Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Climbing in the Forest

(Written 03/05/2011)

There is something inherently safe about trees. They are sturdy, immoveable, strong, and familiar. Their roots stretch underground, grasping at the soil, Mother Earth, relying on it for sustenance. Their branches and leaves reach for the sky, gathering sunlight and carbon dioxide, generating oxygen and providing protection for the creatures within and below. Trees don’t leave. Trees don’t change – other than to grow, slowly and predictably. Trees are predictable.


Forests, therefore, provide something of a haven for people and animals alike. If trees feel safe, forests feel like home. You can return to a forest year after year – your entire lifetime – and it will always be the same. It will always remain as you remember it. Providing, of course, natural or human disasters do not occur. Barring the horrendous consequences of human expansion or nature’s own destructive side, forests will forever remain, long after we have gone.

And as children we played in forests. And now as adults we continue to play in forests. For us rock climbers, forests provide some of the most exciting, interesting, magical, relaxing, thrilling, all-consuming, gentle, majestic places to scale boulders, cliff faces, stacks, caves, and rocks of a million other varieties. It is easy to lose yourself among the trees, forget your troubles and woes, leave behind the humdrum and hubris of every day life, abandon the responsibilities waiting back in “the real world”, and just be among the trees. Using them as a sort of barrier against the outside.

The real world: what could be more real than getting back to nature, wandering among the facades of fabulous topiary, fauna and flora, grappling with the rocks and scaling their intricate and fascinating features. When clinging to the side of a rock with all your strength, nothing else in the world matters. In that singular moment, all other thoughts are disregarded. All other thoughts are abandoned. The only thing that is important is staying on that rock. Breathing. Pulling. Gripping. All encompassing. Peaceful if aggressive. Thoughtful if panicked. Single-minded if delirious. Happy if terrified.

Walking through the forest near Fontainebleau

One of the most beautiful and renowned forests within which to climb is on the fringes of Fontainebleau, south of Paris, France. It looms large and sprawling over the landscape. It dominates despite its proximity to the country’s capital city and its popularity as a holiday destination. And between its ancient trees and new saplings, there are boulders; hundreds, thousands, millions of boulders; large and small; tall and short. They are strewn along the forest floor, cast like dice from the hands of giants. It is the most perfect place to go rock climbing.

Whilst, with contradiction to earlier parts of this screed, there are hundreds and thousands of people continually wandering the paths and clambering the rocks in the idyllic forest, but it doesn’t feel detrimental to the natural atmosphere of the place. Quite the contrary, it adds to the safe and comforting feeling in abundance. It feels like home. It feels easy and relaxing.

Wandering into the embrace of its trees, say at one of the most famous areas, Bas Curvier, it is immediately obvious that you are entering somewhere that has been used as a climbing destination for many a long decade. The rocks look climbed, the landings look level and soft, the holds look polished, chalked, broken, warn, withered, well-used, but inviting. And then there are the less well-known areas, where explorative climbing is the menu of the day, with moss, mud, leaves and sticks blocking your path up the rock face. All have their merits, but climbing has never felt as natural as it does in Fontainebleau forest.

The boulders just scream to be scaled. The odd dash of blue, red or white paint daubed onto the base of obvious lines indicates it is part of a circuit of problems, which can number into their dozens and range among a variety of grades. If feeling like a Bleausard, grab a rag and your climbing shoes and dance up every boulder in site, ease and flow in your step, fear and anxiety left at the entrance of the forest. You can tell a Bleausard from a mile away; all sinew and muscle, tanned and leathery, strong and graceful, exacting and purposeful, hardy and tough, and very quick. They whip through their rehearsed set of problems, having climbed them for years, dozens of years.

Alternatively, grab your bouldering pad, your chalk bag and those boots and install yourself under a particularly tricky or difficult line and prepare for the siege. Pull on, fall off. Pull on, get a little further, fall off. Pull on, fall off. Pull on, fall off. Pull on, reach a high point, and then fall off. Rinse and repeat. And then that illusive victory, during that moment of clarity, that moment when the world is nothing but a move on a bit of rock, when nothing else matters but the climbing, and you just flow. Ultimate exhilaration, relief and thrill.

Peaceful now. Relax. Mind clear. Sat atop your boulder in the middle of the forest. Not a care in the world. Just a great smile stretched across your face, your lungs pulling hard and adrenaline streaming through your system. This is why we go climbing. And the safety of the trees, keeping the outside world at bay, behind a thick wall of branches, bark and leaves, protecting, giving you detachment and peace. Where better to go climb some rocks…