One thing remarkable about Fontainebleau is its capacity to keep churning out new problems. And not just new problems, but entire new areas. Areas which a decade or even a few years ago were largely unknown to visiting climbers. As development has continued in unstoppable fashion, and each successive guidebook edition dwarfs the previous one, we now have more venue options available than ever before. Yet the old honeypots seem to get busier every year. Now visiting as four dads with a combined age of over 150 and ten children between us, it's fair to say we were relishing a bit of peace and quiet this Easter. I couldn't stomach the thought of fighting for space at the most popular areas any more. In seeking to avoid the increasingly crowded circuses of Cuvier, Sabots and Isatis (complete with climbers' illegally camped vans parked two or three deep) we found ourselves spending time at areas we'd never visited before.
When I first traveled to Fontainebleau in 2001 it was all about climbing all day every day, classic areas, classic problems. We would drive down from Sheffield one, two or three times a year. Cuvier, Roche aux Sabots, Cul De Chien, Rocher Canon, Isatis, Elephant. We would climb until our skin or elbows gave way. Big teams out at big crags. Big evening meal in a big gite every night. Years later this gave way to parenthood. Trips became less frequent, planned months in advance with a need to stick to the established family friendly areas, kids circuits, known venues, introducing the next generation to the delights of the forest. So this time to find myself in Fontainebleau without the family at Easter was a rare occurrence—but it didn't feel like going full circle back to my 20s where you could go anywhere and do anything, all day. Things had changed. It was time to put some miles in, go into unknown territory and spread the net a bit wider. And the wet showery weather provided a ready-made set of restrictions of its own.
A lot of time was spent chasing dry rock and fast drying problems. One day we clocked up over 13km of walking with pads and full bags. Often hard work and frustrating, but always worth the effort. Even over a busy Easter weekend with dry rock at a premium we didn't see many other climbers at these out-of-the-way areas. We were never crowded out or fighting for space. It was a pleasant surprise given the tales of overcrowding and poor behavior we hear these days—although it has to be said we sadly still witnessed climbers attempting to climb on obviously wet rock. It is perhaps an unfortunate product of the modern, goal-oriented training ethos that climbers can become blind to the process and only think of their personal goals. It is worrying that even at Fontainebleau, the most hallowed of climbing areas, practices like climbing damp rock and caking wet problems with chalk is seen as fair game if It produces a 'send'.
Photographically this trip represented a slight shift in approach too. I've shot film alongside digital for many years now, but always with the nagging doubt that each one was operating at the expense of the other. I used to carry around a bag with a DSLR with two or three lenses, maybe a flash, plus a 35mm or 120 film camera, maybe with a couple more lenses. I used to pride myself on creative packing and the amount of gear I could cram into a camera bag. I once had the shoulder strap on my camera bag give way under the weight of the contents. Remaining primarily a climber, these days I prefer my main weight penalty to be a good quality crashpad on my back, so the camera gear is often pared down to a single camera and lens. Carrying multiple lenses or a big zoom is without doubt more flexible, but can be argued that having more options can dilute your vision somewhat. And the same goes for modern digital cameras; with unlimited ISOs and super-wide to long-telephoto easily catered for, you can go anywhere and shoot anything under any lighting conditions. But creatively, paradoxically, you can find that approach leaves you nowhere to go—rather like bolted aid climbing with battery drills. Everything becomes possible, so the challenge, an intrinsic part of the appeal of the activity, is gone. There are plenty of other parallels to be found in music and art and other creative fields where restrictions and limitations, once embraced, stimulate creativity rather than hinder it.
So I made the commitment to take only one camera, one film, one lens. No digital, no crutch, no backup 'just in case'. All my eggs were in the same basket, and in this case the basket was a rather nice German made classic Rolleiflex 3.5F from 1959, the idea being to try and distil the process to its simplest. No distractions of reviewing every image on the screen afterwards, no juggling spare batteries, no fiddling with a thousand settings. Only a fixed moderate-normal lens, aperture, shutter speed and focus to worry about. No auto-exposure, so a handheld light meter was required. I took just a handful of rolls of one type of film, Ilford's iconic HP5+. A 'high speed' film at ISO400, enabling respectable shutter speeds for capturing action in most daylight conditions I would encounter. Although introduced in 1989, Ilford's earlier emulsions in their HP 'hypersensitive panchromatic' lineage started out in 1931, long before proper rockshoes or even printed topos were used in Fontainebleau, before marked circuits or perhaps even pof/resin. I could make some dubious claim to this being a nod to a timeless look, and a bygone age, progressing in parallel with the development of modern bouldering as an activity in its own right in Fontainebleau, but the truth is I just like the look it produces, a break from the clinical look of digital.
The obvious question remains: Does this actually give me better images than I would have made with a digital camera, or indeed my iPhone? You could view it as a pointless exercise, much as climbing small rocks is viewed by the rest of the world. All I can say is I really did enjoy being out in the forest using the camera enjoying the simplicity, being out with a few friends. Just us and the rock, the trees, the climbing, the light. And that's good enough for me. After all, that's why we keep coming back to Fontainebleau.