Fontainebleau, France

The forest at Fontainebleau is world renowned, visited by climbers from almost every country imaginable, and yet it can be a bit of a minefield finding useful information on logistics for the area. Personally, i’ve been more than a dozen times and know it pretty well. In those trips there are certain things i’ve discovered.

It is often said that one must drop a grade climbing at Font, both due to the peculiarities of the climbing and the nature of the rock. Climbing on gritstone and granite could be good practice for the slopey nature, but contrary to popular belief, it is not all slap-happy bouldering, and there are problems of any grade and style imaginable, utilising slopers crimps and jugs alike. While it is easy to fail on easy problems well below your grade, and almost everyone does on their first few trips, the quality is indeed there in abundance from 2+ to 8c and for a first trip, i would suggest going for maximum mileage without trying too hard to get big grade boundaries.

This is the home of Circuit climbing, the problems being numbered and coloured to give you a continuing range of problems of a similar difficulty. While originally a way to train for Alpine ascents, these circuits are now popular with boulderers for their own use, and the colour coding gives a useful initial idea of difficulty. Beginning with the Orange, they get progressively harder through Yellow, Blue, Red, White and Black, although in my experience these are to be taken with a pinch of salt. The only ones i have tried personally are the Red circuit at Bois Rond, and the Blue at Bas Curvier, but this style of climbing doesn’t particularly suit me.

The area was originally a large sandstone plateau, that has eventually been whittled down over several millenia, leaving some fantastic sculptures in the rock, including the stunning Elephant boulder at the area that bears it’s name. During the 19th Century, the French aristocracy used it as a hunting ground, planting the large forest which stands there today and giving the area the aspect which i hold so dear. As such, the landings are generally very good, often sandy but with the occasional root or rogue underfoot rock to contend with. While a pad is highly recommended, despite the Bleausards you will see arriving with their small scrap of carpet, if you need to it would be possible to climb here without, by picking a careful line, and maybe utilising those of people already there… The one thing i would warn is that falls are not always straight down, excellently demonstrated by Helicopter 7a at Bas Curvier, where despite a perfectly flat floor, accidents on this problem are a weekly occurance.

There is so much talked of in terms of grading of boulder problems, and this is the home of one of the most universal systems. I’m often asked of the comparisons to various other systems, but there is so much flying around on the internet that it seems pointless to discuss it here. For rough comparisons check out 8a.nu or the Rockfax website or if you leave a message on the page, I will give my own interpretation of the grades.

The Areas.

The forest of Fontainebleau is truly enormous, covering a total of 108 square miles* with several guidebooks covering literally dozens of crags. Our first few trips were a bit of a minefield, with little or no direction as to where to visit. Thankfully now i have gathered a bit more of an idea, with my preferred areas. As said above, this is not exhaustive by any means, but here are some of my favourite crags in the area:

  • Bas Curvier. It is difficult to visit Fontainebleau without a trip here. The worlds first 6a is here (La Marie Rose) and the first 7a (l’Abbatoir), and 7c (Abbe Ressina) and within five yards of each other. The history is phenomenal and rightly so, for any grades, with the red and blue circuits being particularly famous and many lines being spectacular. The boulders are literally roadside, so walk ins aren’t exactly an issue, and given a bit of practice and an ounce of common sense, Curvier is straightforward to navigate. The downside is, erm, how to put this delicately, the car parks propensity for local working girls. While this isn’t an issue for the daytime, there can be quite a lot of “rubbish” near the parking and it is certainly not a place to try and wild camp… There are several other superb areas around Curvier although i have not as yet ventured further than the classic problems near the road.
  • l’Elephant. This is home to one of the most famous boulders in the world, and it often makes me laugh the idea of Parisians from centuries past seeing Hannibal cross the Alps on a creature that looked like that rock… Personally, i’m not enamored with this crag. There is easily a days worth of quality climbing here, and if i travel with someone who hasn’t been before, we will go to l’Elephant for a day. However, it is popular with non-climbing families which can create slight issues, and i have come across more than a little broken glass and other rubbish here. While probably no worse than Bas Curvier i don’t think it has the quality and history to make it a worthwhile venue in my opinion.
  • Trois Pignons. This area is massive and covers an inordinate amount of climbing, easily more than a lifetimes worth and is without doubt my preferred hunting ground. There is fun for all the family here, from family friendly Roche aux Sabots and the open and relaxed Cul de Chien to the quick drying and open 95.2, to name just three amazing spots. Another favourite of mine is the small “locals” venue of Gorge aux Chats, where there may not be as many problems, but it is generally quieter and easy walking distance from the camping at La Musadiere. The place to be, in my opinion.
  • Bois Rond. I have only visited this crag once, but found there to be some excellent problems and a great circuit or two. While slightly harder to find than some other crags, if you’re looking for somewhere a bit quieter it’s another good option. When there, do the classic Totem Pole 2+ whose quality easily makes up for the low grade.
  • Apremont. This was one of the first places i ever went in Font, although it took me years to realise it was Apremont we went to! I remember the problems being mainly high, and not that spectacular, with a mild walk in. I’d be tempted to return, but probably only for a day. If i ever do, this will change.
  • Cuisiniere and Isatis. On my 2011 trip Cuisiniere was a new spot for me. The first boulders we found at Cuisiniere Sud were astounding, and there is plenty to go at, from the circuit to classic hard lines such as Hale Bopp 7c. It is a little trek from the car and while it is flat and easy, if you’re short on time Isatis could be a simpler option. Another one with a host of easier lines to pick off and some hard classics (try Divine Decadence 7b) and worth a look.
  • Canche aux MerciersAnother nice family friendly venue with a slightly tricky approach that is well worth figuring out. Some nice classic problems on yet more flat simple landings. Pretty average but for Font, that generally means it’s worth exploring.
  • Drei Zinnen. A spot with a more mountainous feel, balanced on a hill at the end of an old aqueduct. Not as plentiful in it’s problems, there are some gems in there worth seeking out, making up for the noise of the local main road.
  • Note: i could carry on with this for a long time, naming every crag i’ve visited and giving my opinion. It would take forever. Just because a venue doesn’t make the list, doesn’t mean it’s not worthy and to be honest, it might be better than those mentioned and i’ve just not been there yet! Those above are a selection of some of my favourites for the first-timer – once you’ve got your bearings, keep exploring!

