Circuit Court: The Visionary Appeal of Fontainebleau's Bouldering Circuits

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Elisabet Pellinen pawing trademark Font slopers on Sans Calorie (6a), the Blue Circuit (D+) at Bois Rond, Fontainebleau, France.

Elisabet Pellinen pawing trademark Font slopers on Sans Calorie (6a), the Blue Circuit (D+) at Bois Rond, Fontainebleau, France.

Deep in the forest of Fontainebleau, France, I spy a little orange dot and triangular arrow pointing off into a chaos of sandstone blocks and a patchwork of dry heather. As I climb, a fat, bright-striped bumblebee that settled on my blue coat-sleeve some 15 minutes back accompanies me along the line of dots, rocks, and hops I follow from my cut-in spot on an Orange Circuit at Apremont. We leap up along a dragon’s back, a spine of stone, then cross a low-slung slab that arcs aloft; suddenly the circuit drops away, down and right some 10 feet into a deep cleft filled with umber ferns.

On the stone set yonder there: another dot, a triangle, and with a little leap I make the gap and carry on, and soon we’re alone in the forest, just me and the bee. We carry on dancing across the ridge above the woods, winding between blocs, chasing more orange dots that demarcate slabs, arêtes, and walls. At one moment we’re skipping across stones the size of dinner plates; the next, we move up and across a sloping lip, traversing hands, the dots steering us out into space to swing around a great and awkward boule—literally a ball—five meters from the earth. This sudden vantage is wreathed in stone stacked three blocks high like a turret-crown. The wide wood stretches out below in its winter dress of pine and leafless needle-branch, alight with westering sunset. The bee lifts off and bumbles on; I laugh aloud, now quite alone. I lost the dots some meters back, or maybe they just brought me here … It seems I’m right on time.

 Miha Hribar climbs Glasnost (5+/6a), Red Circuit (ED-), Bois Rond.

Miha Hribar climbs Glasnost (5+/6a), Red Circuit (ED-), Bois Rond.

Seventy years have passed since local developer Fred Bernick put brush to stone and marked out Fontainebleau’s first circuit, at Cuvier Rempart. This has become one of the most uniquely defining characteristics of bouldering in Bleau: the enchainment of a number of problems to simulate the collective effort required to complete a long route in the mountains, while, in typical French fashion, maintaining a continuous aesthetic throughout. Even in those days, Bleau was already a well-established, old-school, proper place to climb, stretching back into the 1800s. From the 1830s on, a visionary few played on the wild blocs much prized by the Barbizon School of painters, who were influenced and activated by the moods and colors of the forest. Digging through a pile of ancient guides, I’d estimate the earliest mentions of climbing in Bleau date as far back as 1870. Shortly thereafter, we also find an invitation from travel writer and president of the Club Alpin Française (CAF) Aldolphe Joanne to foreign climbers extolling the virtues of the Franchard and Apremont zones: quality routes, a beautiful setting, and easy access from Paris.

Just past the turn of calendars in 1900, Fontainebleau waxed into a pearl of obvious value to climbers, with scheduled meetings in Apremont and Éléphant for the CAF and other groups. In 1908, Jacques Wehrlin of the Groupe Rochassier established his Wehrlin Crack, a flared offwidth which, at about old-school 3 (5.8), is one of the oldest recorded lines in the forest. Jacques De Lépiney realized the highball Fissure de la Prestat, the first 3c (another crack, about 5.9), in 1914, and went on to form the Groupe de Haute Montagne with Pierre Chevalier (who first brought nylon rope to climbing) at the end of WWI. Exploration and development continued through WWII, highlighted with ever-rising standards of difficulty realized by some of the finest climbers of the day.

Photo Feb 13, 6 38 05 AM
Painted-on arrows and numbers guide you through the magical circuits of Fontainebleau. Circuits began catching on in the forest in the 1950s, with a local climbing organization maintaining the paint and overseeing the addition of new circuits to this day.

