Fontainebleau doesn’t need an introduction; everybody knows it. If you happen to be in one of its many famous sectors on a busy afternoon, you’ll almost need to queue in order to get on the classic problem you’ve come to see and try. And yet we return.
Having been there a couple of times, one starts going deeper than admiring the concentration of boulders and quality of rock in most of the areas. Once you've done a few problems of different styles, you start wondering what it is that makes Font so special. Why are there so many climbs of lower grades that beat the visitors and why do 7th grade climbers fail to flash a 4b traverse? Well, the best way to find out is go and do it. Off we went then. Instead of concentrating solely on pulling hard and projecting, we went into the Forest to try the actual French style, to play on circuits, long traverses and incredible slab problems. Slabs are the mark of Fontainebleau, yet many tourists usually aim for hard ascents in a different style—and oh, how many slabby 6as seem absolutely insane!
How come, then, that the grading remains at such level, although so many climbers are beaten by the ‘easy stuff’? I think a great deal of the answer to this lies in the local climbing culture. This is also why the place appears so exceptional to me personally. Bouldering is not a niche sport known by few and done by even fewer in dark, claustrophobic gyms neither a show to watch. It’s a part of the lifestyle, a way to relax after work or spend a family afternoon. You see people of all ages, children instructed by their parents or elderly couples enjoying their time with nature. And if you've been climbing the blank slabs since you were three, it doesn’t seem funny to use monos on 5th grade climbs, crimp with your fingertips on balancy 6as and use tiny precise footholds just before a mantle on 4b problems. However, if you come from elsewhere in the world it may seem to you that it’s just not right. A ‘three’ doesn’t have the right to look like that! On the vast area covered with plethora of wonderful boulders you will naturally find a variety of styles and if you want, you can escape into what you know and can perform well on. But maybe it’s worth going and sliding off that 5a slab?
A part of Font's beauty and uniqueness is also how interesting and demanding the easier problems are. And knowing the difference between the hard and the demanding seems to be the key element in attempts to understand the Forest.
So what is the Font style? If I were to try and define it, I’d say it’s balance and calmness. Pure finger strength. Body tension. Footwork. Real passion. Frustration. It’s just a draft definition, though, definitely not quite finished. Fontainebleau offers a beautiful journey to a climber, probably humiliating at times, but rich and educating. It’s worth exploring.
Climber, photographer and climbing instructor based in the North East of England