Monday, 23 March 2015

Fontainebleau - the best bouldering destination in the world?

Cuvier Rempart, Fontainebleau

Fontainebleau is the best bouldering destination in the world. That has become a cliche, not so surprisingly, considering the consistency, variety, quantity and quality of the problems there. However, for me, that phrase is one that I have refrained from emitting from my own mouth until now. Not because the forest and I did not get along - the truth is the opposite, in fact, I've always enjoyed climbing there immensely - but because of my love for my home, here in the UK. I was reluctant to place a foreign climbing destination above that which I cherish - The Peak District.

Even now I umm and ahh over whether I can actually commit those words to virtual paper. Hardly written in ink, I suppose I can come back and delete them if I so wish. But really, I will commit them now as I am free to chop and change my mind as I please. Next week I might say something completely contrary.

Baslow, Peak District

This week, having returned from Fontainebleau only recently, I am calling the famous French bouldering arena the best. I have to qualify that statement: I have not climbed in every bouldering destination in the world, in fact I've only sampled a very small number, so it's actually rather redundant as a statement anyway. It would be more accurate to say that right now Fontainebleau is my favourite bouldering destination. A subtle but important difference. The former does have a more controversial tone, however, as it pretends to supersede the opinions of all others, but that is not my intention. For now, assume that when I say "best" I actually mean "my personal favourite". 


By next week, having hopefully spent some time climbing on grit stone, I may return to this virtual soap box and espouse the virtues of the Peak District, claiming equal footing on the ladder as Fontainebleau, or possibly even several rungs between them. Although, the biggest single issue letting the Peak District down may delay such a proclamation, as the weather has not been kind over the past few months - at least to my memory and experience - and this may prevent such an excursion.

I once sat down at a dinner table with two of the UK's strongest contemporary boulderers, when I stated the Peak was equal if not greater to Fontainebleau in my mind. They looked visibly shocked at my statement and began explaining why the opposite should be true. A friendly debate ensued, but now, looking back, I'm inclined to retrospectively agree with their way of thinking. This only springs to mind because of the change in perception I'm currently admitting to.

Stanage, Peak District

What brought about this sea change, I don't hear you asking. Well, I'll tell you. My recent trip to the forest did not yield a long list of difficult problems ascended under my own hands and feet, therefore fuelling a false and short lived adoration. No. In fact, the majority of my week in Fontainebleau was too warm for my hands to cope with, my skin soft and sweaty, sliding over the smooth, textured sandstone surfaces as easily as a greased water wheel around its axis. I struggled with this lack of friction and sheered far too much skin off my finger tips to recover from and take advantage of on the only two days cold air blew in from the north and temperatures dropped more than 10 degrees. On these days, I did attempt hard boulder problems - at least, hard for me - but to no avail.

So on the warmer days I tried to climb things quickly, sampling a lot of boulder problems at grades I could and should flash consistently (not that I did on all occasions). But what I loved about this approach to bouldering - a style good for those with a lack of patience, such as myself - is you get to try a wide variety of the climbs Fontainebleau has to offer. Angles: slabs, walls, overhangs and roofs. Holds: crimps, slopers, jugs, pockets, cracks and side pulls. Length: one move wonder, two move power problems, ten move power endurance, and twenty plus move endurance. Styles: dyno, dynamic, delicate, compression, technical, thuggy, and combination. Between these far too simplistic categories every person's preference is catered for. Mother nature's infinite imagination has sculpted these rocks in such ways as you couldn't fathom if they were not presented to you, framed in a beautiful landscape.

Elephant, Fontainebleau

It is not just the multifarious climbing, however, but the rock composition itself that I admire. It feels solid but soft, the friction is there but it does not tear your hands to pieces. It is uniquely and multitudinously textured, from turtle shells and sharkskin rough through to bowling alley slick patinas with fingernail thin razor edges. There are shapes and lines that just scream out to be climbed - world class problems in every sector.

If, like me, you look at the smorgasbord of rock climbing and fill your plate with bouldering (maybe with a few small sides for variety every once in a while) then how can you not love Fontainebleau. As well as the aforementioned cliche, I have heard, although much more infrequently, the chilling "I hate Fontainebleau" escape the icy cavern of climbers who did not get on with the place once and have therefore condemned it to their own personal sin bin. But what I would say to those climbers is they simply need to give it another go. Try different areas, different styles, different holds, different lines, and I am absolutely, 100% sure you will find something to love about the place.