I grew up watching old-school climbing videos of USA climbers like Dave Graham, Tyler Landman, and UK climber Ben Moon, cruising through the magical Forest of Fontainebleau, climbing boulders that were thought to be unclimbable. As a climber from America, I did not know much about the true, deep French history and culture around the climbing in Fontainebleau.
Fontainebleau is the world’s oldest climbing destination for outdoor bouldering. Today, the forest is still the holy grail for bouldering. Climbers from all over the world continue to fly into the Paris airport, to then make the quick one-hour journey south to the small French town of Fontainebleau.
Why is Fontainebleau so popular?
There are countless reasons for Fontainebleau’s popularity. First, it is the birthplace for bouldering, secondly, it is only 40 miles away from Paris, third, there are more than 30,000 boulder problems for every level of a climber in such a small vicinity. Lastly, because ITS FRANCE you can’t miss out on all the food experiences. To those who are lactose or gluten-free, this might be a perfect opportunity to cheat a little, because there is nothing like the good French cheeses and pastries from the boulangeries. The French food and culture adds a lot to the Fontainebleau climbing experience and it is why it makes this climbing destination so unique and magical.
Not to mention the climbing itself is pretty spectacular. If you talk to any climber who knows a little about the area, and you mention the rock type and all of its beautiful hold features, they know exactly what you are talking about. The Font sandstone is known to have very unique forms and geological rock features. You can find big bubbly rock formations throughout the forests. Climbers all around the world desire to grab these unique holds, and those who have, know about awesome the sensation of the rock feels under your fingertips.
Introduction to Fontainebleau climbing history:
It all started in the early 1900s when the president of the French Alpine Club, Aldolphe Joanne organized a day where the top French Alpinists of the time came to Fontainebleau to test and practice their climbing skills on the area’s most remarkable boulders. Throughout the years more and more Alpinists came to Fontainebleau to continue to train for their mountain expeditions. Fontainebleau locals like Robert Paragot, Lucien Beradini, and Rene Ferlet were the first to climb Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia, located in Argentine. Fontainebleau climbers began to get recognition and fame from their ascents worldwide. Initially, the climbs that were being climbed in Font were not marked or formalized as a specific boulder problem. Climbers just chose their lines by picking a boulder that enticed them, oftentimes aiming for the most committing and proud boulder problems. Soon these boulder lines received names and recognition. With all these boulders being climbed, Fontainebleau needed a guidebook and a scale to grade that helped differentiate the physical difficulties of the new boulders. So, someone, at some point (we do not know who), decided to take the initiative and to create a grading scale for the boulders that had been established. Today this scale is known as the Font Scale. The Font Scale is used throughout the majority of Europe and the world, in expectation to the United States. Of course, later in the history of climbing, the US had to develop its version of a similar grading scale today known as the V scale.
The first climber’s guidebook for Font was published in 1945, and the first climber’s circuits were developed in 1946. Fontainebleau soon became a training ground for pros and the birthplace of many climbing legends as bouldering rose in popularity. Climbers from all over the world are now comparing themselves to decades-old Fontainebleau bouldering classics as well as newer routes carved by younger generations each year. Fontainebleau pioneered bouldering culture and expanded the limits and boundaries of what was thought to be possible in purely physical and technical climbing difficulty.
Things to know.
The French locals here don’t pronounce the entire name: Fontainebleau. The town is known as Fontainebleau, however, the climbing destination is known as just “Bleau”. The English abbreviation for Fontainebleau is “Font” rather than Bleau.