Fontainebleau (Bleau to the French and Font to English speakers) is a town 50km south of Paris. It’s surrounded by a large forest (about 250 square kilometres) which is is scattered with sandstone boulders of all shapes and size. Home to tens of thousands of problems of all grades, Fontainebleau is considered by many to be the best bouldering area in the world.
Font is the spiritual home of bouldering and it was initially used by Parisian as means of training for the Alps. They organised problems into long circuits marked out by small arrows and numbers painted on the rock. Nowadays climbers travel from all over the world to boulder in Font and in terms of grade range, accessibility, rock quality and history it has no equal.
Here are some tips for the first time visitor.
Lying a short distance south of Paris means that there are many options for getting to Font, once there you are limited to bike or car unless you happen to be staying very close to the boulders.
There are myriad options for flying into Paris. The main airport is Charles de Gaulles (CDG) which lies on the opposite side of the city to Font, a 75 minute drive. There are also the smaller airports of Beauvias (which is used by Ryanair), this is the least convenient of the airports (120 minute drive from the forest)and Orly which is very convenient (45 minute drive).
Trains to Fontainebleau (the station is called Fontainebleau-Avon) leave from the Gare de Lyon in Paris. See here for more information. The journey takes about 45 minutes and train are reasonable frequent. More information about the train network on the Transilien website, including this map of the network.
To get the most out of a Font trip you really need a car, not alone to get to the boulders but for shopping and rest days. The bouldering is spread across a massive area and a car will maximise you climbing options. It’s possible hire a car at any of the airports above. If you are coming from the north of the city it’s worth avoiding the Peripherique (the inner ring road) especially during rush hour. A better alternative is the A104-N104 route.
Don’t leave anything in the car when parking as break-ins can be a problem. Try and park in the busiest, most visible park of the carpark.
Its possible to hire bikes in the bike shop in Fontainebleau town. The cost is around €10 a day and they are a good option for those without a car. There are few hills and it saves time on walk ins.
It’s possible to climb in Font at any time of year, however in summer it can get very hot and in the winter it can be very cold. The best conditions are found on cold, dry winter days but it can get too cold to climb and there is always a chance of rain or snow. The best compromise is spring or autumn, conditions will be decent and the weather should be reasonably stable. Check the forecast on www.meteofrance.com.
It’s nearly always possible to find dry rock unless the rain has been pouring down and some areas are more sheltered or dry quicker than others. A good guidebook should advise. In the warmer months you may be seeking out the shade or a breeze again the guidebook will help.
There is plenty to do on rest days, Paris with all of it’s tourist attraction is just a short train journey away (see links above), the train is a much better option than driving in. Another good option is to explore the forest and reconnoitre new areas for a future visit.
In the summer months there is a leisure centre at Buithers with swimming pools and lots of stuff for kids. And of course the Chateau in Fontainebleau Town is well worth a visit.
The other very popular option is going to Decathlon, the sports outlet in the massive shopping centre in Villiers en Biere which is very popular with climbers, and on a rainy day you will see many climbers shuffling around the place not buying anything.
No other bouldering area in the world is as well documented as Font. A guidebook is essential as the forest is so huge and there are so many areas you would literally be lost without one. With over 10,000 there is no guide that contains ever problems, so each guidebook takes a different approach, some cover only a certain part of the forest, other focus on a narrow grade range, others cover problems on circuits etc. The following is a selection of the best – English language – guidebooks.
- John Waton’s Essential Fontainebleau: A Stone Country Bouldering Guide is a pocket-sized guide detailing some of the best problems through the grades. Very handy guide, focuses on the best problems in the best areas. Good clear directions and maps. This is the only guide I use.
- Fontainebleau Climbs: A Guide to the Best Bouldering and Circuits by Jo Montchausse is one of the best all round guides. Good mix of photos, maps, circuits, history. This is possibly the best choice for the beginner/intermediate climber.
