A friend called me up a while back to ask for some advice on taking a 4 and a 7 year old to Fontainebleau. Twenty minutes of chat later it dawned on me that I have a reasonable amount of knowledge to pass on on the subject so thought I'd put it together and share!
OK, so where is Fontainebleau, why is is so amazing, and what's the deal with climbing there?
Fontainebleau, commonly known as 'Font', is a large forested area about an hour's drive south of Paris. It's actually a pretty French town, but in the world of climbing it's the area that carries the name, not the bricks and mortar of the chateau. In amongst the trees of the forest are literally tens of thousands of sandstone boulders, conveniently clustered together into sectors. Each sector has a name, and within each sector, over the years climbers have developed short climbs or problems (Blocs in French) on them. In the early 20th century mountaineers training for the Alps began to link problems of a similar difficulty together into circuits allowing them to combine the technical skills necessary to climb harder, with the endurance required for long days in the mountains. In order to sign post the circuits small painted dots, arrows and numbers were daubed on the boulders.
People come from all over the world to climb the circuits. What makes them so famous? Using them to train for the bigger mountains is little practiced these days, but the allure of the circuit has grown into something much bigger. Each sector now boasts multiple circuits of varying degrees of difficulty, each denoted by a different paint colour (much like ski and mountain bike runs). In fact many indoor climbing walls have adopted the 'circuit' as a way of structuring their offering to their members. Having been to Font at least once a year for over twenty five years I can honestly say that it's one of my favourite places to climb. There's a tranquility in the forest that perfectly suits the pursuit of bouldering, whether it is alone on a crisp and frosty morning, with a few mates working out the moves on a hard problem on a spring evening, or with a bunch of families on holiday in the summer. The place is massive - it would take the best part of an hour to drive from the furthest south to the furthest north of the sectors, so there is plenty for everybody. The climbing itself is technical, interesting and varied. And there are world class bakeries in virtually every sleepy little village.
How does the grading work?
Boulder problems are grouped into circuits, usually of between 25 and 60 similarly graded blocs. Each circuit is colour coded, with sequential numbers painted neatly onto the rock at the start of the problem. As you top out there is usually, though not always, an arrow pointing you in the direction of the next one which may be on the same boulder, nearby, or some way away. Following the arrows is all part of the fun and getting lost at least once per circuit is standard. Kids circuits are white (easy), yellow (medium) and orange (hard) and tend to be focused on smaller boulders for obvious reasons. If you want to test yourself further then blue is next, followed by read, and then finally a few black, and oddly, some white. There is a large degree of overlap between the colours, and an orange circuit in one sector may vary enormously from an orange in another. Each bloc will have a technical grade of its own, ranging from 1 to 9, and subdivided into a, b and c. Broadly speaking 1a would be a rocky walk, 4a would be a taxing problem, 5a would stump the majority of non-climbers, 6a would require skill and strength, 7a is the realm of very experienced climbers, 8a would be reserved for a very small percentage of super climbers, and 9a, well 9a is unthinkable for all but a handful of those who have devoted their lives to the sport. Essentially use the grades as a guide, but don't invest too much emotional energy as you'll end up struggling on a supposedly 'easy' problem.
What age can you take your children from?
We've been taking ours since before they could walk. Even if they can't climb the boulders it's pretty cool seeing them grubbing about in the sand and pine needles, but it's an absolute joy to watch them scaling their first blocs. The magic of Font lies in the fact that there are so many clean boulders of every size so no matter the age or size of the climber, there is plenty for everyone. We used to sometimes put a harness on our boys and lead them up some of the higher boulders on a sling held in the hand.
Where to take them?
