As we pulled into the car park, things did not look very inspiring. It was cold, damp, the sky thick with heavy cloud threatening to release its cargo at any time. Even the café was closed up and looking grim. So it was without much hope that we picked up the mats and headed off towards Apremont. As we got deeper into the forest it began to glow, at first it looked as though the sun had suddenly arrived but no, the leaves of beech and oak were autumn yellow and the whole canopy was radiant, emitting a magical glow bathing everything in gold. The magic took over. No wonder the artists of 19th century Paris made the village of Barbizon their second home.
However most climbers don’t go to Fontainebleau (Font’ to those in the know) for the light. They go because it is the premier bouldering site in the world. Others may dispute this claim and talk about Rocklands in South Africa, Joshua Tree in the USA or Magic Wood in Switzerland, and to be sure I have no doubt they are all fine venues but there is something very special and vaguely prehistoric about Font. The boulders are sandstone with a hard skin, ranging in height from three metres to over ten; many of which have eroded into the most amazing shapes, as echoed by some of the sector names, such as Cul de Chein (shown opposite), Diplodocus and Eléphant.
As you walk amongst the trees and undergrowth the strong scent of wood, vegetation and earth transports you emotionally away from your everyday life and into the fairytale world of the forest. In the dappled sylvan light the organic shapes and textures of the boulders appear to move, breathing and rolling around the woodland like pre-Mesozoic creatures. Gathered into small groups, these families of boulders wait for visitors. With one side covered in moss and plants they can be invisible, until you take a few steps in the right direction and there they are, what are you waiting for? Smooth sheets of slab, a glacis like marble contrasts with the overhanging, rounded, tortured shape opposite, made from the skin of a dragon. One has your feet and rubber searching out for the slightest nick on which to balance, the other has your hands blindly searching and caressing the curves and dips in the beast’s scales to gain some, any, purchase - pure friction. The tens of thousands of problems on the thousands of boulders offer a lifetime’s worth of movement and problem solving. Whether your approach is to ‘crush’ and ‘send’ or to gracefully style your way up a problem, your body and mind will be involved in an intimate negotiation with the rock resulting in a satisfying, almost atavistic, connection with the landscape.
The above images show the wonderful texture of Fontainebleau sandstone.
Just as some problems can be out of sight in full view so can groups of people (sort of). As with any climbing area Font has its ‘honey pots’ which on a perfect Sunday will be very busy with locals (Bleausards), Brits, Germans, Americans, Swedes, just about any nationality. But even at the most popular areas you will be able to leave large groups behind by walking no more than a hundred metres or so, such as from Rocher du Potala (Centre) to Rocher du Potala (Nord). Bas Cuvier is arguably the most popular area in Font, but even here there are other less frequented sectors within a short walk of the small area where everyone seems to congregate. It is easy to find space for yourself at Font, but you may occasionally have to give it a little thought and walk just a little further but never very far. You might also soak up and lose yourself in the space of space if you arrive in the small hours and bivvy in the forest; on a clear night you will be rewarded with a glorious vaulted ceiling of stars, brushed by the swaying trees.
If you are thinking something along the lines of: ‘well I’m not too sure about bouldering, this pebble wrestling just isn’t for me, I like routes’. It is worth recalling that in the 1940s Parisian climbers began to establish colour coded circuits of problems in each area as a means of training for the Alps. Each colour represents a grade range and some circuits have over seventy problems. The circuits (marked by paint) continue to be maintained and established to this day. Completing a circuit can be quite a challenge even for the most experienced climbers, who will typically drop a couple of grades in order to ensure success on a full circuit. So, you may not be wearing a harness or using a rope and rack but you will do a great deal of climbing and I guarantee be pretty well worn out by it. Even if you had never thought that bouldering was for you, it is worth considering a trip to Font.
However, you might be looking for a trip that has more of a holiday feel, you don’t want to be cranking away every minute of every day. Or you may be seeking a bit of a beach vibe with some problems thrown in for good measure in which case areas like Cul du Chien and Rocher Fin are so sandy that you’ll wonder where the sea has gone, so take a towel and a picnic. And in that picnic there will be pastries, one cannot consider a Font trip without reference to pastries: croissants, pain aux raisins, pain aux chocolat, tarte tatin and far breton to name but a few. Where else in the world could you possibly justify eating cake for breakfast? Or using pastry as a reward for succeeding on a problem? And yet at Font this is all quite normal, a key part of the trip, even for someone like me that doesn't usually eat cakes.
Less than 40 miles south of Paris the forest covers an area of about 108² miles, there are approximately 200 bouldering areas with in excess of 10,000 problems. There is plenty for everyone, whether you are new to bouldering, looking for a family/climbing holiday or targeting the hardest problems. There are various guidebooks for Fontainebleau currently available in English providing plenty of information.
Finally, a word of caution. If you do not manage your days well your hands will be worn out before you are. Day one takes the dermis, day two starts work on the epidermis and if you do not take a care your hands will be very sore, very quickly. But now that you know all this, you won’t make the same mistakes as me. Will you?
Based in the Midlands, Ian Wyatt has been an active climber for over forty years. Writer and part time contract worker he enjoys all aspects of the climbing game: bouldering, sport, trad’, winter mountaineering, ice and Alpine climbing. He has also assisted in the production of two rock-climbing guides. Find out more about Ian on his website. The image above shows Ian bouldering at Franchard Cuisiniere.
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Various guidebooks are available describing the bouldering circuits to be found in Fontainebleau. Buy them from our shop.
Are you a budding travel writer?
Climb Europe are looking for exciting destination articles about various rock climbing areas around the world.
Earn money from your travels by sending your articles to Climb Europe. Contact Us directly.