Fontainebleau Bouldering, Franceby Stow Kelner and Kevin Avery Feb/2009
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Fontainebleau,often referred to as Font by English speaking climbers and Bleau (pronounced "blow," not "bluh") by French speakers - is a hilly forest full of sandstone boulders about 50km south of Paris and close to the town of Fontainebleau with its famous chateau. It has been used as a bouldering area since the 1870s and has almost continuously remained at the centre of the world bouldering scene since the 1930s.
Possibly as it is quite unique for one area to exhibit so many desirable characteristics: a large number of classic problems at all grades - including classic moderates, largely excellent soft and sandy landings, a positive and active local scene, historical interest (possibly the first or at least very early ascents of the first 4, 5, 6 and 7s in the world,) a strange and surreally beautiful locale, much potential for development and finally, the subtle nature of the problems, requiring footwork, body position and general trickery, often making success as much a mental as a physical workout and as a result it is supremely satisfying. Oh... and highly addictive.
Yes. Prepare to learn how to climb all over again. Try to forget about the grade and understand what the problem requires and enjoying solving the puzzle and maybe learning something. Those who know my grade-grubbing nature will think this is a bit rich coming from me. Hey, it's still good advice. It's true many climbers avoid Font because their ego (or perhaps their sponsors) can't take them falling off a 5. As Steven Gough says, 7b+ sport climbers can fail on a 5+ quite easily. I saw Phillippe Le Denmat (one of the greatest slab climbers ever) fall off a 4c slab at 95.2 last November with my own eyes. I heard about Jo Montchaussee falling on a 4 last summer on a photo shoot for a Font guide at Roche aux Sabots that he didn't have wired!
Slopers and mantles. And dips. There's a lot of pressing and squeezing. Check out the musculature on many top Font climbers. They are generally beefy and gymnastic, not starving waif. Some will disagree but I think strong legs are helpful as well as strong adductors and heel-hook muscles. There are times on slabs when you just basically want to do a one leg squat. If there are slabs on your ticklist you may also want to super-glue your fingernails to your fingers too.
What is the rating system and how does it compare to other places?
The Fontainebleau rating system is a very unique and precise rating system. It has more theoretical grade steps than other systems and is popular among harder climbers worldwide - presumably because everyone will come to Mecca at least once in their life. It also solves the controversial 7b+ anomaly in the V system namely that 7b+ is a gateway grade to the harder problems but doesn't really map onto the V system without adding a separate artificial V8+ grade. The Font system also theoretically works well for moderate climbers because it goes down to 2a. In reality though, one would be hard pressed to tell the difference between say a 3a and 3b.
Confusingly, it uses the same symbols as the French sport system but is roughly 3 or so grades harder. i.e. as a VERY ROUGH guide, if you can redpoint 7b+ you should be working Font 7a's. This 3 grade differential narrows at the top end (i.e. if you climb sport 8b you should be doing Font 8a's) and widens at the lower end (if you are doing sport 6c+ you should be able to do Font 6a). This differential is borne out statistically in the 8a.nu database.
If you are used to the V system you can think of it kind of like the V system but with pluses. Everyone argues about the precise match up but roughly V3 is 6a/6a+, V4 6b/6b+, V5 6c/6c+, V6 7a, V7 7a+. V8 7b [V8+ 7b+] V9 7c, V10 7c+ and V11 8a. For more on V grades and how they link up to Font see the Rockfax website.
Why is it all chipped?
The dirty secret of Font. Many, many problems have been chipped, and it was very common before the 80s but completely banned now. Two years ago, a sad deranged climber chipped off some of the starting holds of famous problems (Fatman, Carnage, Medaille aux Chocolat). I heard he was accused of stealing holds from the local gym. His twisted defence apparently was, "why would I steal holds when I could take some of the most famous holds in the world like these ?"
Will I go to jail if I use Pof?
