Fontainebleau: Survival Guide

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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.

Check out this article for more general information about the practicalities of Fontainebleau bouldering.

Prepare Well

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. 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.

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Think Strategic

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.

Circuits

One of the best and most unique things about Fontainebleau is the circuits (Colour coded collections of between 20-70 problems). Not only do they make it easy to identify problems but they also offer a novel bouldering experience . Doing an ‘easy’ circuit can make for a interesting day out. 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. In my experience circuits fall into two categorises, popular and very polished or else quiet and vegetated. So be prepared.

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Feet

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.

Skin

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.

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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.

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Tactics

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.

Landings

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!

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