- 7+8, by Bart Van Raaij. Beautiful minimalist design covering the harder problems. Buy it from Cordee.
- 5+6, by Bart Van Raaij. More beautiful minimalist design covering problems in the mid-grades. Buy it from Cordee.
- Fontainebleau Fun Bloc – Escalade Bouldering (Jingo Wobbly Photo-guide) by David Atchinson-Jones. While the design of this guide mightn’t be everyone cup of tea but it’s a very effective and popular guidebook.
- Font A Bloc: Vol 1 by Jackt Godoffe. Documents over 5000 problems in the northern areas of Font.
The definitive map is IGN map number IGN – 2417 OT au 1:25000 Forêt de Fontainebleau gps which is really handy for exploring the forest and checking out some of the more out of the way areas.
With many airlines charging extra for hold luggage it can make sense to hire a pad when you arrive in Font rather than brining your own. If you are on an extended stay it might even be worth buying one (Decathlon have one for €80!). Bouldering pads can be rented from the following:
- TheHouse.fr near the Trois Poignons, also offers accommodation.
- S’cape is a climbing shop in Fontainebleau town.
- The gite Le Clos du Tertre in La Chapelle la Reine.
- The Pizzeria Croq Foret in Arbonne La Forêt will rent you a pad.
For food the best option is the massive Carrefour in Villers-en-Biere, there are also many other smaller supermarkets in Milly, Neumors, Fontainebleau Town. Beware the strange opening hours.
Font is famous for it’s slopers, the fine-grained sandstone is one of the best rock types to boulder on, it isn’t too rough on the skin but offers excellent friction especially when the conditions are good. It’s hard to generalise about the Font style of climbing as you will encounter everything there – slabs, wall, overhangs, roofs, crack, aretes, chimneys and corners. It’s fair to say the climbing requires a subtle approach, technique – especially good footwork – will get you up more problems than brute strength. The topouts are often the crux, blank rounded domes with hard to see holds are the order of the day.
The best resource for information about Fontainebleau bouldering is bleau.info, it contains information about thousands of problems including photos, video and feedback on the grade. The UKClimbing Logbook entries are also worth a look, as is the 27Crags entry for Font.
To get the most out of a trip to Font you need to be disciplined, it’s easy on the first day to act like a child in a sweet shop and to run around trying everything. But unless you are used to doing a huge amount of climbing this isn’t the best approach. If it’s your first visit you will need time to get used to the rock and the climbing style, so on your first days focus on easier problems. Don’t ever completely wreck yourself as, unless you are on an extended trip, you will never recover.
There are some many different bouldering areas in Fontainebleau it’s impossible to give an overview of them all here. Probably the most famous area is Bas Cuvier, which for years was a forcing ground for bouldering standards. It’s has a huge number of problems in a compact area however it can get very busy and many problems are quite polished. Other very popular areas include 95.2, Cul de Chien, Roche aux Sabots and Isatis. If possible plan to visit these areas mid-week and check out some of the equally good but less popular areas at the weekends.
Check out the grade comparison table on the left to get a rough idea of how the grades compare to the V system and route grades.
One of the best and most unique things about Fontainebleau is the circuits (colour coded collections of between 20-70 problems of similar difficulty). The colour indicates the difficulty, ranging from yellow, orange, blue, read, white and black.
Not only do they make it easy to identify problems but they also offer a novel bouldering experience. Following an easy circuit is a great way to get accustomed to the style of climbing at the start of a trip and a good for getting some mileage at the end.
As each circuit incorporates a wide range of climbing styles and surfaces you can be sure that even the easiest circuit will have some very difficult problems, often slabs or chimney. Generally speaking circuits fall into two categorises, popular and very polished or else quiet and vegetated. So be prepared.
Pof (a sticky dried pine resin contained in a cloth) is commonly used in Font especially by the some of the older, more old-school locals. It’s very bad for the rock and if used once on a hold the next person is at a disadvantage unless they use it too. A vicious circle.
