When I could drive in basically any direction and wake up in one of dozens of geologically unique world-class climbing destinations with near self-sufficiency in terms of gear, camping, and cooking, it’s hard to convince myself that the logistical nightmare of an international climbing trip is worth it. It’s easy to forget when your social media is all people cheesing on skis or ropes in some far-flung destination, or even if you got rid of your online presence, your irl friends are always disappearing and coming back from travels before your eyes, and of course they’re going to tell you about it.
I’ve done these kinds of trips in the past, packing too many sports into checked luggage for mountaineering, climbing, canyoning, and backpacking. When I hear those highlight reels, what I’m thinking about is how annoying it actually is to tesselate ice axe and crampons with wetsuits and drybags, rent a car, find lodging and guidebooks, navigate unfamiliar languages, not be able to pull very hard when jetlagged, and the distainful/bewildered glares in response to “do you have anything vegetarian?”. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.
When Marco asked if I wanted to go to Fontainebleau, it was an immediate no. I thought it must have been a joke. We live within an hour drive of more than one lifetime of climbing, highly aspirational destinations for people around the world which we can lazily roll out to after sleeping in, and you want to fly away to a place famous for being hostile to foreigners??
Ok, reading between the lines, it seemed like it was Marco’s dream to visit the birthplace of bouldering, so I guess it wouldn’t kill me to help make his dream a reality. Where’s your sense of adventure, you spoiled and self-righteous Californian?
>“How was your trip??”
Actually it went pretty ok! Bouldering is the least gear-intensive, so I only had to pack climbing shoes and chalk. In the area there’s a whole culture around the climbing holiday, so lodging came with pad rental. I also had a week before the climbing trip to acclimate to the time zone, which was key. Going to a gym right after getting to Europe, I actually couldn’t convince my fingers to pull hard at all. It came back after a few days of recovery. Amazing, I used to step right off the plane into a europarty.
The sheer amount of climbing in Fontainebleau is mind-blowing, and the style is super different from what I’m used to (sharp overhanging crimps, flapper factory, crystals for feet). I will never again make fun of the “unrealistic” big volumes with little dimples and bulging pinch grip holds at the gym.
Fontainebleau is geochemically destined to be composed entirely of slopers and grovelly summit mantles. The style is exactly like the sloper gym climbs that I used to laugh at. Joke’s on me, I have accumulated a big debt of falling off of slopers to work through!
Luckily I’m still at the low-ego stage of being a boulderer, so I didn’t really care about grades, and had a blast trying lots of things below my max. Getting the hang of the style meant every day was full of fun body puzzles. It’s wild that a route which spits me out the first couple of tries and feels impossible will become effortless after working through it and finding the right body positioning! I know that’s a very bouldering thing to say, but it felt extra true in a place where the movement was so foreign to me.
(Note from 1 month later: I went home and was able to send my projects that had top-out slopers, so Fontainebleau sloper bootcamp was highly effective! I hadn’t thought about travel-climbing as an opportunity to collect new skills, but it was a fun and satisfying way to sharpen my weaknesses).
In the alpine and the high desert, you can find real stillness. In the forest, you’re never alone. Maybe because the style of this continent is to actually support parenthood, there’s entire sectors that are basically outdoor kindergartens of screaming, running mobs of children rampaging in unselfaware brush-crushing. I’ve never seen anything like it–I’m used to less kids and more dogs (which are much less susceptible to the crush of capitalism and thus better adapted to the States). We definitely found areas where there were no people at all, but without local context it’s hard to tell what you’re going to get before you get there. In the depopulated spots, the children are replace by screaming birds, which is somehow not as idyllic as you might imagine.
In general, deciding “where do we climb tomorrow” was challenging! I’m really glad we got the physical guide book. It’s hard enough to navigate the maze of rocks with it, even with the route numbers painted right on the rock (!!), I can’t imagine trying to rely on the uncacheable web maps on bleau.info. The book is in English, but interpreting the symbology and graphic design itself is a foreign language. Theoretically you can glean where the shade and sun is, so we spent a lot of time looking up the weather and studying the book. Marco had a strategy of looking up highly rated climbs online and popular youtube beta videos as a starting point for picking areas. I think as long as there’s climbs marked in your range, you can’t really go wrong. If you don’t like what you see, walk a minute up the trail and there’s a billion more routes.
Another interesting thing is that Font grades go way lower than v-grades. There’s so many Font grades below v0, which actually makes sense considering a Bishop v0 can be impossible for beginners. Part of what makes this place interesting is the history, but while bouldering was born in Fontainebleau, the climbing films are made in Bishop/Yosemite, so surprisingly a lot of USian climbers haven’t heard of Fontainebleau (even after this past Reel Rock??).
