ft tall boulders on some sites, there’s a slightly disorientating aspect to areas of Font that, without properly wandering into horror film territory, can definitely add a wilder element.

 

Go on a quieter day, and you feel that at any moment you could turn around the corner of a rocky wall and stumble upon some idyllic clearing, or, perhaps less desirably, a signpost marking the questionably named ‘Bleau Job Square’ 

 

Even well known routes can take some finding, and despite incredible numbers, the guide books denoting 7000+ routes (from grades 1a-8c) over 48+ areas, are not even fully comprehensive. We spent a good few hours hearing half whispers about the location of one particular area not in our guide book – hunting it down for the promise of some excellent projects, but to no avail. Just make sure you leave your own trail of mental breadcrumbs back to the carpark – we managed to temporarily lose each other a few times in the forest, and it’s surprising how quickly you can end up out of earshot.

On the flip side – you can do your exploring on a much smaller scale. In fact, even when you think you’ve ticked off everything that’s possible for you on any given boulder, chances are there’s an alternative route, or an undocumented variation for you to try. Taking the size of holds into account, some of the climbable routes are only knowable by the fact that they already have chalk and a description in the guide, so pretty much anything is fair game for a try. 

No doubt it’s been said many times before, but if you had nowhere else to climb, and a whole lifetime ahead of you, chances are the boulders at Bleau could keep you entertained longer than almost anywhere on earth. Heck even on a half-rainy week, it’s worth noting that it’s one of the most spectacularly wild natural phenomenon you’ll see. Spanning sandpits full of massive stones and leafy groves, with a different character at each site, you simply couldn’t recreate the landscape or the climbing with manpower alone – and as long as Font stays standing, thankfully, you won’t need to either.

Whether you’ve been putting off a trip ‘til your climbing improves, or you’ve simply never thought of bouldering abroad, it can’t be understated that this remains one of the essentials for climbers everywhere – and chances are as soon as you come back home, you’ll be looking ahead to when you can return to the wilderness of Font once more.

@jakesleepsnclimbs on Tire-Bouchon (7a+) at #fontainebleau #climbing #climbing_pictures_of_instagram

A video posted by Mike Brindley (@mikebrindley) on

To read the rest of the June ‘Wild’ Issue head here

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