Remember that outside Font the use of Pof is almost universally frowned upon so if you do decide to use it in Font don’t bring it home. As Font is so popular chalk can quickly build up on the more popular problems, so use it sparingly and give the holds a quick brush (with a SOFT brush) when you are finished.
Gites are self catering accommodation and they can work out very cheap especially for large groups. Check out www.gitesdefrance.com.
Camping is a good option outside of the colder winter months.
- Camping de la Musardière, 91490 Milly-la-Forêt, tel+33 (0)1 64 98 91 91 Has a swimming pool (don’t forget your speedos). Within walking distance of some of the Trois Pignons areas. Very popular.
- Camping du Petit Barbeau, 77920 Samois-sur-Seine, tel +33/18.104.22.168.45.
- Camping Municipal, 77190 Dammarie-les-Lys, tel +33/1.64.39.07.23.
- Camping de La Belle Etoile, 77000 Melun-la-Rochette, tel +33/22.214.171.124.12.
- Camping Le Lido, Veneux-les-Sablons, 77250 Moret-sur-Loing, tel +33/126.96.36.199.05.
One of the cheapest accommodation option is the hotelF1. Very cheap (rooms, which have 3 beds start at €19 a night) but fairly low frills, there are three convenient for Font at Nemours, Moret and Melun. Slightly more up-market (they have en-suite toilets) is the Ibis, there is one in Fontainebleau Avon which is close to the train station and within walking distance of the town centre and another in Nemours.
Getting the most out of your trip
I’ve been to Fontainebleau once or twice a year for the last dozen or so years, usually in early or late winter. Each year the trip, even though much anticipated, seems to come around very quick and I haven’t done as much training as I would like. Having never been much of a wad I’ve never gone to Font with a ticklist of hard problems, it always been about just climbing, just trying to get as much done as possible but not particularly goal oriented.
Someone once put it well, “there are climbing trips and climbing holidays, I like climbing holidays”, this means lots of larking about, taking the piss, maybe staying up a bit too late at night and having one beer too many, basically not taking it all too seriously as after all it’s a holiday. This attitude will be an anathema to some people who will be focussed on doing something hard and that’s perfectly valid as well.
Anyway the point is this, in recent years I have been more focused on surviving Font that dominating it. As a climber who has limited time to climb it’s always a massive shock to the system to go to Font and try and climb for multiple days in a row, particularly when you factor in that the climbing is super-technical. My elbows, feet and skin take a beating every time. Now I’m not saying I have it figured out, far from it, but I have some ideas that might be useful to some newer climbers or first time visitors.
There are two aspects to preparing for a Font trip. As you will want to maximise your climbing time on your visit you will probably climb multiple days before taking a rest day, for most climbers this is a shock to the system. Climb multiple days on, don’t do a huge amount each day but try and build up to doing a few days in a row just to get your body used to it. Climb outside as much as possible, seek out technical slabs, walls, aretes and tricky topouts. Climb on rough rock to get your skin nice and thick.
The slopey, technical style typical of Font can take some getting used to. Time outdoors working technical problems (focussing on topouts) will stand to you. You need to focus on footwork, especially when the holds are polished in many of the more popular areas. The tiny edges known as grattons will test you edging ability.
The pushing muscles that are often under-used when climbing indoors can be strengthened through dips and pushups. Do lots of press ups (more relevant than pullups in my opinion), every day if possible. Strengthen your elbows, do these exercises, they will help stave off the dreaded Font Elbow.
Do a good taper. I take at least 4 days off before the trip. Don’t do as I once did and arrive in the forest with aching elbows.
How long are you going for? Are you planning to take rest days? What do you want to get out of your trip?