Not a French jail. This is another controversial and highly emotional topic and it's hard to have a rational discussion without some nationalism creeping in on both sides of the debate. Briefly, pof is dried pine tree resin that French Font climbers wrap up in cloth and smack the rock with to increase adherence. Some French climbers use it instead of chalk - usually older ones; most use both now.
CON: it's cheating; it makes the holds polished and glassy; you need more pof once a hold has been poffed, creating a vicious cycle; it makes the holds black and look like crap. Old French guys use it who climb harder than me. If you use it outside Font you risk bodily harm.
PRO: it's natural; isn't as visible as chalk; pof may prevent the surface erosion of the sandstone "skin" above the crumblier sandstone underneath; its use is recommended over chalk by COSIROC, the local climbing governing body, its use is recommended over chalk by bleau.info website; it annoys the British.
When do I go?
Anytime really - that's the truth. Traditionally people say spring and autumn, but winter can have perfect conditions (February is the driest cold month) though it can get bitter cold. People complain about the summer heat and humidity but plenty of hard climbing gets done in the summer, such as Jackie Godoffe's 8b projects in Orsay this summer, and the 7c+ Fahrenheit 91.4 put up by Thierry Gueguen in July. In the summer heat though most people just reduce their grade and do circuits, or climb early and late and siesta in the hot middle of the day.
You can expect to have some rain at any time, but this shouldn't be a big problem because you probably need a rest day anyway. Actually many areas dry extremely quickly, generally if they are high up on the slopes of the numerous little hills (pignons) in the forest, such as 95.2, Apremont, Gorge des Chats. As you get closer to the time of your trip, take a look at bleau.info which has the best links to online weather resources, but what are you going to do? Cancel? May is the rainiest month but not by much. You shouldn't really rule a trip in or out based on the time of year unless you really need it to be cold for a difficult project.
Here are the temperature and precipitation averages for the Fontainebleau area since 1948.
How do I get there?
The best options from the UK are to either drive and then take a ferry or the Channel Tunnel or fly to one of the Paris airports and rent a car. Once in Fontainebleau it might be possible to get around using public transport (see notes blow) but in my opinion this will be pretty limiting in terms of the areas you are able to visit.
Flying- the Paris airports are listed below and you can usually get a cheap flight from the UK from one of the low cost airlines like Easyjet, particularly if you are flexible on dates.Orly - this is super convenient for Font (20 minute drive - small, quick in and out airport) but I think today it only receives Air France flights from London City Airport (maybe something from Scotland, too?). Not too expensive but the seats book up fast, especially at business commuter times like Sunday night and Monday am. The Docklands Light Railway has been extended to City airport as of Jan 2006 so maybe this is the fastest way to go to Font from London now.
Charles de Gaulle - A lot of discount carriers fly to CdG. If you fly into CdG, make sure you have a map for the drive to Font. You basically have to go due south on the 104 towards Disneyland Paris and Melun, avoiding Paris itself. Maybe an hour with little traffic? If you have ignored everyone's advice, and are car-less, you have to somehow get to Gare du Lyon - I think there is a bus - from here you pick up the train to Bois le Roi and Font.
Beauvais airport is in the north of Paris and the most inconvenient for Font. I think you get a bus to Chatelet or something, and then get to Gare de Lyon for the train to Font. Driving would be a pain because you have to go through Paris.Hiring A Car
All of the airports offer car hire from the major providers. To obtain the best price you are probably advised to book in the UK before you leave. Travel Supermarket search out competitive rates from all the main providers.
