Escalade dans le Foret du Fontainebleau

The Easter weekend saw a five man Boulders contingent cross the channel for a trip to the spiritual home of bouldering – Fontainebleau. Fontainebleau itself is a small French town, dominated in its centre by a 16th century chateau and surrounded by a huge forest, which was once the private hunting grounds of the French kings. Since mountaineers made it their training ground in the 19th century, however, Font has become a Mecca for climbers of all disciplines and levels of ability. Many make the trip to this dense forest just south of Paris every year to enjoy its graded, numbered and routemarked bouldering circuits- ranging from basic ‘don’t touch the ground’ fun circuits which anyone can enjoy to the ED+ circuits of the dedicated tops-off-beanies-on-for-power bouldering elite.

“One of the best things about Font is how easy it is to get to- From Cardiff it’s just a blast down the M4 and M20 to Dover, and then once you’re in France you can follow the E15 and then the A/N105 and you’re virtually there. If you’re without a car it’s do-able to fly or take a train to Paris and then another to one of the smaller stations around Font and walk to one of the climbing areas. All of the climbing areas have good car parks and non-existent walk ins, perfect for popping back to the car for smelly cheese baguette at lunch. There’s loads of campsites, gites and hotels to suit any budget but Camping Grez-sur-Loing is central and friendly, with a great bakery nearby and €1 beers in the fridge.” -Tym

Our trip was fleeting, only just making it to our ferry after work on Thursday evening to spend three short days bouldering, eating cheese and drinking wine before heading back to Blighty in time for work on the following Tuesday morning. some of our team were fairly well seasoned to the ‘Bleau, this being their sixth of seventh trip, but for others it was their first time experiencing the unique environment of Font. Clusters of huge sandstone boulders litter the forest, which grows out of golden sands which were once part of the sea bed. The boulders, although distinct in their appearance- smooth, rippled and pocketed- take many forms, from sharp featureless aretes to blank slabs and jug infested roofs. The climbing in Font is so varied that it really tests your skillset. Crimp pulling strongmen get shut down on sloper problems well within their grade, while those with never-used-before balance find themselves casually wandering up slabs in grades which never seemed attainable.

Istatis Bouldering

An unknown climber failing to latch the finish sloper

Our objectives for the trip were threefold: to put some kit (most notably the huge Snap Wrap bouldering pad) to the test, to meet up with Cardiff Uni Mountaineering Club for their annual ‘cocktail’ party and, of course, to do some bouldering. The first objective was met almost immediately, within minutes of arriving at our bivvi spot for the night (we didn’t reach Font until just gone 5am local time, so our options for campsites were limited) I was scrambling up headtorch illuminated problems like a kid at Christmas. After a couple of hours of pretty low quality sleep in a hastily assembled tent, slow and steady strongman Rich was seeing to the second goal by putting the Wrap through its paces on the aptly named Big Jim- a daunting 6c/+ in the secluded area of Petit Bois. The pad absorbed big falls like a hot crumpet absorbing butter, but that’s another story for another time.

“For someone who hadn’t been to Font before it was a very daunting prospect, especially when I was going with lots of hardcore boulderers. However, after trying a few easy problems on the first morning (with just 2 hours sleep in a hammock) and finding the rock to be super sticky, my confidence slowly grew. The enormous number of problems in the many different areas within the forest is enough to blow anyone’s mind, but I found the coloured circuits to be a great way of checking out what was on offer at certain grade ranges. My favourite problem had to be the highball bloc known as the Cheesegrater [Dalle à Poly/Le Gruyere] at Eléphant: juggy, slightly overhanging and very high” -Nathan

Our second day took us to the inland beach of Éléphant, an area named after the giant stone mammal that guards its entrance. We had our sights set on Le Gruyére, an 8 metre boulder which stands apart from the rest of the climbing in the area, both in location and scale. Although the diretissima up The Cheesegrater, as it’s affectionately known, is an easy climb of about Font 4+ knowing that the grade is well within your grasp isn’t so reassuring when you’re 8 metres up and all that’s below you is six inches of foam to break the fall. When your knuckles are turning white climbing jugs that high up, it really puts into perspective the mental strength of climbers like Alex Honnold who climb close to their limit thousands of feet above the ground. The rest of the day was spent exploring some of the circuits of Éléphant and laughing at the C.U.M.C. members who were enjoying a day of “brighter, tighter, lighter” Lycra. Some of the boys even wore tutus, and that is a sight that can’t be unseen.

That night played host to the annual C.U.M.C. cocktail party, a tradition which apparently spans almost 20 years of the club’s trips to Font. If ever there was a secret formula for getting new club members to bond and feel accepted, I’m certain it involves a camp fire, a stereo and a pic-n-mix selection of French spirits.

It's hard work, bouldering

Exhausted. Obviously from climbing so hard…

Our last full day dans la Forêt led us to the area of Franchard, a dense part of the forest and home to one of the most popular climbing venues, Istatis. For many of us, still recovering from the revelry of the night before it was a lazy day, enjoying the sunshine and the surroundings whilst dozing on the bouldering mats, interspersed with the occasional eye catching boulder problem. Tym and Rich had other ideas though, and turned their sights to the blank and featureless arête of L’Angle Bens. After hours of working the problem, it finally succumbed to Rich’s efforts in the middle of a powerful sandstorm, caused by the arrival of an emergency helicopter. Most of what we know about the accident is speculation and rumour, but we can be sure that someone took a nasty fall and was choppered away to the nearest A&E. Bouldering might seem safe on the face of it, but there’s plenty of scope for serious injury.

Rich climbing L'angle Bens

Rich in full Eye-Of-The-Tiger mode on L’angle Bens

“After some epic partying on Saturday night, Sunday was always destined to be a slow starter. We finally pulled in to Istatis at about 3pm, and I was keen to get going. Istatis has to be one of my favourite areas, and after warming up on some of the classic red circuit I felt ready to try harder. The problem I had in mind was L’angle Bens, a beautiful 7a+ arete which typifies everything that’s great about font; rubbish feet, full body tension and the neccesity for good technique. When I arrived Tym and a few CUMC students were already locked in battle and I quickly reminded myself of the moves. After a tonne of attempts and a reworked sequence, skin and daylight were becoming a bit of a concern, but everyone had come over to give me encouragement. Attention was then suddenly distracted by a rescue helicopter that had come to airlift a climber who’d fallen badly and couldn’t walk out. The crazy updraft swirled the sand and dust of the forest floor and it felt like being in a storm at 8000m. These bizzare conditions bought a strange kind of focus and with the helicopter circling low over our heads I latched the final hold and topped out, but was nearly blown straight off again! The injured party was safley lifted away and calm returned to the forest once more. As we walked back to the truck I was left to ponder on what was one of the most surreal and memorable bouldering experiences I’ve had.” -Rich

We awoke early on Monday morning to the sound of rain falling on tarps, and packed the truck ready to leave. We had planned to climb into the early afternoon before the long drive home, but rain stopped play. We made it back to Cardiff in the rain almost twelve hours after leaving our field in France, owing to several wrong turns on the Paris ringroad and the storm we awoke in seemingly following us home. It was a fleeting trip, but any trip to Le Forêt is worthwhile.

“Waking up at 3am in a hammock while it’s raining on your face is not fun.” -Ben

If you’re thinking of a trip to Font, you can’t go far wrong with the simple but effective Fontaiebleau Climbs guidebook, which features over 3000 problems.