An Easter break to the woods of Fontainebleau to climb on its famous sandstone boulders was our first real test as rock climbing parents. We had been taking our baby son, Leo, to the climbing wall on a regular basis and to some artificial boulders not far from where we live in London. He’d enjoyed the trips and we had managed to get a good amount of climbing done. But several days of outdoors climbing in a foreign country, with a teething seven-month old baby, felt like more of a challenge. By the end of the trip we had enjoyed some great climbing, been tested as parents and learnt a lot about taking a baby climbing at Fontainebleau.
Fontainebleau is a great place for children. Huge woods, full of boulders and with inland beaches make Fontainebleau a dream for running about, playing games, scrambling and making dens. I saw lots of families climbing and picnicking with kids of all ages clearly having a blast just messing about and bouldering. Although the bouldering tends to be on the hard side, with a massive range of boulders there will be something a child can scramble up. There are also several areas with flat, sandy landings. In addition, Fontainebleau has 20 dedicated bouldering circuits for children that are specifically designed for complete beginners. Fontainebleau Climbs; the finest bouldering and circuits by Jo and Francoise Montchausse and Jacky Godoffe includes a map of the locations of these children’s circuits (see page 197 of the 2012 edition). This great little guidebook says of these circuits:
“Perhaps more than anywhere else in the forest, the white trails have been methodically thought out, often by experienced educationalists. Essentially, the main stumbling block is the distance between the holds which nature has dispersed in a somewhat random manner. To progress to a higher grade … could prove to be a problem, as when the circuits were created, it never occurred to anyone that children might really get into bouldering. As a result, they will have to wait a while, and grow a little, to make the most of the joys of climbing at Fontainebleau.”
Montchausse, J., Montchausse, F. and Godoffe, J. (2012) Fontainebleau Climbs; the finest bouldering and circuits, London: Baton Wicks.
Going to Fontainebleau with children big enough to run around and do some bouldering must be fantastic. I’m looking forward to introducing Leo to bouldering there when he is old enough. However, going to Fontainebleau with a baby, as we did, is a different undertaking and bouldering while keeping our son safe and content was difficult.
Valerie and I took turns looking after Leo while the other climbed. This worked well, but meant that we couldn’t spot one another. Climbing as part of a wider group worked really well as we could rely on friends to act as spotters. However, when we were apart from the group, we had to take the risk of bouldering without a spotter and just hope that we didn’t have a bad fall.
We also found that it was better if Valerie climbed more in the morning. This was because Leo was more rested and in better mood. By the afternoon, he was tired and wanted to snuggle with his mum. My best attempts to take care of Leo in the afternoon usually resulted in a screaming, inconsolable baby and we found it was better if I left and got some climbing in.
One of the brilliant things about Fontainebleau is how accessible the bouldering can be. Some areas we went to were a 10-20 minute walk in, while one had us parking our car almost next to the starting boulder for the orange circuit. Plus the broad, level tracks that run through the forest allow parents to use buggies to transport their kids (and the luggage that’s necessary for taking care of them) to where they want to climb. This buggy accessibility is limited once off the track and among the boulders. The terrain is far from terrible, but it can be uneven, rocky, sloping and/or have undergrowth (it is a wood after all), while some of the boulders can be too close together to fit a buggy through. In addition, parts of the woods are particularly sandy. I saw one dad struggling to drag a buggy behind him through the deep, wide sands of Le Cul de Chien while the mum carried a toddler in her arms.
Valerie and I didn’t have any of these sorts of problems with terrain as Valerie carried Leo in a wrap. This allowed her to walk through gaps between boulders and have both hands free.
The sandy base of the woods of Fontainebleau means that it’s a bit like having a picnic at the beach, with added wood chips and leaf litter. This meant that a picnic blanket was really useful. It was a place to put Leo down where he was less likely to grab bits of twig and put them in his mouth as well as a somewhere to have lunch. The one downside was that we would have to move the blanket every time we completed the problems in the immediate vicinity and needed to move to the next boulders in the circuit.
At seven months, Leo was being introduced to solids as part of the weaning process while still drinking quite a bit of milk. The milk was certainly the easy bit! As we were staying in a hotel, we didn’t have any means of cooking or refrigerating and so had to rely on commercially produced baby food. Leo definitely didn’t like this in comparison to the homemade delicacies he usually gets and we had difficulty interesting him in eating at times. Thankfully, we discovered that Leo likes French baguettes and he would happily sit there mulching a bit while we ate our sandwiches.
Lots of zip-lock bags were also a big help as they allowed us to keep separate things that were wet or dry, dirty or clean.
One of the biggest challenges in taking a baby climbing was finding ways to allow him to get the sleep he needed to stay happy and content. We don’t seem to be the only climbing parents who have this problem and Crag Mama has written a useful article for brand new parents providing tips for how to make sure a baby going on a climbing trip gets enough opportunities for naps.
Valerie found that the picnic blanket worked well as somewhere to curl up with Leo for a nap. However, wrapping Leo was better for making him feel secure and allowed him to sleep while Valerie watched the climbing.
