I have been bouldering in Fontainebleau many times and my personal experience has been to doss in a tent, live on rubbish food, climb well below my standard and walk away from one of the best climbing venues in the world without having done much at all.
That's not the right way to do it.
I am now running climbing and mountaineering courses, helping people to get the most out of themselves, climbing as well as ever and really getting a buzz out of sharing what I know. Last year I organised a trip to Font with my friends Ben, Edd, Luke and Alex with the aim of putting some of my thoughts into practice. It went really well so this year I scaled it up with a much larger group.
This trip was more than just finding the hardest problems and pulling on them until you had shredded your fingers. I wanted the group to come home with a broader understanding of what climbing at Font is all about, so if they went back they would know what gîtes are, they would want to be eating well, and during the day they would be cranking hard. On the basis of my experience the Alpkit guys have asked me to share my advice... so make yourself a cuppa and read on...
A week bouldering in Fontainebleau
If you want a leisurely family holiday I think that Easter or a month after Easter is the best time to go. It is comfortable and you will be able to climb in shorts and t-shirt most days. If you want to climb at your limit, or you are focussed on the harder grades then you should go when it is colder. Font sandstone is like gritstone, it is a frictional rock. In my opinion one of the best times to go is during the February half term or even early November, that's really not a bad time to go... but I have had most of my best trips in February. I know someone who spent 6 weeks and got just 10 days of climbing, sometimes you just can't predict the weather.
Walking around the bouldering areas you will find the rocks marked with coloured arrows, these are the famed Font circuits. Different grades will be indicated by different colours and it is a really convenient way to have a leisurely day out. Circuits provide an excellent way to pick a lot of problems at the same grade, just follow the arrows and when you like the look of one get on it. If it is your first time in an area it can save you a lot of time searching for what you want to do.
Font circuits are not a push over. To complete a red circuit you will probably need to be a good E3 climber.. fit with hard skin. Even if you try a really easy circuit you may still wear down your finger tips, that's quite easy to do. Speaking from past experience I wouldn't recommend trying to tick a circuit on a rest day!
One aspect that some people new to Font don't realise is that climbs finish on top. If you have only ever climbed indoors that can come as a bit of a shock!
Font was a training ground for the Alps and these grades will give you a rough estimate of how difficult it is to complete a circuit. Even if you do manage to get around an ED circuit don't drive straight to the Alps and jump on a ED mountain route, the style of climbing and objective dangers are very different!
Even the circuits can contain really difficult problems. You can find 8as in the white circuits, for example the white circuit at Bas Cuvier is just ridiculous. I have never met anyone who has gone to Font and said, "OK I want to do a different circuit every day" you know, that would be hard core. In my whole time of going to Font I have probably done five circuits and one of those took me seven years to do.
One aspect that some people new to Font don't realise is that climbs finish on top. If you have only ever climbed indoors that can come as a bit of a shock! Because of this a lot of people don't know how to mantle so they get to their hands on the top and think "yeah wicked.." and then they have to work out how to get over the lip. Getting to the top of a boulder and standing on top of it is a massive achievement, but check first how you are going to get down, a tricky descent can be an even greater challenge!
Grades apart.. there is a subtle difference between flopping out and topping out!
A sociable environment
Font is an exceptionally sociable and user friendly venue. Some areas are big and it is easy to get lost, but it is not difficult to set barriers and contain people. Each area may have anything from 2s, 3s and 4s to 7c and 8a all in a 20 metre circle. People never have to stray far to find something at their level, if they do you can just make another little area.
Our Font trip worked really well, but I can't see a trip like that happening in the UK. Font has a high density of climbing in a relatively small area, our gîte was awesome and it would be hard to find a cottage in the UK, in the right climbing area, with the right weather that would cater for all grades of climber. I really think Font is one of the only places that caters for everything.
Equipment and safety
When people are taught to spot indoors they are told to stand off the crash mat with outstretched arms and direct a falling climber to land on their feet. It is a different story outdoors, you don't keep your arms in the air, you want to try and catch the falling climber in mid air and put them down somewhere safe. Although climbing outdoors is more dangerous it is still a very controllable environment if common sense is applied. Firstly you need to have the right matting, cover the area, secure the mat so it cannot slide, check the boulder mats are clear of stuff and make sure your spotter knows what he is doing. A great example of this is the classic 7a problem Levitation. It features a precarious move where you wedge your foot above your head in a pocket. Should the climber fall in this position it could easily end with a broken ankle and a tiring piggy back to the car. This isn't the time you want your spotter to be standing back watching the action, he needs to get involved close to the climber, monitor each movement and be ready to catch.
I have already touched on the differences between spotting indoors and outdoors. You want a spotter who is alert, awake, caffeined up and spatially aware. They need to know what is going on around them, they need to be aware of any kids or animals who are likely to wander into the fall zone, they should understand what the differences are between boulder mats and not be stand-offish. Sometimes a spotter may not be available, so when I boulder alone I make sure the area is really well matted out and I would never try anything close to my limit which would result in a bad fall. If it is a straight fall then the danger can be controlled. Sometimes the falling climber can be a danger to his spotter, but sometimes it is better that two people are a little bruised rather than one person is seriously injured.