Local amenities.

Obviously, within such a vast amount of land there will be a large number of options for almost everything needed. As with the climbing spots above, below are some of my normal haunts, as it would take a lifetime to go and collect a comprehensive list, not to mention document it all! Hopefully they’ll be pretty handy when you’re looking for something useful but please remember: everything in France closes on Sundays. Well, everything round here anyway.

  • Guides. I dare say you won’t find any places where you are as spoiled for choice with guidebooks as you are with Fontainebleau. Of course, we’ll all have our favourites and i can only give you mine own but i’ll try and justify them as i go along. The first one i reach for on any Font trip is Bart van Raaij’s 7+8 guide; yes, it’s a bit elitist and no, there are no photo topos but the maps are second to none. His 5+6 guides are similar and now cover ALL the straight up problems in the forest!  Legend of the forest Jacky Godoffe produced Font a Bloc – another fine guide, the first in a three-part series. Photo topos but not extensive. Fontainebleau Off Piste is a new version of the old pink guide, with added contours. Still not my favourite, can’t place why. Finally, as i could go on all day with this, is the Jingo Wobbly guide called Fontainebleau Magique. This guide tends to polarise opinion; some love it, some say it is strewn with inaccuracies, i have personal reasons not to like it that i won’t get into.
  • Food. There are five main, large supermarkets i know of around the area: the first is down by the train station in Fontainebleau itself and if you follow signs for La Gare, you can’t miss it. The second is an Intermarche, just out of Milly la Foret, towards Malesherbes if memory serves correctly, and while handy for those staying around the Trois Pignons area, is significantly smaller. There is another now in the centre of Milly la Foret that, while not as big, is much better situated for other nice bits and cafes. Next is in Nemours, but if i’m honest, i can’t remember any more than that, other than it is also a good size with a good selection. The last, and by far biggest and best, is on the way to Melun, north from Bas Curvier and is remarkably easy to find if you keep going straight through Chailly-en-Bierre. It also has a rather large…
  • Climbing shops. Sadly, the French have a preference for large chain stores, and the bigger the better. The most common is undoubtedly Decathlon, and there is a very large one by the supermarket. Their selection is pretty poor, though, so don’t expect to get much but it’s handy if your shoes have died or you need some more chalk. More recently, more have opened in Fontainebleau itself, the first just off the high street and through a small alley which is often work a look. Second is on the Rue de France called Sport Outdoor and i have been told by a friend it is very good. While they are friendly, it sadly pales in comparison to the large shop on Rue Paul Seremy, which opened in 2013. Called s’cape, it has a great selection of all sorts of stuff, with climbing films on the tele, and loads of local info. Please help to support them all.
  • Accomodation – Campsites. There are two that i have used: one at La Musadiere near Milly la Foret and the other at Grez-sur-Long. The former is ideally suited to climbing around the Trois Pignons area, with crags within walking or at the very least, close driving distance. The downside is it is quite expensive (link to prices: here), although it also has chalets for hire too, if it’s too crap to camp. The camping at Grez-sur-Long is a lot cheaper (about half the price) but that doesn’t take into account the extra fuel you’ll spend every day getting to and from the popular climbing areas. Still, it does have wifi and they both have good showers/toilets.
  • Accomodation – Gites. I have only ever stayed in one gite in the area, situated near Bois-le-Roi, called Gite Kailloux. It was all arranged by someone else, so i don’t know the ins and outs. What i do know is that it sleep at least four, was VERY reasonably priced and had a wonderful feel to it, with a nice kitchen, superb bathroom and climbing pictures everywhere. The downside is it’s a long way from a lot of the climbing. The famous Maison Bleau is also worth a punt but fills up MONTHS in advance. There are hundreds more around.
  • Cafes and Bars. The main one i used to use, and often still do, is La Taverne on the high street in Fontainebleau. It has free wifi and good food and is generally a really nice place to go and chill for a few wet hours. In Milly, there is a bar on the main square that likewise has free wifi but irritatingly, only one mains plug… Nice bar though. But the big one to mention is Croq Foret in Arbonne la Foret: free WiFi, the occasional bits for sale (like brushes and guidebooks), gites available, bloody good pizza and the nicest bloke in the forest. Definitely worth a try, as you’ll probably drive past it at some point.
  • Other handy places. Yeah, i hope you never need to use this info but there’s a hospital in Fontainebleau too. They don’t let you sleep there if your mate has broken his leg though. Trust me. The vet can be found by the Gendarmerie and the Pompiers on Avenue General Leclerc in Milly la Foret.
  • Websites. There exists one of the best websites for a specific area i have ever known at bleau.info. It is truly incredible the amount of data that is on this site, with specific route info, photos, videos and grade opinions for almost every problem in the area. It is as close to comprehensive as you can get, hence putting it at the bottom of the page for you after you’ve read the rest of this post… There are loads of others out there too, like this one, which confirms a lot of what i’ve said and offers some other suggestions.

Relevant blog posts: here (if you’re that bored or psyched).

*Info courtesy of Wikipedia

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