If you are going for three days or less then it’s not worth taking a rest day (train accordingly). Also the weather might have some say in this, so keep a close eye on the forecast. If you are going for longer then five days then at least one rest day is a good idea (2 days on, rest day, 2 days on), if you aren’t in excellent condition don’t expect a miracle after a rest day, you are only going to feel marginally better. If you are there longer then a week then your body will start to adapt somewhat, especially if you take it easy for the first few days, for long trips one possible strategy is too climb everyday but never over do it (stop climbing each day before you are totally wrecked).
Conditions and Weather
Good conditions make a massive difference. The sandstone is fine grained and often polished so even a hint of damp (from sweat or the air) can make life very difficult. Early in the morning or late at night will be cooler, bring a head torch just in case. Though it’s often foggy first thing in the morning.
Many of the boulders are shaded by other boulder or the trees. If you have specific problems in mind try them when they are in shade, it makes a huge difference.
On still damp days the rock dries very slowly, seek out the higher, more exposed areas. Again, check the forecast , don’t wear your skin out climbing in crap conditions if it’s going to improve later in the day.
It’s all about the footwork so good shoes are really important. Even though the slopers get all plaudits you will encounter many grattons (tiny credit card edges), these will test your edging ability and take some getting used to. A good stiff shoe with a nice edge on it really helps on them. Get into the habit of taking your shoes off between problems, bring a pair of comfy shoes (particularly if you are planning on doing circuits) and try not to get any sand in your shoes as it will destroy your feet.
Bring or buy a small piece of carpet or doormat to clean your shoes before you step onto the rock. Even a few grains of sand can feel like ball bearings and it will accelerate the polishing of the holds.
The sandstone isn’t very rough, in fact it’s quite fine grained so it wears the skin steadily rather then ripping chunks off. Your fingertips will get pink and tender. Lots of climbing on rock is the only way to build them up, keep them moisturised and if you can’t climb for a few days give them a blast with a pumice stone as otherwise the skin can start to peel. Consider using Antihydral cream.
Mid-trip moisturise each night, climb on is good. If you have any nicks then sand them. Don’t have a bath. Don’t do the washing up. Drink water.
Choose Your Battles
Font is amazing, it will blow your mind, there is an incredible amount of bouldering,so it can be hard on the first visit to resist the temptation to run around like a madman trying everything. And maybe that’s the right thing to do first time around, but if you can control that urge you will be able to get more out of your trip.
Font grades are hard, expect to get your arse kicked. Take Marie Rose, allegedly the first 6a in the forest, it’s nails, Adam Ondra even fell off it, it’s also very polished and while it may have been 6a when those foot holds and slopers had a nice texture, it certainly feels harder now. Plus it’s very popular so you generally don’t have the problem to yourself and this can induce performance anxiety and makes for greasy holds.
Don’t make the mistake of thing that as you did a Xx down the wall last week you should be well able for them in Font. But on the positive side there are thousands of problems and something to suit everyone, granted it might take years to find it, but somewhere out there is a hard problem, that will suit your style perfectly.
Where working a problem use an analytical approach, check the topout, makes sure you have found all the holds, have a good think about the sequence before you pull on. If you want to be sly about it let everyone else burn themselves out figuring out the sequence and then step up and flash it. Bleau.info has a vast amount of information about Font bouldering, even the most obscure problems and areas are documented and frequently there is video and photos, these can be a great source of beta if used wisely.
If you are struggling on a problem consider that it might be best moving on. Nothing will destroy your muscles faster than repeatedly failing on the same move. Mix up the style of problems, slabs are a good way of giving the arms a rest.
Though generally flat, the landings in Font can be awkward, watch out in particularly for roots, don’t just throw down the pad, take note of what is under it and double up if necessary. When working a problem in a group the pads can become a mess, overlapping and positioned badly. Don’t be afraid of rearranging the pads before your attempt, especially when people are struggling on different parts of a problem.
Spot and get spotted, particularly on the desperate topouts. Watch out for crappy soft rental pads, I have bruised more than one heel thanks to them.
Don’t forget the almond croissants!