Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bouldering Font

Fontainebleau is a magic place for climbers. In fact, it's a rather improbable location for a climbing area, given how incredibly flat it is around here, with nothing but endless fields and lush forests as far as the eyes can see. However, the forests hide a wealth of large sandstone boulders which turns out to be an ideal playground for boulderers. Rarely too high to be uncomfortable, and more often than not with flat, sandy landings, and with an endless variety of moves. Someone called Fontainebleau a "laboratory of movement", and that epithet is apt - subtlety often gains you more than the brutishness that's rewarded in many other bouldering areas. Bouldering was kind of born here nearly 100 years ago, initially as a training "gym" for those destined for the alpine ranges, but it soon evolved into an activity for its own sake and merit. For reasons I can't quite understand myself, I'd actually never visited Font before last September when we came in a large group for a week and had a cracking time. We're making up for it this time around, hopefully. We're armed with a long list of recommendations from Will, a Font-veteran with near encyclopaedic knowledge of the forest, and some personal projects left over from last September.

Fortunately for me, rest-days present themselves naturally every third, or possibly forth day part due to muscle fatigue, but mostly due to your finger skin which wears off and starts bleeding if you don't take care. Sarah and I decided to start on a two days on, one day off schedule, and headed for an area somewhat cryptically known as '95.2', a bit of a joke referring to the maximum altitude above sea level. We'd been a bit worried that it might be cold for the first weeks, and we'd dressed up in thermal underwear, fleeces, hats, gloves and the essential downies which seemed appropriate seeing the iced-over car in the morning. However, once we reached the crag and started climbing in the sun, the temperature was soon in the teens and we had a delightful day ticking half of the problems on the easy blue circuit. Our plans were for the first few days just doing mileage to get re-acquainted with the medium, toughen up the finger skin that had now gone soft after a month of skiing and to familiarise ourselves with the area. However, it's hard not to have a go when you see something tasty and a bit harder, and I took two long lobs off the top mantle on the last of the reds, somewhat predictably.

We spent four climbing days at 95.2 working our way through all the blues and most of the reds and also a sprinkling of the whites, culminating with a tick of "La p'tit toit", an off-circuit problem given the ludicrous grade of 7A+ in the guide. Sadly, it's nothing like that hard (maybe 6B+), but a nice problem that we were nonetheless pleased to have completed. The sun was out in force, and we were climbing in t-shirts in the warm spring sunshine - the car thermometer showed +23. I'd not been to 95.2 before, but it proved to be a nice acquaintance with a good spread of problems and three very good circuits.

Next up was Bois Rond, where Sarah had a score to settle since last trip with "Le meilleur des mondes", a very nice 6A on the red circuit. She settled the score in fine style, and we wandered to the other side of the boulder for something rather less dainty and rather more butch, the overhang of "La theorie des nuages" (6A+), something I'd failed to get anywhere on last trip. Sarah and I worked it move for move and eventually I had a sequence that worked for me. Sarah doesn't normally go for these kinds of problems, but got exceedingly close. In fact, she got it fine the next day, to her credit - a very good tick. I spent most of the day trying another big overhang that to my frustration got the better of me. Sarah made quick work of the technical "Little Shakespeare" (6A) - I'd tried it the day before but decided that my finger skin would take no more punishment on the razor blades and Barclaycards that serves as "holds" on this blank slab. That was my excuse, anyway, preferring as I do not to dwell on my shoddy footwork.

The climbing in Font is really a rather large collection of disparate crags - collections of boulders - dotted around what is actually a quite wide-spread area. We decided to head for the Franchard gorge next, and the crag known as Isatis. We both had ambitions here, Sarah keen on trying "Beurre Marga", one of the finest problems in the forest, and a bit of a technical master piece, not to mention classic sand bag. Some of our friends even declined to attempt it last time, as the effort to get up it wasn't in their book justified by the grade tick. Some guides have it as low as 6A, but 6C is probably more realistic. It looks deceptively easy. It's got what looks as big ledges for your feet, and substantial runnels that although will need to be used as side pulls and gastons still look chunky. It's got an obvious "thank God" bucket for the finish. Yet, once you pull on, you soon realise that there is a lot more to this problem than one might initially think. In fact, just getting off the floor is a challenge, with the undercut starting pocket spitting your fingers out, and the side pull you use to stay up just isn't quite good enough to stop you from barn-dooring off. The "big" foot hold turns out to be awkwardly angled, and glassed over with a mixture of resin, chalk, sand and old boot rubber. Strength matters for nought here. I managed - eventually - to get up it last trip after spending almost half a day on it, and Sarah hadn't even bothered trying it that time. Sarah was unable to use my starting sequence due to her height, and instead had to work out a different way, which she initially found very frustrating. At the top, where I had done a kind of half dynamic cross-through and grab, she worked out a neat way of pinching with her left and casually reaching for the top in complete balance. A very good tick for her, and a near perfect problem. One of my targets was "Little Karma" (6C), a problem I couldn't even get started on last time. This is a long diagonal jump off a side-pull to a sloper that you need to match, and then "swimming" up a sequence of round holds. Will called it "a good intro to the harder top-outs in Font". I knew the theory - side pull, shitty foot, massive jump, wedge left big toe next to left hand, somehow bring left hand up to the same "hold" as the right, release toe and stay on during the swing, find something - anything - for the right toe, and let the fun begin. To my own surprise I managed to stick the jump second go, and found myself matched and ready to swim upwards. This is where your sharp footwork should allow you to stand up on smears and elegantly mantle your way to glory. Or alternatively, as in my case, an undignified belly-flop and a bit like a seal flapping my way to the top. But I'll take it. This problem is quite "morpho", as the boulderers say, meaning that unless you have a certain set of body dimensions it may be significantly harder, or even impossible. Even with me pushing Sarah on, she could not span between the starting side pull and the sloper, and this problem would probably be impossible for her. We moved on. I made a quick repeat of "Surplomb de la Statique" (6A) which I'd done previously (Sarah declined), and then tried a recommendation of Will's, "Composition des Forces" (6C), an undercut steep wall and long reach for a slopey finish. This problem seemed to suit me, and I topped out on my second attempt. Sarah was worn out, but quickly had the measure of all the moves, and held the finishing holds but unfortunately came off.