Aside from the heat wave, my biggest struggle was with food, and eating has always felt like a big component to my strength. I am always jealous of my friends who can climb a whole day on bars alone, or “forget” to eat lunch (how??), I’d fall over dead if I didn’t pack real food and consume it on schedule. At home I usually eat as many sandwiches as I want without a problem, but somehow the French diet of bread and cheese had me bloated and inflamed by the end of the trip. Mysteries!
Some people probably climb Fontainebleau to eat amazing French food on rest days, and it’s going to get me permanently banned from the country to put this on the public record, but I was not impressed. I think it’s because I’m vegetarian, and everything seems to be sprinkled with a fine dust of meat byproducts. Even the most innocuous-looking savory pastries have meat bits. It feels weird to say my favourite eating-out experience in France was Indian food. I also had the revelation that I prefer salty croissants, and all the croissants I had here were sweet (now I’m going to be double-banned).
In Bishop, you sometimes have to stop climbing because you’ve literally run out of skin, but the Fontainebleau sandstone is much more gentle, which just means you need some other indicator that it’s time for a rest day (such as surprise rain).
It’s just so moist. It can get hot in May so we had to be smart about chasing shade (which I’m used to), but you can’t avoid the humidity (which I’m not used to). If Florida had rocks, that’s how I imagine climbing there would feel. I live in the desert where I don’t really need to towel off after bathing, I just wipe the water off my body with my hands and I’m naturally desiccated by the time I’ve stepped from the shower to my clothes. The towel is really just for simulating the comforting hug of a tame bear to top off your cleansing experience.
Whereas in Fontainebleau, you put out the dishes to dry and the next morning they’re wetter than when you last saw them. The uncovered salt turns into one big clump. The shade-facing laundry hung up to dry is damp forever. I felt like physics itself was out of whack. A heat wave kicked in at the end of the trip and I basically spend 1.5 days laying on the ground unable to get up. I actually took off my pants on the last day and climbed in my underwear because it was just!! too!! hot!!
So there you have it, my international climbing trip as a skeptic: bouldering simplicity minimises airplane-equipment-shenanigans, it’s fun to get out of what you’re familiar with and be puzzled by a totally unfamiliar style of rock, holy shit I’m being consumed by a living kid-tornado, other times total solitude, food sucks.
Do I regret going? no. Will I go again? Probably not, unless it’s in a bigger group and a cooler time of year. Or maybe if I’m slowly traveling through the area and make a stop. I’d definitely not hop on a plane just for this. But you know me, I like to take the long way.
Here’s some of my raw journals (I usually draw them in the morning about the day before) if you’re curious about the source content:
You can take the train 1 hour from Paris, and there’s certainly climbing spots you could get to by walking, but you need a car if you want to do a grand tour of all the forest has to offer. And if you’re going to come all the way from the States, it felt silly to be limited to only what could be accessed by foot. We rented a car from the airport.
Gaia (map app) was useful and has the trails and lots of climbing spots annotated.
We stayed in a bungalow, rented tent, then cabane in a glamping resort called Ile de Boulancourt. I don’t know if I’d necessarily recommend it, we were both allergic to the cabins, the owner yelled a lot (at me and at random children), they didn’t realise we were coming and didn’t respond to email. Maybe that’s just how it is here.
It seems like 2 is not a great group size for Fontainebleau: doesn’t scale well with hostel pricing, yet too small to rent out a nice gite. I guess it’s the kind of place you visit with your crew (or whole fam).
I used Airalo for mobile data, but be warned that the French plan was useless and I barely had any connectivity (the pan-Europe plan was much better).
>Rest day activities and Forest fun
Wake up campers, you aren’t in California anymore! You can’t rely on it to not rain for weeks at a time.
Apparently this place is as big, magnificent, and popular with the nobles of old as Versailles, but infinitely less crowded? Checks out, considering how much the Versailles brand was totally overrepresented in my American high school education. The kings loved to recreate in the forest, just like us. Here’s a weird fountain they have dedicated to the hunt:
Climbers know Fontainebleau for the rocks, but everyone else knows it for its pure sand which makes world-class glass! We drove past a massive pit in the ground tastefully hidden by a manicured tree screen, but you can catch a glimpse of the mine between the gaps. Apparently le Louvre is made from Fontainebleau glass.
I was really curious about the local geology, and had a hard time finding English-language explanations. I did find a bunch of blog posts from glass enthusiasts, and some geology papers, including this fun one where a geochemistry conference goes on a field trip to Fontainebleau. Maybe it’s possible to take a sand mine tour?? I think that’d be pretty awesome.
>Automatic soups dispenser
There’s a community prepared foods vending machine in front of the aquatic center in Milly-la-Forêt. Really cool! yum!
Too late I found this company that does dog sled tours in the forest. That’s right, the sleds are all-seasons, so there are summer carts that rage through the sand.