This is the million dollar question. Which bits of the forest are best suited to kids? The stock answer is Elephant, Canche Aux Merciers and Roche Aux Sabots. To be fair they are hard to beat. Elephant has a super yellow circuit which comprises something like 60 problems over a couple of kilometres of scrambling. The problems are never too high, though one or two require a mat and a good spot, and many of them strike a really good balance to climb in a mixed group of kids and adults. Roche Aux Sabots is altogether friendlier, with a massive expanse of sandy forest devoid of much undergrowth, but peppered with small boulders and sand pits. The white circuit is as easy as bouldering comes and is a must for any beginners. Canche Aux Merciers is a funny one. The sand there is much dirtier than Elephant so your kids will finish the day looking pretty grubby, and there's noise from the A6 motorway not far away, but the climbing is excellent in the lower grades. Aside from these three gems there are literally dozens of other venues. Check out this post on UKBouldering for some ideas. I posted a question on Facebook to see what folk recommended, and surprisingly enough they came back with the above three as the most popular, but there are a few more suggestions in there too.
What guidebooks to use?
Another tough question. There are probably more guides to Font than to any other climbing area in the world. If I were to recommend just one guide which will serve your first few trips then it would have to be Stone Country's Essential Fontainebleau. It's a pocket sized guide with a meagre 170 pages, but it contains a decent set of maps to help you find the area you want to go to, and to orientate yourself on a circuit. You really don't need a guide to help you navigate the actual circuits. Chances are that if you get lost mid-circuit a guide won't help you find where you are anyway, and you'll be best off retracing your steps to the last paint dab and looking harder. It only costs £9.99 too. There are a myriad of other guides so ask your friends for other recommendations, but this one goes with me on every foray on every trip. You could also buy the paper IGN 1:25,000 map of the forest which is pretty invaluable if you do actually get lost, or want to go in search of somewhere off the beaten track. Most of the boulder areas are marked on the map with a handy twin-peak icon, and the hundreds of paths and tracks are all named on the map. An added bonus is that the map features a number of Sentiers, or circular walks, which are oodles of fun (more below) with kids.
What climbing gear do I need? (and a few words about spotting)
You'll obviously need some basic climbing gear. The single most important bit of kit is a pair of climbing shoes for whoever is climbing. Don't go and expect to have much fun in a pair of trainers or even approach shoes. Invest in even the cheapest pair of shoes and it'll open up a whole world of opportunities. Decathlon do kids rock shoes for less than £20. They are not the best shoes but are an order of magnitude better than not having them.
Slightly more controversial is whether to take a chalk bag. Personally I find that climbing with chalk is a must, but I have friends who manage without it. It's used in the same way gymnasts and weight lifters use it to keep their hands dry. Some of the local climbers swear by 'Pof' or resin, but I'm not a fan as it remains on the holds and makes them feel more polished in the longer term. If you do use chalk then it's really important to brush off any residue you leave.
A bouldering mat is recommended. These are foldable crash pads to put underneath you whilst climbing. They usually consist of two layers of foam, a soft under layer for absorbing the impact when the harder upper layer is landed on from above. If you are ever in any doubt as to which way up to put a mat (a surprising number of people get it wrong) then think of it from the manufacturers point of view. Which side would their logo go? Facing the floor or the camera? Used correctly bouldering mats are essential if you start to climb a bit harder, but used badly they can become more of a hindrance than a help. A bouldering mat is not a guaranteed safety net - balance it on a pointy rock and it’s not going to present a perfectly stable and flat landing, but more of a see saw to slide off! It's also worse to land on the edge of a mat and turn an ankle than it is to land on the flat ground next to it. On easier circuits where the climbing is simple and you might be moving in a big group, carrying a mat with you can become a pain so don’t just assume that you will need one. Alpkit do some of the best value mats,
Whether you take a bouldering mat or not you will almost certainly engage in some spotting. Spotting is the act (and art) of standing below a climber and helping them, if and when they fall, to land safely. As I’ve already said, a bouldering mat doesn’t automatically make a flat and stable landing. It will, to some degree, reflect the ground beneath it, but it will make the surface softer. Spotting then, is used to help guide the falling climber onto the best bit of the mat, feet first. Spotting is a bit of a hot potato. Done badly it can endanger not only the climber but the spotter too. Done well it can literally save a life! The number one rule of spotting is to be attentive. Hold your hands in the air and be ready at any moment to act. Generally speaking when I am spotting I am either aiming to get my hands under the armpits of the climber, or, if they are too high for that, under their bum. Even with a young child you are not going to physically catch a falling climber, they are too heavy. The aim is to hold your hands high, and use them to decelerate the climber at the same time as guiding them onto the mat. Be careful your thumbs don’t get caught, and try to be aware of where the climbers hands are as it’s not uncommon to catch a flailing knuckle in the mouth for your efforts! Rule number two is to always think about the head. Ankles mend, heads are fragile things. Spotting kids is generally a lot easier than adults, but don’t underestimate how heavy they are when falling from a height. And of course you can still spot even if there is no mat, or if the mat is in the wrong place.
