14 June 2014

Fontaine Bros

It's hard to know where to start when writing about Fontainebleau, especially your first visit. I imagine many people struggle with choosing between the complexities and intracacies of their journeys, the wonder of the circuits, the landscape and geography, the culture and the history, the company and the solitude. However, the first battle has surely got to be choosing a pun-tastic title, there are so many options! 'Font of all knowledge', 'Bleau by blow account', 'Bleau me down', the list goes on... In the end I opted for 'Fontaine Bros' as it summed up our trip quite nicely. It had started off as a planned journey of many 'bros', but one by one they dropped out (largely caused by a spate of house moving) until there was just me, my son Cosmo, and Stuart. Stuart had visited last year, and had gone on about the place so much I felt we really should take his word for it and find out for ourselves what all the fuss was about.

We ended up choosing early June for our visit, the 70th anniversary of D-Day to be exact. This was partly due to April and May being particularly hectic, though it did also seem like an apt time to invade France. Unlike our forefathers, we came to enjoy the freedom of Europe rather than liberate it. June would hopefully give us plenty of daylight, not too much rain, and pleasant but not too hot temperatures. Well, we managed on the first count, arriving just as a big area of high pressure moved into Northern Europe and sent afternoon temperatures up into the high 20s. It also brought a few thunder storms along for the ride as well, but most of those hit at night so we got plenty of dry rock. Personally, I would rather get hot and sweaty than rained off any day.

Back when we were a large party, I had priced up the overnight Hull-Zeebrugge ferry and it seemed a reasonable way of cutting the driving time. However, with a party of 3 this wasn't the case, so I got to have my first encounter with the Eurotunnel instead. The lengthy journey turned out not to be too bad with some tag team driving splitting the 11 hour door-to-door travelling time into manageable chunks. We even managed to make both legs completely different routes, partly thanks to Kate, our stern and disapproving SatNav, and partly due to our rebellious refusal to obey her commands. Top tips to remember- England decides to shutdown key section of its road network after 1am, so plan ahead. Paris may be a nightmare to drive through, but if you get off the main roads it has bags of character and some cheap Boulangeries. And the A104/N104 is a handy way of missing out the nightmare altogether. Lastly, the coastal road just West of Calais is very pretty and has a few nice beaches you can easily access.

At this point I must make a confession. We never actually went to Fontainebleau. That is, we never actually went to the town itself. And although we did go to the Forest of Fontainebleau, in reality we only went to a small part of that, mostly the Noisy sur Ecole area of the Trois Pignons section. I'm sure we are not alone in this, given that Trois Pignons- the westerly section of forest sliced off by the A6- contains so many areas of so many good boulders that you could climb there for weeks. It also contains the main campsite for the forest, La Musardiere (or La Moo as Stuart renamed it). This is where we were heading, and very pleasant it was too. With the temperature literally doubling in the space of 2 days it was going to be warm, but the pool had just opened for the summer, and most of the site is shaded by the trees.
Once we had set up home in the shady snickets of La Moo we started our adventuring at the Chateauveau area, a 10 minute walk away. For the uninitiated, most of the climbing areas have handily been organised into graded circuits, a collection of numbered problems that you can work through at your leisure. However, the circuits are a lot more than this. They are also a way of linking these problems together through down climbs, traverses, leaps of faith, adventures that take you to places and views that you would normally never experience. For me, they represented the youthful play and flow of climbing, paths and movement that you could get absorbed into, searching out the tell tale coloured dots and arrows painted by mysterious benefactors. They also go on for huge distances, often linking up to 50 problems together, and whilst completing a whole circuit of whatever grade would be a huge acheivement, that temptation to follow just one more dot, or peek around just one more boulder is so tempting you can easily lose sense of your limitations.

The first thing we found at Chateauveau was that the Yellow (low grade) circuit was intertwined so closely with the orange (bit harder) circuit that both Stuart and myself got caught up in trying to do both at the same time. Cosmo, meanwhile, was off like a mountain goat, scampering up the gully from rock to rock, occasionally marking his progress by shouting the number of the problem he had just climbed. Much discussions were had about 'finding your inner child', which at 42 I occasionally struggle to do! The 'outer adult' body, however, meant packing in the circuit at around the 22 mark and then scrambling the rest before topping out the top boulder and admiring the extensive views of the forest.

