Sometimes places live up to the hype and Fontainebleau is one of those. The thousands of boulders in the vast woods are legendary among rock climbers. Fontainebleau is regularly described as a magical place, with the purest, most engaging climbing. Now that I’ve been there for the first time, I agree how brilliant and fun bouldering at Font can be.
Fontainebleau is only about 50 to 60km south of Paris and so it’s a relatively straightforward big name destination for an English climber like me to get to. I’d not considered going before because I’m usually a trad climber, but having a baby has recently necessitated my wife and I rethinking our climbing. With bouldering looking like it might be the easier option for us when we have a baby to care for, and the club we are members of running a trip to Fontainebleau, we decided to head to this world centre of bouldering for our Easter break.
Although managing the logistics of climbing and a baby in a foreign country was a bit daunting, it was turned out to a good choice and we an great time. I learnt a few useful things about being a first timer boulderer in Fontainebleau.
Fontainebleau is beautiful
The stunning forest around Fontainebleau covers some 300km2. Woods of silver birch, pine, beech and oak are strewn with sandstone boulders that are warped and eroded into weird forms. In some places the sand of the forest floor is hidden under forest debris, in other places there are inland beaches just begging for a few deckchairs to relax in between climbs. Surrounding the woods is pretty farmland and attractive villages. Fontainebleau is so lovely that it’s enjoyable being there even if you don’t boulder.
Lots and lots of brilliant climbing
My trip made me realize what a vast amount of incredible bouldering exists in Fontainebleau. I’ve read that there are an estimated 30,000 problems in the woods and I could believe that was a conservative estimate. It’s just a massive playground for anyone, of any age, who likes scrambling up stuff.
I also learned that my ok trad climbing amounts to being a not particularly good boulderer at Fontainebleau. Fontainebleau bouldering can be really hard. I limited myself to the (relatively) easier yellow and orange circuits and was still severely challenged by some problems. There were a few oranges I gave up on, but there were also a few testing ones where, with a lot of thought and care, I could happily get to the top of the boulder.
This challenge is enough to make the problems interesting and testing without being frustrating. It helps that the there is a lot of variety in the problems, with an amazing variety of different holds (slopers, crimps, smearing, undercuts) and different climbing techniques required. This means that if I couldn’t do one problem, I could do the next one. Together with some nice, soft, sandy landings, these things make Fontainebleau a great place to climb.
Look for the signs
I had heard before I visited that finding your way around the woods, and then to the first boulder you want to climb, could be a bit of challenge. I learned that this is true to an extent. However, finding your way around is made much easier by the main footpaths having names (e.g Route des Gorges de Franchard), the footpath junctions having names (e.g. Carrefour de l’Emerillon) and these names being both on the map and on signs nailed to trees. In addition, the forest is divided into parcels, with each parcel having a number and these numbers also appearing on the map and on signs nailed to trees. This fantastic bit of organization means that finding the right area is a bit like navigating in a city, where you look for cross-streets and house numbers.
The problems at Fontainebleau aren’t considered done until you are standing on top of the boulder. I learned that this can be much easier said than done because the top of many boulders don’t have positive handholds and slope. Getting up them requires intelligent footwork, a gruff mantelshelf move or inelegant squirming on your belly. On one problem with a sit start, I got utterly and embarrassingly stuck just off the ground, with my hands on the top of the boulder and unable to push, step or wiggle up. After several, long, pathetic minutes, I gave up before I fell on my butt.
I learnt that getting back down safely from the top of a boulder can be a worrying (and slightly scary) experience. After being pleased with myself for getting up the bold number 11 orange problem at Massif Canard, I then had to nervously go down the steeply sloping side of the boulder, trying to get some grip on a polished, quartz-filled rock covered in pine needles. The final inelegant couple of steps involved hugging a tree for welcome support.
Have more than one guidebook
With so many problems at Fontainebleau, the guidebooks are simply selections of some of the best problems and circuits. Although there is overlap in content, there are also some circuits that will be covered in one book and not another. I learned that having two different guidebooks gives more insight into what is available and where to go. There’s a good review of the various guidebooks on offer on the Rock and Run website.
Mix it up a bit
I learned about the beautiful simplicity and fun of following the painted arrows and numbers that indicate the circuits of problems. It’s a giant game that it’s great to play with friends.
I also learned that finishing the game when circuits have 20 to 35 or so problems can be pretty difficult in one day. Doing what you can, and in the order that makes sense on the day, can sometimes be better than doing a circuit in order. I’ve also heard that, as most people don’t have the time to finish a circuit and start at 1 before moving through the numbers in sequence, that the problems at the end of a circuit get less traffic and so tend to be less polished. I don’t know if this is true, but I plan to find out. I’ll be going back to Font to put what I’ve learned to use.
My next post is going to be what my wife and I learned about bouldering at Fontainebleau when you are as a family from our experience of visiting with our teething seven-month old baby.
A good place for the first time visitor to start reading up on Fontainebleau bouldering is the useful, comprehensive article on the UK Climbing.
The next place to go is the Alpkit website for a very informative, in-depth blog post about the practicalities and experience of Fontainebleau bouldering. It’s particularly useful for the inexperienced boulderer as it provides general information about bouldering equipment and safety as well as how to improve climbing performance.
If that’s not enough, there’s a good article on the PlanetFear website on the practicalities on climbing at Fontainebleau if you are not a superstar climber (i.e. you’re normal). It includes recommendations for where to find enjoyable, easier circuits.
However, the encyclopedia of information on Fontainebleau bouldering is the bleau.info website. It combines news features and a forum with information on the different areas and circuits. In fact, there is almost too much information on here for the first time visitor to get their head around.
Lastly, for the personal perspective, there’s an enjoyable and informative post from The Climber’s Wife about her first trip to Fontainebleau.
UPDATE: I’ve written a post describing how my wife and I managed to go bouldering at Fontainebleau with our teething seven-month old son.
UPDATE: 24 April 2015 – I didn’t realise it at the time, but I injured my knee on this trip to Fontainebleau. I’ve written a post describing what happened and how I’ve started to reassess how I approach climbing as a result.
UPDATE: 23 May 2015 – I’ve been back to Fontainebleau, but in the wake of my knee surgery I took the bouldering pretty easy.
UPDATE: 22 April 2017 – I’ve had another trip to Fontainebleau for some more brilliant bouldering.
UPDATE: 19 May 2017 – Following on from my last Fontainebleau trip, I’ve written a post about bouldering at Fontainebleau with a toddler.
UPDATE: 28 October 2017 – Rock+Run have published a brilliant blog post describing how the circuits at Fontainebleau work and offering suggestions for the best sectors for different colour circuits. It’s well worth a read if you are heading out there for the first time.