Train- The Eurostar is hassle-free once you get it dialled. A 2h 40min journey from Waterloo gets you into Gare du Nord (or Paris Nord I guess is what it's called now). Not too bad pricewise if you book well in advance. (0870 5186 186.) From here you rent a car from the lower level of Paris Nord (check the Avis prices at the same time you book the Eurostar - it's cheaper). Be sure to pick up the little map showing where you return the car. There is a lot of construction around GdN now and the entrance to the parking is in a different place to the pick up. Now just drive due east out the Rue Lafayette to the Porte du Pantin on the Peripherique - the Paris ring road. This will be at 3 o'clock on the Peripherique. Go clockwise to 6 o'clock and then take the A6b/A6 south to Font, going towards and next to but not into Orly airport. A little tricky so best to get a map at Paris Nord - but really pretty pain-free. Should take 45 or so min to Cuvier with mild/no traffic. From an 8am Waterloo Eurostar train you are on the rocks at 1-2 pm.Driving
This is a popular option and there are usually some cheap ferry deals available. This may be the cheapest way if you get several passengers to share petrol/tolls/ferry. Speeding was ignored for years but is now really being focused on in an effort to reduce France's motorway death rate - one of the highest in Europe. Autoroutes.fr is a great trip planning resource which shows real-time traffic problems.
A word of warning. Don't leave anything in the car; there is a high chance it will get stolen. In any event, leave the car highly visible in a busy parking area. No guarantees but Apremont near the restaurant and Cuvier in view of the road are probably okay.
Is It Possible Without A Car?
Er, a car actually makes the trip a lot better in my opinion. The areas are pretty spread out. You can hire a bicycle from the train station in Fontainebleau, and it is generally flat terrain, but it still is going to be a pain to get around. I have heard hitchhiking with a pad sometimes works, but a friendly climber with enough room for you and your pad needs to happen by - a low probability event.
Another way is to take the train from Gare de Lyon in Paris to Bois le Roi (the station just before Fontainebleau) and walk a few kilometres (maybe 30 min) to Rocher Canon or Rocher St. Germain. Canon is a very extensive area with enough to do for several trips. Or you could take the train to Fontainebleau and stay at the Etap Hotel which is 100m down the main road from the train station. Mont Ussy is about a 30/40 minute walk from the Etap Hotel and Cassepot another 30/40 min.
If all else fails then try Font radio cabs (0164 22 0006)
Apparently there are occasional buses from Font to Milly near the campsite, ask in the tourist office near the chateau if you really want to do this.
If you are planning on being car-less then you may want to try the boulderbus service which provides a direct link to Fontainebleau from London.Where do I stay?
Campsites - Popular ones are La Musardiere at Milly la Foret, 91490 (+33(0)164989191) (with a pool but men need speedos not trunks - for real - welcome to France!) and Les Pres at Grez sur Loing 77880 (+33(0)164457275). There are many in the area actually. Surf the Camping-de-France for more options.
The free camping near Cuvier has shut down for sanitation reasons, which is a little scary and should be taken as a harbinger of overuse. Apparently there is another free one near the access road to the Hippodrome de Sol racetrack on the road from Melun to Font (on the right after Rocher St. Germain on the way to Font).
Hotels - Formule 1 is the cheapest. You can book the one at Moret on-line.
Next cheapest are the Hotel Etap in Avon (near the train station) (+33(0)892680794) and the Hotel Ibis in the center of Font (+33(0)164397575).
Crashing in the forest is not allowed, though there are lots of primitive bivouacs you see here and there. In any event, fires are strictly prohibited and would definitely be noticed.
Where can I buy gear and food?
As well as climbers the area is very popular with tourists in general. This means that excellent cafes and restaurants can be found in abundance as can supermarkets and other necessary amenities. Most villages have at least a bakery and small towns generally have a butcher, chemist and small supermarket. There is a large hypermarket complex not too far from Bas Cuvier (Centre Commercial Carrefour) at Villiers-en-Biere. It is off the RN7 in the direction of Paris. As well as a supermarket there is also a large Decathlon sports store which sells all the climbing necessities. The complex also houses many other small shops and cafes.
If you want to eat out then Chalet Jobert at the entrance to the Dame Jouanne area is worth a look. Fontainebleau and Milly La Foret both offer a plethora of bistros and eateries to suit most people's tastes and pockets.
Definitely bring your old shoes to be resoled by SOeScalade, which runs a resoling van at the Roche aux Sabots parking at the weekend. He does a great job and will mail them to you in the UK or elsewhere no problem.
Other Sources Of Information?