On one day we drove back to our hotel in the middle of the afternoon so Leo could nap in bed. I then drove back to the woods to try bouldering a bit more. He certainly got a better quality of rest, but most people had finished their climbing for the day and were leaving by the time I got back to the boulders. This made for a quiet evening of bouldering, but it wasn’t the same without the two of them.
The woods and car parks of Fontainebleau don’t seem to have public toilets. Any boulderers with a baby need to pack in and pack out all used nappies, wipes, etc. and so taking a few rubbish bags with you can be a very good idea. We used old supermarket bags and clipped them to the outside of our rucksacks to cut down on bad smells building up in sunbaked bags.
We also found that a bouldering pad is pretty good as a changing station if you lay something over it to stop the pad (and the baby) getting dirty. We used Valerie’s wrap as a sheet, but we could equally have used a disposable changing mat.
Leo’s second tooth was busy cutting its way through his gum during our trip and he cried and fussed a lot as a result. All we could do was to give him as much Calpol as was safe to do so, hug him lots and try to distract him with whatever we could find. As Leo’s mouth hurt so much, all he really wanted was to comfort feed, especially later in the day. As he cried, all his mummy’s instincts were to go to him and give him a hug, which distracted her from climbing. To give Valerie the peace and quiet to focus on bouldering sometimes required me to take a crying Leo off for short walks involving big hugs and showing him interesting trees and rocks.
I felt awkward and a little embarrassed for disturbing other people’s climbing with the sound of my howling baby. I therefore tried to steer clear of other climbers when walking him. I’m sure that there are plenty of people, particularly non-parents, who don’t know what it’s like to try to comfort a teething baby. Some of them may have quietly cursed me for bringing a baby out to the place they were bouldering and questioned my parenting competence for not being able to instantly sooth my child.
I feel slightly conflicted in these sorts of situations. I want to be considerate of others and so not disturb them, however, I also feel that those who I may annoy cannot be showing me consideration because my family and I have just as much right to boulder as them, and babies, by their nature, cry sometimes. I should note however that neither my wife or I received any negative comments or looks (that we were aware of) from other climbers, and those also in family groups would give knowing smiles and say “that sounds like a teething baby” and chat about their own experiences.
We had decided against staying in one of the campsites around Fontainebleau because Leo was a bit young and we weren’t quite sure what we would get. Gites and B&Bs were either booked, not suitable or not willing to take us just for the Easter holiday. This is why we settled on staying in a hotel.
The hotel we stayed in was perfect. The attractive Hotel de l’Ecu de France in Malesherbes was a family-run place with a bistro and a good restaurant plus some fish and a parrot that Leo enjoyed looking at. The room was big, well equipped and, thankfully, positioned so that any noise wouldn’t disturb other guests. There was also an en suite bathroom and the huge bed was very comfy. The staff were also helpful and forgiving of my very bad French. It was a quiet place to let us all relax. The big disadvantage was having nowhere to prepare and store food. This meant we had to make daily bakery and supermarket trips.
We really like Malesherbes. It is a quiet, small town and didn’t seem to attract many boulderers, despite there being climbing a few minutes down the road at Buthiers. It has a couple of patisseries, a butchers and a supermarket on the edge of town. There are a few pizza places and these were useful for takeaways when we felt that eating in our hotel room would be easier than managing a tired out baby in a restaurant. We also went to the Indian restaurant Le Rajasthan (74, Rue de la Republique) whose lovely, chatty owner had once been a receptionist in a hotel in Abergavenny. He helpfully plied us with drinks while we waited for our takeaway order and put on a laser light show to keep Leo entertained.
Climbing is obviously a hazardous activity and I’m very conscious whenever I take Leo to any climbing location about the need to keep him safe. I keep him away from where a climber or rocks may fall on him as well as away from places where he might fall. Before going to Fontainebleau I also got mildly concerned by the following paragraph from Fontainebleau Magique by David Atchison-Jones (Jingo Wobbly Toto-Guides, 2009, pg. 11).
“The biggest danger to climbers are hornets (Frelons), which often nest in holes that are just bigger than your hand, and look inviting when you running out of strength…It is well known that poisonous viper snakes inhabit most parts of the forest, but they are usually deep in the undergrowth…Wild boar live in the forest, but are usually scared off by the thwack of the crash pad onto the ground…The forest is full of wild mushrooms, but you need to know your stuff since some are lethal.”
As a parent it is now my right to get overly worried about hazards my child might face. Coming from an island with unusually few hazardous, wild creatures and plants, I might also feel particularly perturbed by the presence of things that it is not uncommon to find in woods all over the world. I didn’t see any of these things on my trip to Fontainebleau, but I could just have been lucky. I only mention these hazards so any parent reading this is aware as this allows them to make choices. Climbing is all about managing risk and these hazards are just further ones to manage.
My family and I found Fontainebleau to be brilliant and it’s somewhere we hope to go back to again. One day I want to be introducing Leo to those white circuits.
I’ve come across a couple of interesting articles in which people talk about their experiences of going climbing outdoors with babies. Crag Mama has written about this topic for Outside magazine and there is a post on the Rock Climber’s Training Manual blog.
UPDATE: 2 July 2015; Valerie, Leo and I have been back to Fontainebleau and learned a few things about going bouldering at Fontainebleau with a toddler.