Boulder mat design
In general boulder mats work incredibly well outdoors. My favourite are those with soft foam on the bottom and hard foam on the top. The soft foam deforms well over rocks, I think this is one of the best design in mats. Also you can get different sized mats to cover different sized holes, and don't forget that you can turn a mat upside down to cover a protruding rock, you can even hold them up in the air to parry a falling climber on really high ball problems. Boulder mats are designed at this minute very well and can only get better, especially with a French stick holder. I think shaped mats to fit specific terrain would be a gimmick. For the same money you could probably just buy a much simpler larger mat and cover the area completely. A mat larger than the Phud could be good, but you have to consider carrying it and storing it. Some kind of strap system to carry a Phud and Woomf together would also be interesting. For longer circuits you want to be light and agile. I would like to see something like the Woomf with a velcro patch for a rucksack. It would carry climbing boots, chalk bag and French stick. When you get to your next problem just rip the rucksack off and throw the pad on the ground. I think that would work really well.
Hinged designs have two separate pieces of foam. This has the advantage that it is cheaper to replace if just one corner wears out. Of course the foam is split down the middle but the chances of going through are low because the foam sits very close together. You can also fold a hinge over a boulder.. at the end of the day it comes down to personal preference. In busier areas it is likely you will be sharing mats with other people. I have found that people are usually happy to share their mats but it is good practice to make sure you are happy with them.. soft at bottom, hard on top and don't be afraid to move them around if you find any gaps or add your own. People are always happy for more mats.
Winter bouldering essentials
Take some little brushes to clean holds, a paint brush stick to reach high holds or just simply find a long stick in the forest. Finger tape, thermals and a flask is really important. A down jacket will keep you warm between climbs, a beer towel for cleaning your boots and most importantly a lot of motivation! When it is cold you need to be psyched to climb, so work out a plan and stick to it. Warming up at home is good, but its effectiveness depends on how far you live from the boulders. Personally I might do some stretching or a light core session before leaving the house.
Helmets and bouldering
I have considered using a helmet for bouldering, especially on massive highballs, however I have never been in that situation and I don't wear a helmet when soloing.. but you have to be careful not to push yourself. It is not usual to climb with a helmet in the bouldering scene which may not be best practice but it is common practice. Personally I wouldn't wear a helmet when bouldering with friends, where everyone has a similar ability and everyone knows and understands the risk. If I was instructing a group of absolute beginners on their first 5 to 10 times out I would make them wear a helmet and I would also wear one myself, when you are instructing you need to be a model. As for the junior climbing team or as we were doing on this trip, the landing areas were always well matted with good spotting going on. If all the kids had helmets they would feel out of place. If at any point they wanted to do something dangerous, either we would put helmets on them or we don't do it, commonly we would choose not to do it.
If you hope to perform at your best you need to warm up properly. Start off with some form of aerobic activity, go for a jog, do some dynamic stretching, leg kicks or star jumps for 10 to 15 minutes. Then pull on the wall without doing moves, trees are always handy, maybe get the slack-line out and run up and down it. A Thera-Band or Poi session is really good for warming up, basically anything other than climbing. Turning up at the crag and saying I'm going to crush will just give you a flash pump and get the tendons popping. The aim is to warm up progressively for up to an hour.
Watch the Bleausards. Fontainebleau rewards good technique.
No matter how strong you are Font is all about subtle technique. The top grades are all worked out, but you can get really spanked on the lower grades, a lot of people quickly find out you can spend a week working a grade 5. It is all about the subtleties, you can have two foot holds an inch apart and sometimes if you don't move your foot across that inch to use the worst one you are not going to do the problem. If you are strong it helps but it will only get you so far, then you really need to watch what the Bleausards are doing.. where they put there feet, their heels, their toes and study how they are moving. If you are a technical climber you can really get a lot done at Font.
Inspire a good performance.
Groups can be difficult to manage if they get competetive. If the group is competitive it will start falling out.. you know, 'I'm better than you, you're better than me', that kind of thing. It's much better to try and encourage an atmosphere that inspires and motivates and I think we achieved that on our trip. There were obviously people who were going to be competitive with each other, so it was a case of splitting them up for a little while, then bringing them back together on a harder problem, letting them climb with people who are a lot better than themselves, but also to get them together with people who were not so good to encourage them to do a bit of teaching. It's not all about competing, that is what the competition scene is for. Font is about getting competition mode out of your head, chilling out and having a good time. It is good for relaxing rather than trying to be the best.
No matter how strong you are Font is all about subtle technique.
Visiting areas outside of the UK is exceptionally important! There are a lot of people who are good in the competition scene but there are also a lot of people who are better but who don't do comps, they just climb outside. Competing isn't for everyone but I have never met anyone who hasn't enjoyed climbing outdoors. It is important for them to get outside and experience different areas and simply mix it up. Climb some multi-pitch limestone in El Chorro, deep water solo over a blue ocean, these experiences really change your perspective of what is possible. When you return to your local wall and realise nothing has changed, how small it is you just can't wait to get away again. Trips abroad provide a mix of culture and a young climber is going to come back more relaxed