Movements and Moments - A Fontainebleau Experience
Blog By Eliot Stephens
The forest of Fontainebleau needs no introduction, but for anyone who's been living under a rock that isn't pristine sandstone… Fontainebleau is arguably the birthplace of modern bouldering and features some of the most historic, and also some of the most difficult climbs in the world. It has been written about, spoken about, filmed and visited by climbers from all over the world. The endless sandstone boulders offer movements and moments for several lifetimes worth of pleasure, and this is just part of what makes it so special.The climbing combined with the French food, culture and scenery create a unique flavour which is unrivalled. But how often do we really get to the heart of experiencing the best of this magical place?
My first visit to Fontainebleau was in the autumn of 2013. I spent one week in lack luster conditions, unable to decipher bad conditions from precipitation, or bad skin from polished rock. I saw classic boulders, difficult boulders and beautiful forestry, but somehow my experience was not what I expected. I left feeling moot; almost indifferent to others proclamations that this area was the best. Twice more I returned, again thwarted by heat as well as my own inhibitions to really give myself to the area. My ego took me to the boulder problems it wanted, and my conscience turned a blind eye. I stuck to the straight forward, the powerful and the handhold-plentiful problems. The forest has a knack of giving even seasoned climbers a taste of humble pie. The straightforward looking boulders reveal themselves to be technical at heart and the technical boulders are infinitely more technical than you imagined. After several trips I convinced myself (like many do) that I would return in true Fontainebleau season, and face the forests true challenges.
February 2016 was that time. Setting off with my biggest finger injury to date, acquired only days before, my spirits were low and my expectations lower. The mere thought of bouldering seemed to hurt my finger, and more than that my motivation. How could I spend five weeks amongst the worlds best boulders, and not be able to climb
To the mind of the performance driven climber, there is bouldering, and there is bouldering. I confess myself currently focussed on performance, and the idea of not being able to give my best certainly weighed on my mind. I resigned myself to many hours of Fontainebleau's most tame Orange circuits, and many hours tending to my sore finger, and sore ego. Day one came, and I saw my first glimpse of what perfection in Fontainebleau is like. Gorgeous blue skies, a light breeze and a crispness in the air that I'd never felt before. The very orange circuit I had resigned myself to, had now become a lifeline, and an enjoyable way to spend my first day of the trip. Flowing from bloc to bloc, I began to feel the imperfections and often glaring weaknesses in my movement. My reliance on high footholds, neglect of the heel, and my over use of the knee and the thigh were initial indicators of my untuned body. With each problem my assessment became more detailed, and my database of movements became larger. 30 boulder problems. A small number really, but a perfect way to begin to feel my body moving, and my mind begin to engage. While feeling the weaknesses, I also felt improvement from boulder to boulder. Improvements in technique, improvements in tactic and improvements in my mindset. I began to feel a smile creep onto my face when my fingers found themselves on a perfectly cold and sculpted sloper or the toe of my shoe mould onto a tiny smear. But with these feelings, came a bigger feeling. One that excited me, but also concerned me; An urge to find out what it would be like to try hard on something difficult and to fully immerse myself in every single aspect of a perfect boulder problem in the forest.
Little did I know, that less than three weeks later, this chance would come.
Bouldering in Fontainebleau is simple. Short drives, flat sandy paths and quiet hillsides. Each area has it's own character, just like a wine or a cheese. Different formations of rock, forestry and landscape make each area a little different. When you escape the crowds of the main areas and go off the beaten track, the climbing experience suddenly morphs completely. Tranquility suddenly floats over the forest just like a patch of sun or cloud. When you're lucky, this feeling can even be found at the popular areas.
Upon arriving at Buthiers one evening, this feeling was instantly apparent. There was not a climber to be seen, just an orange cast of light over everything the sun touched. The movements for the evening were to be on a problem called Partage. It sits 20 feet from the road and is one of the most beautiful aretes' in Fontainebleau, if not the world. It's around 20ft tall with the crux coming at around two thirds of it's height. It was first climbed by two legends of Font, Jackie Godoffe and Marc Le Menestrel, in a 'shared' first ascent. This is where it gets it's name, as Partage in French means 'to share'.
Beginning to try the boulder, my mind was scattered. Each attempt posed a new question to me. Is my finger ok? How hard can I pull on the first hold? Where does my knee need to face to make this move work? Attempt after attempt I eliminated a question, and gave myself confidence. Each attempt revealed a little piece of information to aid upward progress, or more controlled movement. One attempt saw me swerve my hand onto the penultimate sloper, before missing the hidden pocket which holds the key to the top. This answered my last question. Which method to use for the last move? My question answered and my sequence set, I sat down, and took my time. My body wanted to sit in the fading sunlight, but my fingers wanted to be cooled on the cold rock, ready for another attempt. It was at this point that my mind became clear. I was no longer asking a question, but waiting to give my answer. Finding the perfect spot to stand, I configured my fingers around the first awkward pinch, taking care to put my thumb in the correct dimple. From here, the movement took over. My feet sat comfortably, and my fingers squeezed just enough to create the balance required. My body became weightless, and moving between positions felt like a dance. My hips sunk close, and my heel found it's mark. At the crux, my new method engaged, my fingers swerved again to the sloper, and this time dove straight into the pocket behind it. My mind switched on a little, with a quick reminder for a breath and to enjoy the movement. Two moves later, the jug. An easy mantle, and the physical experience was complete. Over 1000 successful ascents in my head, culminated in one successful ascent in reality.
Sat at the top, I had found a moment. A moment I had wanted to find. It felt correct. The sun was now only shining on the top of the boulder, as if to greet me on arrival, and the breeze had ceased as if to create an even more serene setting. We often get great experiences in climbing, but this one stood out. The climb, its history and its movement, the conditions and the company all combined to give one of those moments that stick with you. I climbed down, wrapped up the pads and we headed home. Hours later, still satisfied, my mind began to wander, ready to be consumed by the next world class boulder.
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