What else to take with you?
A football, a frisbee and a set of boules. If you can find an area without any other people, with a central boulder and plenty of relatively clear space around it (it’s a lot easier than you might think) then it's really nice to warm up before climbing. Boules is self explanatory, though it's fun playing in amongst the tree roots and boulders (being careful not to throw the metal balls actually at the rocks!) instead of on a flat pitch.
Our kids will spend the majority of each day playing with slings and bits of rope in the trees. Teach them some basic knots to make them relatively safe though. We've taken all manner of slack lines, pulleys, static zip wires and so on in the past too.
I guess that the most important thing is to engage with your kids and don’t just leave them to their own devices. Font can get busy during school holidays but that doesn’t mean it automatically becomes the realm of kids and families. There will still be plenty of folk climbing without kids, and it’s important to remember that you should respect them as well as the fact that you are outside in a beautiful place. Don’t treat it as a theme park or soft play area. On the flip side, if you are climbing without kids then it's important to remember that there are likely to be kids around, and to watch your language. Tantrums from climbers focused on a project are not uncommon and generally always reflect badly on the individual concerned. Playing music in the forest is definitely not an option.
What else is there to do other than climbing?
If you have kids with you then you’re most likely not going to be climbing ten hours a day so you’ll need something else to occupy you. Fontainebleau town itself is nice enough with a grand chateau and a carousel if your kids like that sort of thing. Though I’ve never been, Disneyland is not a million miles away, on the outskirts of Paris. Paris too is doable for a day trip on the train. But without doubt the favourite activity of our kids when not climbing is messing around in the forest. This can range from the above games of boules and Bloc, to frisbee and football, or to venturing onto the Sentiers . Sentiers are circular walking routes in the forest, marked on the 1:25,000 map in pink. They range in length from a few kilometres to full day outings, but they have one thing in common: they seek out the most interesting jumbles of boulders, and are at times more like an easy graded bouldering circuit than a walk. They are marked with paint arrows from start to finish. Sending the kids off at the front to find the next arrow or marker is all part of the fun. As the crow flies you often won’t cover much distance, but they will give you a good workout!
Check out this website for a host of walking routes.
Another option is to head to the Base De Loisirs at Buthiers. This ‘leisure base’ is amazing and I wish there were more of them in the UK. There is parking for a good number of vehicles in a central space, with all manner of activities available in the immediate area. There is, of course, bouldering, but as well as that there is a frisbee golf course, orienteering, running, walking and mountain biking trails, there’s a high rises course and an amazing lido (see below). Some of it is free, some is charged for, whilst some is accessible all year round, but some is seasonal. It gets busy, especially in the lido, but it’s still a lot of fun if you approach with the right mindset.
If you take your mountain bikes with you to the forest then there a hundreds of kilometres of walking trails to explore, as well as the dedicated tracks at Buthiers. Bikes can also make getting to some of the further away climbing areas a little more interesting, though cycling with a large bouldering mat can be testing!
Where to cool off when it gets too hot?
Family trips to Font often happen en route to the south of France during the summer holidays when the temperature in the forest can be on the warm side. In fact it can warm up pretty uncomfortably at any time of the year. Aside from sweaty hands not being so great at holding onto warm rock, hot temperatures can induce the need to cool off. Sadly the forest is not well endowed with naturally good swimming spots. There are a few rivers which can be used, but they are generally pretty unsatisfactory. The best bet, if there from June to September, is to head to the open air lido at Buthiers. It gets really busy, largely with teenagers, but it’s an amazing place to cool off with a range of pools and slides. It’s not too expensive either. There's a swimming pool if you camp at Musardiere.