The next day, we carried on at Isatis - there is so much to go at here. Sarah was determined to finish it off "Composition des Forces", which she did, first go. We then decided to seek out a problem called "Surplomb de la Coquille" (6C+) that we'd had recommended from several people. An overhanging wall, but it seemed to have good holds on it to yard on - really, how hard can it be? Quite hard, as it turned out. The holds just turned out to be in the wrong places, making the crux lock-off and long reach up to a side pull absolutely hopeless. We'd run into Yorkshire legendary strong-woman Jenny Woodward, and she mentioned in passing the sequence she'd used, but somehow getting my foot up to *there* seemed improbable. Another Brit couple vaguely familiar from the Malham catwalk (Hester and Andy) joined us working this problem, but none of us appeared to make any worthwhile progress. Hester tried the high rock-over that Jenny had recommended, and with a small adjustment of where the foot went, she seemed to be able to hold the position better, although not enough for the long stretch. Hester and Andy walked off, and I tried copying her foot placement, and found that I could actually reach the lower end of the side pull, although failing to hold it. However, for the first time it felt as if it would go. I must have tried this problem 20 times by now, and my arms were aching. Even though the lower moves weren't too difficult, they were still powerful. Next attempt I managed to hold the side pull, reset to the good bit a bit higher up, and top out. Very pleased with that. Sarah had worked the problem with me giving her a little bit of a leg-up in the beginning to save her from having to pull through the lower strong moves on every go. Again, the long top stretch may prove to be significantly harder for her than for me.

Next on the hit list was "L'envie des Betes", an undercut prow given 6B, but probably would warrant 6C. Powerful stuff. From a high (shit) side pull for your left hand, and a small (shit) foot smear, boys can leap directly to a (shit) sloper on the blunt arete, and then get the right foot up on a reasonable little nubbin and leap again up to a good crimper about two feet further up. Left heel can now be positioned under the left hand in order to stop you barn-dooring off for the reach up left to a razor blade crimp. High-step left, loooong reach for another crimp up left, and it all eases off. If you're a girl, on the other hand, you won't be able to reach the best bit of the shit side pull, and you won't be able to leap for the shit sloper, nor will you be able to reach the go-again leap for the good crimp. Life is so unfair. Sarah found herself doing three extra moves for every single one of mine. We packed it in for the day, intending to come back the next for Sarah to carry on working "L'envie des Betes".

The next day we started warming up on some of the many excellent blues and reds we'd not yet done, but somehow got distracted onto "L'amoche doigt" the 6B arete of white 1. The sequence that took me to the top didn't work for Sarah, and after the problem frustrated her for a few attempts, a local Bleausard asked to have a go, and (obviously) cruised it effortlessly. As did Sarah, using his foot placements. Those cheeky Bleausards, eh! We moved onto "L'envie des Betes", but it wasn't to be this time. We walked further into the forest to seek out "L'angle de serac", a sharp, slabby arete (6B). The angles and surfaces on this block are so perfect it looks man-made. Chris (Bungle) tip-toed up it on the last trip, but at the time I didn't even bother trying. It was time to dig out my new pair of Katanas that only come out for special occasions. Six foot moves is all there is to it, one of which is a heel. But it took us a long time to work it out. Sarah latched the top jugs - at least that's what her spotter thought when he started celebrating a tenth of a second before she peeled the length of the slab and landed at his feet. She also peeled the skin off a couple of fingers on her left, so the tick will have to wait. Ego now drunk with success, I thought I'd just nip up and flash "El Poussif" (7A+) up the hill, but you know what they say about hubris. I couldn't touch it.

Irritatingly, the weather turned and the next day was a total wash-out, and the day after that some serious shower-dodging that saw us totalling three warm-up problems at Roche aux Sabots. Today more of the same - although it only stopped raining after lunch we at least managed a few hours. I really want to do "Graviton" (7A) which I'd failed (repeatedly) on last trip - unfortunately the top was sodden, so it will have to wait. We did "La Dalle de Cristal", a nice slab on the red circuit, and also the pretty butch first problem of the red circuit. Sarah also repeated the hardest grade 4 in the forest - I blame the showers that I - ahem - didn't have time to finish it. I tried "Jet Set", a 7A dyno that everyone says is a path - the liars. Sarah sensibly had a cup of tea instead. We then placed our mat under "L'angle de Jean-Luc", a slabbed, blunt arete, graded 6B+, although we had advanced warning that this is no ordinary 6B+. Will had kindly given us a whole A4 page of written beta, and we had a local Bleausard demo the problem for us. Although we still couldn't finish it before the rain set in again, this is one we both really want to come back to. Beautifully technical.

Although it's now raining rather heavily, we've still only lost one full climbing day to rain over the last two and a bit weeks. Not a bad tally, even if shower-dodging soon gets tedious even with the fastest drying rock. Sarah is now talking about restricting my rest days to make the most of the available weather - it's like skiing all over again!

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