This year, we decided to go to Fontainebleau. For those unsure of what or where that is, it’s a town just south of Paris, home to a beautiful chateau and surrounded by miles and miles of oak and pine forest. And it is what lies between those trees that makes Fontainebleau a place of pilgrimage for boulderers across the globe. Hidden in the forest are thousands and thousands of sandstone blocks, with an almost unlimited number of virtually perfect problems.
For most of us, our journey started late Friday night. After packing the van full of clothes, chalk bags and more bouldering pads than people, we set off on the first stretch of our journey. The Liverpool to Dover leg was surprising smooth, but unfortunately, however awesome your van is (and ours was bright red – thanks Arnold Clarke!), sleeping upright in one turns out to be impossible and we boarded the ferry in varying states of consciousness. Luckily, brisk sea air is a perfect cure for tiredness, and whilst on deck we were treated to a mesmerising view of the sun rising over the Channel. The Calais to France journey was equally as smoothly and we arrived at our campsite midday Saturday, ready for some French cheese and a glass (or three) of French wine.
On Sunday, full of brie and baguettes, we went to our first area, shown around by some friendly Germans that we met at our campsite. For the first few days, we aimed for plenty of mileage to get us used to the Font style of climbing. We soon discovered that the climbing is simply like nowhere else in the world. While there are lots of classic steep problems there, Font is really known for its slabs. Most of them have barely any positive holds, awful feet and the top outs often involve flopping over the top in a particularly dignified manner often described as ‘whaling’. It also doesn’t help that all the classic problems are completely polished – to the point where it often feels like you are standing on glass. Despite them being literally terrifying at the top, most of them only get a grade around the 4+ range (comparable to a green at The Hangar). Thoroughly depressing. You soon start to realise that grades in Font don’t really matter, though. The quality of the problems across the grades is amazing: the easy problems are just as much fun as the harder ones. It’s also pretty beautiful. Although it doesn’t have quite the same dramatic effect as the jaw dropping mountain vistas of the Alps or even Snowdonia, Font has a charm all of its own. Sandy clearings give way to shady forests and some of the boulders are just incredible. There is a boulder that resembles a dog in one area, and in another is a boulder that looks exactly like an elephant – trunk and all! We were definitely looking forward to a week exploring this place and all it had to offer.
Even though the sky often threatened rain, for the first few days the sun shone and we spent the time cruising up the fantastic problems of Appremont, Cul de Chien and l’Elephant. The problem with Font is that it’s just so tempting, and so, so addictive. We all told ourselves that we would take it easy the first few days so that we had enough energy to last us the week. That went out of the window almost immediately. At various points in the trip, we all found a problem that we spent far too long trying, and usually, these climbs depleted our energy and took all the skin from our fingertips. Bleeding or pink tips slowly became the curse of the group and each night we could be found sitting around our campfire, rubbing climbing balm into our sore fingers. Organised rest days were also something we failed to make happen. As we worked our way through the areas – visiting Gorge Aux Chats and 95.2 – we took it in turns with our rests, alternating climbing with slacklining or, in Will’s case, reading books on the history of engineering. And of course, the trip isn’t made up of just climbing. We spent time exploring the gardens surrounding the chateau in Fontainebleau town, we got lost in the fields surrounding the forest (we blame Joel’s Satnav), we spent LOTS of time in the local Carrefour supermarket buying food and every morning we walked to the patisserie in the village for baguettes and croissants. There was one glorious morning where we all went to what I think must be the best patisserie on the planet, in Milly La Foret. They were so good, it’s wrecked all other pastries for me.
In the second half of the week, once we’d worked out our routine and figured out the style of climbing, things got a little more serious. Projects were chosen and try hard faces were put on. Sometimes we succeeded, sometimes we didn’t. It didn’t really matter – we were having fun. However, on Friday, our comfortable, laid back routine was shattered. The day started like all the others; a walk to the patisserie, the drive to the boulders, some laid back warming up. Almost all of us had a go at the Font super classic La Marie Rose; possibly the first 6a boulder problem in the world, and certainly the first in the forest. After that, I decided to drag everyone to a boulder that I’d had my eye on from before the start of the trip. Duroxmanie (6c) is a classic shield of rock with good crimps, big moves and a slopey Font top out. It was the only problem I had on my ticklist for Font. I’d been waiting all week.
Our bad luck started when Catherine failed to listened to 7 of her bleeding fingers and kept climbing. As she slipped off the top of a boulder, her ankle went through a gap in the pads and hit the floor. Our first injury. Meanwhile, on my project, one move was starting to shut me down. I’d fallen on the same move at least half a dozen times, but the next attempt was one attempt too many. I fell, landed on the edge of a pad, rolled my ankle and ended up with a fat foot. Injury number two. With two of us now unable to climb for at least the rest of the day, most of the group were starting to finish up. Not Joel. Half way up a tricky highball slab (in the guidebook it was marked with a skull and crossbones – very encouraging), he decided that maybe this was a stupid idea and jumped down on to the pads below him. Despite all of us doing this all week, Joel’s ankle decided it didn’t like that. Injury number three. The medic, the first aider and the driver. Could you believe it?
It was at this point that we decided hospital might be a sensible option, as Catherine and I could barely walk and Joel’s ankle was probably about the size of his head. Once we arrived at the hospital, the nurses guessed we were injured due to climbing (no French required), and we were all sent for X-Rays. It turns out going to French hospital is a pretty grim experience, especially when you’re there for four hours. The diagnosis was as good as we could have hoped for, though, as we had no broken ankles, just bad sprains and Joel was given the green light for driving home.
Before we knew it, it was our last day! We were joined by Chrissy’s campervan full of sport climbers and despite the drizzling rain, we returned to one of our favourite areas, L’Elephant, so that the majority of us could climb well into the evening. After a successful day climbing, we headed into town to find somewhere to eat, and spent the night in a pizza restaurant enjoying our last night in France. Our journey back to England felt slow and uncomfortable, but it was made infinitely better by a stop at Andy’s house where we were treated to a cooked breakfast and jugs of tea. Thank you Ovenses!
Font was such an amazing trip. There were so many highlights for me. Watching Andy smash his traverse project in his infamous gold hot pants was not one of those. Good work on your climbing, Andy, but now I’m mentally scarred. The communal crushing, however, was easily the best part of the trip. The level of the ability was completely mixed, but everyone climbed so well and as a group, we all pulled each other on. For me, watching my friends finish climbs that they were working on was just as good as any personal achievement. And similarly to the week itself, highlights weren’t just climbing. Casual conversation around the campfire, picnicking at the crag and getting piggy-backed from the hospital all make my list, and I could keep listing things for pages. There are so many little things that made the trip so memorable.
I made so many good friends this trip. Thank you for such an amazing trip everyone – same again next year?
Tess (Bouldering Secretary)