What about dogs?
If you have a passport for your dog then it’s definitely possible to take him or her. It’s a forest so dogs will generally have a lot of fun. Very few of the bouldering areas are anywhere near busy roads so that shouldn’t’ be a problem. However there are a few considerations. There are both snakes and wild boar. Snakes are not uncommon and I know of at least one friend who’s dog was bitten by an adder and was pretty ill as a result. If your dog is a chaser then there are also deer, though these are not very common. There are also plenty of folk picnicking, and if I were high above my mat on a testing builder problem and a dog ran or stood underneath me I’d be having a stern word with the owner. Essentially bringing your dog along and letting them roam free among the boulders whilst you are climbing is probably best avoided, but managed well there’s no reason not to bring them.
Where to stay?
There are a number of campsites. La Musardier in the Trois Pignons area is a favourite for climbers. It has a pool which opens in the summer, and is walking distance from some of the popular climbing areas. There’s a nice spot just outside Malsherbes which is quite close to Buthiers and the lido. This site is on some water which, although it’s not deep enough to swim in, still helps to cool the atmosphere.
If camping is not your thing then there are dozens of Gîte’s in the area. AirBnB is probably your best bet as the French websites which purport to help you find a Gîte are still stuck in the early years of webs design and are virtually unusable. Gîte’s generally offer pretty good value accommodation, especially if you are in a large group. There are also a few cheap hotels which climbers use regularly. Formula 1 between Fontainebleau and Melun, and Etap in Fontainebleau itself are the closest. They have 3-person rooms which usually comprise a double bed below and a single bunk above. They are pretty no-frills, but cheap as a result.
Camper vans are the third option. Font attracts road trippers from all over Europe and they come in their vans. Although there are official camper van spots like the one outside Milly La Forest, these tend to attract the larger motor homes driven by retirees. The climbers generally use smaller vans and seek out the car parks to the climbing areas. This can make for a convivial and international atmosphere in the evenings, but it does bring with it its problems. Principally one of human waste. Last Easter we stopped off in our van at Isatis, and I counted 35 camper vans parked there! The majority of these most likely don’t have toilets so the areas near the car park are pretty unpleasant minefields of tissue and poo. If you have a van PLEASE CONSIDER TAKING A CASSETTE TOILET. There are facilities to empty them around the place. What really needs to happen is the local authority needs to establish some dedicated areas for vans to park up with some basic facilities
Wild camping in the forest is possible, but if you do this then keep a low profile. Tents up late, and down early, and definitely, definitely no camp fires. There was a large fire which devastated a significant area of the forest a few summers back.
Where to eat out?
In all honesty eating out in Font can be a bit of an underwhelming experience. There are plenty of places in the likes of Fontainebleau, Nemours and Milly, but by and large they close early and aren’t hugely welcoming. I’ve been going to the area now for 20+ years and there’s no one place that I return to, which speaks volumes. On the other hand there are more good quality bakeries than you can shake a stick at, the one on the bend as you leave Nemours towards Archant, being the pick of the bunch.
How to get there?
If you’ve got kids then it’s hard to see an argument for not driving there. Once you’ve crossed the channel, be that by boat or tunnel, it’s about a 4 our drive depending on your actual destination. The motorways are quiet until you get near Paris when they can become hellish if you hit it at rush hour. If you have a car then you can bring bouldering mats.
The other option is to catch the train. It’s quick and convenient, especially if you live in or near London. However you’ll almost certainly need to hire a car when you are there unless you base yourself at Musardier and walk to the climbing. There are plenty of places which will hire bouldering mats to you if you are traveling light.
Lastly no article about Font would be complete without reference to one of the best guide-websites out there. Bleau.info is a gold mine of information if you are into your climbing.
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