We woke the next day refreshed and ready for a full day out. Well, that's not totally true. I woke at 2am when a group of Germans decided to set up camp right next to us, complete with about 8 very efficient head torches. Arriving on a Friday morning, the campsite had been quite peaceful, but over the next 2 days it turned into something akin to a small festival. Lots of French families were out for their Whit weekend, and a large contingent of serious climbers from all over Europe appeared. The average BMI of the campsite shot rapidly down, and I started to feel like a pale, lardy Englishman. It was a nice atmosphere though, with slack lines, bouldering mats, and tasty camper vans all over the place. Up and armed with a pack-up we headed off to Roche aux Sabots, where a harder Yellow circuit offered some shaded climbing under the trees, as the heat was due to peak at about 28'C. It was also a few minutes walk from the car park so we could quite quickly get stuck in. The boulders here were spaced apart, giving it a more airy feel than the ramble of Chateaveau, and the problems of a higher quality.

Whilst we had lots of fun tackling the first 12, we soon ran out of energy, and retired to the nearby village of Milly-la-Foret for ice cream and provisions before heading home to plunge into the chill of the campsite pool. Fed, watered, and cooled we returned to Sabots for another bash at #12-22, by which point we were definitely starting to flag. Undeterred, Cosmo made some great dynamic moves, whilst Stuart finished off with a peaky highball. The sun was starting to set, so we carried on up the path to the landlocked beach of Cul de Chien to take in the views. A very pleasant stroll back through the woods brought back memories of hiking Himachal Pradesh, and a lovely finish to the day.

I woke early again that night, this time at 2am, willing some drunken voice to pipe down when my prayers were answered by the arrival of a thunder storm. Restless sleep is far more enjoyable to a soundtrack of rumbling thunder and the patter of rain. And whilst the rain carried on and off into the morning it helpfully delayed the departure of our aching bodies, prompting a game of Citadels and some lunch before hiking off in the midday heat to the nearby 95.2 area. The uphill yellow circuit brought a smile to our face, where I seem to remember enjoying the links more than the problems, with great leaps and delicate traverses making the most of the rock. The heat was beating us down, however, so it was back to La Moo for a quick dip and a feed. We decided to finish our last evening back where we started at Chateauveau, hoping to catch the sunset from the top. Wearing regular footwear and travelling light, we were mostly out for a hike but I couldn't resist getting back on the circuit where we had finished it at #22 for a blast in my trainers. There were fine views again from the top, but the setting sun disappeared into the clouds, and instead we decided to follow a hiking circuit off into the woods as dusk fell.

For a while there was serious risk that we were getting lost, but got on the right track thanks to Google Maps (and Cosmo pointing out that the sun set in the West, no app required here). I wondered at the beauty of the woods, with its beaches, mossy groves, and boulders, and we chatted about the philosophy of paths, and all seemed right with the world. Things got even righter as we found ourselves back at the campsite just in time for last orders at the bijoux chip van.

Sunday night brought more thunder at dawn, and we figured we had a few last cheeky hours to catch a last climb before heading off on the road again. It dried out as we packed up, and the guide suggested the Gorges d'Apremont offered climbing right by the car park. It also offered climbing outside of the Trois Pignons, and a drive through the wealthy looking Art Village of Barbizon. Unfortunately, vehicle access stopped us short at the Bas Breau crossroads, and we opted for a walk to the quieter Envers d'Apremont area instead. So quiet in fact that deer crossed our pathway on the walk in, and we didn't see a soul once we were off the path. It felt humid and lush and I half expected to see an Ewok pop out from behind a boulder. Envers obviously had much less traffic, and we struggled to even find the circuit, hunting for the tell tale yellow dots and arrows on the rock. We eventually joined it at #42, and spent a pleasant hour working the last 8. The circuit finishes by traversing around a rock into a highball that reminded me of Rabbit Paw Wall at Caley, taking you higher and higher til the finale. The jugs were positive, but hidden by moss and pine needles, and the moist air turned to rain as thunder rumbled again in the air. It seemed a dramatic and soulful last climb for me, and we left buoyed again by the beauty of the forest.

As we drove out into the wide open fields surrounding the forest, thoughts turned to how we would sum up our expedition. Was it the bouldering mecca that I had been promised? Absolutely, for we had but skimmed the surface of the opportunities on offer. Was it the cultural experience that I had promised Cosmo's school? Mais oui, for not only was it experiencing France but also the French outdoors and their particular take on it. I remember thinking as we walked through the 95.2 car parks that in the UK you would be battling through National Trust volunteers in hi-vis and ice cream vans just to get past the queue at the ticket machine. But the lasting feeling I have of Fontainebleau was that it had been a great adventure, from the flow of the circuits to getting lost in the forest footpaths, and I think that is what will take me back there again and again.

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