A scared climbers guide to Fontainebleau

By Gaynor.

I do not particularly enjoy bouldering, but I love climbing at Fontainebleau. Those two statements would normally be considered contradictory considering that Fontainebleau is the Mecca for boulderers. But even scaredy cats like me can have a really good time at Fontainebleau.

I am not a brave climber. I like to be securely tied to a rope, with it extending above me rather than below me. I get far more pleasure from top roping a hard route than I do from leading anything. And this is simply because of a fear of falling, I don’t want to hurt myself. I have a highly advanced sense of self-preservation and trying to get to the top of 5m boulders with sketchy holds and no rope goes against every instinct in me. This sense was reinforced last year when I sprained my ankle falling from the top of a boulder on the first day of a week long visit.

So how can I enjoy a trip to Fontainebleau if I don’t like climbing boulders?

Well, the answer is simple, I have my own style of bouldering holiday. The forest of Fontainebleau is a magical place to be, and simply being there in the dappled sunlight of the deciduous trees surrounded by boulders of all shapes and sizes, is a joy in itself. But on top of that, the vast number and variety of boulders means that I approach the climbing in a way that works for me, and is actually quite logical (at least I think it is!).

Rule 1: Embrace your inner enfant

Fontainebleau grades are hard, way harder than “font” grades used at climbing walls. Indoors, I can happily boulder up to 6a/6b, however at Fontainebleau I am lucky to get up 4’s. Even the easiest circuit (the yellows) I find scary and often struggle to do the moves on. However, there is also a white circuit designed for kids (not to be confused with the very hard white problems which also sometimes appear!). The circuit enfants are great for people like me. The really easy problems are good warm-ups and give a gentle reintroduction into the reality of outdoor bouldering again. And the harder problems are not to be underestimated, they often require good footwork on tiny holds or smears, and the trademark sloper handholds are also in existence. But what you can almost always guarantee is that you will have good holds for the top out, and the boulders themselves are never particularly high when you are twice the height of an 8 year old, so the scary factor doesn’t kick in nearly as much.

Precise footwork is still required on the kids circuit, but the top outs are good and not too high.

Rule 2: Forget the circuits, climb what looks good!

Boulders that have defined problems on them account for no more than 50% of the boulders in some areas of Fontainebleau. The remaining boulders are often covered in moss, but there are also plenty that are clean and have fun, easy ascents up them. And for me, the whole point is to have an enjoyable day out climbing on rocks in a beautiful setting. I make up my own problems, using boulders with holds I like the look of. Who cares if they don’t have a number and a grade attached? Not me.

Rule 3. Find a boulder to work your weaknesses

However, not all the climbing I do at Fontainebleau is easy. I often find a boulder where I can practise a particular move or technique, with no intention of getting to the top, just getting through that move. It allows me to learn how those moves feel, whilst still knowing I am only 1m off the ground. On our latest trip I found a great boulder to practise mantle-shelf top outs. My hands were on the top with my feet still on the ground, so I knew I was never going to be particularly high. After one move on a thin foothold I was up on my arms and trying to figure out the best way to get my foot over the top beside my hand. Normally when I am in this position it is 4m up so I chicken out and down climb, too scared to commit. But on this boulder, the scary factor wasn’t there, so I could do the move over and over again to get accustomed to it. Maybe next time I face such a top out on a “real” problem I will have the courage to do it!

A nice boulder to practise my mantle-shelf top outs.

Jon doing the same move but significantly higher up!

Practising my heel hooks and high step rock-overs.

Rule 4. Technical traverses

Another way to climb harder problems and not be scared is to target the traverses.  There are plenty of tricky technical traverses that keep you low to the ground.  On this trip, my project traverse involved a series of side pulls and undercuts and took 3 attempts to do it cleanly (it was 4c!). Each failed attempt involved a 30cm step back onto the ground, I didn’t even need a mat!  Jon’s project was a 5c traverse that took him about 10 attempts before he got it, more-or-less the same number of attempts as his 6c non-traverse project. So don’t underestimate these traverses, they can require a lot of very precise, technical climbing, and give you a good workout at the same time.

Jon trying his 5c traverse project

So if you, like me, would rather not be bouldering, but go along to keep your more fanatical partner happy, then I would highly recommend going to Fontainebleau if you get the chance. It lives up to its reputation as a world class bouldering area both for dedicated boulderers, and those of us who find bouldering somewhat more intimidating.

I love going to Fontainebleau and will happily spend time bouldering there, I just do it in a way that works for me.

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