Bouldering in Fontainebleau for the first time
We started bouldering over a year ago and heard about Fontainebleau Forest almost immediately. Fontainebleau is close to France’s capital city and is home to thousands of boulders scattered throughout miles of forest. It’s known as a Mecca for boulderers and is the birth place of the Font scale, which is a very popular grading scale in Europe. Grading scales are used to identify the difficulty of the boulder problem based on the type and amount of holds, the gradient of the boulder and the surface of the rock. Grades 3-4 are considered very easy, grades 5a, 5b and 5c are beginners, then 6a, 6b and 6c are intermediate, and anything higher than this would be considered difficult or expert. You can read more about bouldering grades here.
Although still beginners, we started planning a trip to Fontainebleau as we were curious to see what the hype was about and thought this would be a good way to focus our training. Lots of the guide books talk about circuits that have been created, so climbers can pick a selection of routes at their bouldering level and can follow these into the forest. These circuits are meant to be a fun way to explore and experience a variety of problems within a walkable distance. We bought a couple of guide books, including Fontainebleau Fun Bloc and tried to find an area of forest where the boulders had fairly good landings and a variety of easy grades. The Bas-Cuvier area was close to our campsite and had hundreds of problems very close to the car park, so looked like a good place to start.
The main advice we were given before heading to Font was to climb easier grades than we were used to. The rocks have been climbed so many times that the holds have become polished and slippery. We figured we’d start with an easy grade 3 to warm up, then follow a circuit with a selection of 4’s, 5a’s and 5b’s. Arriving at the car park, we excitedly grabbed our gear and snacks and started trying to orientate ourselves. Working out which boulder we were looking at was our first challenge. The topo maps in the book don’t quite get the scale across and there are extra rocks and boulders in the forest that aren’t drawn on the maps at all. The photos were helpful though and we eventually found the first boulder. The second challenge was finding a boulder we could actually climb; the ‘easy’ grade 3 was so slippery that I couldn’t make the first move! Chris got a little further, but the mantle was too slippery to top, so we eventually moved on. We spent ages trying different boulders and hunting down easy grades until we finally decided that following the circuit wasn’t working out for us.
Feeling defeated and saddened by our terrible climbing skills, we were ready to give up altogether and head back to the campsite. Being as stubborn as we are though, we decided to pack the book away and stop thinking about the grades. This was the best decision we could have made because it took all the pressure off and allowed us to have fun. We found a couple of routes we could climb and spent another couple of hours bouldering. As we were resting we met an American couple who had been in Fontainebleau for a couple of days already. They said they had found a grade 2 route in the Bas-Cuvier area that neither of them could climb, but then had both successfully climbed a grade 5c in another part of the forest. We decided that our second day should be spent elsewhere so we could compare sites. Unfortunately the following day greeted us with thunderstorms and heavy rain all morning, so there was no chance of climbing again. We vowed to return in the future though, so in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back”.
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