Painted-on arrows and numbers guide you through the magical circuits of Fontainebleau. Circuits began catching on in the forest in the 1950s, with a local climbing organization maintaining the paint and overseeing the addition of new circuits to this day.

As the old proverb goes, “The tree that grows slowly grows best,” and initially Bleau was thought of as a practice ground for the greater mountains. Indeed, some of the most famous Bleausards moved about in the major ranges, opening lines from the Alps and the Andes to the Karakoram. But at Font, as always, the pursuit of the line, the enjoyment and the refinement of movement—the aesthetics and the intricacies of each problem—fashioned and inspired a new type of climber: the dedicated boulderer. In 1945, the local climber Maurice Martin circulated the first formal guidebook laying out route names, grades, and locations of blocks within the areas of Cuvier, Elephant, Dame Jouanne, Puiselet, and Malesherbes. Two years later, the first painted routes appeared in the Rempart of Cuvier. A tiny colored dot was placed on the boulder, denoting which of the thousands of possible lines had in fact been climbed; eventually, these individual problems would be enchained into the first circuits.

The 1950s saw a rise in the popularity of circuit climbing, perhaps partly due to the great successes realized by the leaders of French alpinism. The first ascents of the Petit Dru, Jannu, the South Face of Aconcagua, and so many more great lines of legendary status were opened by Bleausards who also tested themselves against La Marie Rose (6a) and La Joker (7a). Circuits were a method for training, for honing technique, and for getting in mileage for the great ranges. But all the same, in the words of the alpinist, innovator, and Bleausard Pierre Allain “ … to tell the truth—it isn’t solely with an eye to mountain routes that we go to Bleau and climb there. It’s above all because we make a game of it, one that arouses our passion in and of itself. It’s good training? All the better, but even if that weren’t the case, for the majority of us nothing would have changed. Every week we would find ourselves, just as assiduous, just as persistent, climbing a route that resisted our assault, and just as satisfied when it finally succumbed through our effort and technique.” (Fontainebleau by Pierre Allain, translated by Randy Burke.)

Pellinen soaking up the view on Truc et Astuce (5), the Blue Circuit (D+) at J.A. Martin.

Pellinen soaking up the view on Truc et Astuce (5), the Blue Circuit (D+) at J.A. Martin.

As I’ve made my way through the circuits at Apremont and Cu-
vier over eight visits to the forest, I’ve reminded myself as I pause to chalk up and clean my extra-sticky Stealth rubber shoes that once these links were done in boots, with packs on backs and climbers roped together as a team. The mental image still makes me laugh—today we regard these “faux-alpine” pursuits as a lark, something unique to this place and its history. In the 1980s, while the difficulty of individual routes rose sharply, the circuits also developed further with the sorting of these enchaînements into color-sorted voies. Yellows and Blues, Reds and Blacks, Oranges and Whites make up the bulk of today’s standardized circuits, though Greens, Salmons, and the old-school Mariner Blue and Purple are still preserved, among over 350 circuits scattered across over nearly 100 square miles of national forest. In the 1980s, circuit colors were standardized by local climbing bodies to denote difficulty within the International French Adjectival System, though of course exceptions can be found among the Bleau’s 40,000-plus problems.

For example, the AD grade (see sidebar, p.73) suggests that the circuit you’re undertaking can include anything up to Font grades 5–6 (V1–V5) and feature exposed terrain. As with grades anywhere, difficulties vary from circuit to circuit, but I can attest to taking a long, personal moment in some of the spaces between blocs on one of the links where the ground is not meant to be touched, and even being worried about tweaking a finger or taking a 12-foot fall, sans crashpad, in the middle of some “humble” circuit. For an even sterner example, the 34 problems of the Black Circuit at Franchard Cuisinière Crête Sud were only just linked in March 2017, by Nalle Hukkataival. Heavy in the V6 range, this circuit features quite a few high and—these days—rarely climbed boulders. “I found it interesting because it’s a test of not just strength but more so climbing skill,” says Hukkataival. “It’s like a hard multi-pitch, and Duel (8a/V11 slab) is the last boulder.” To date, Hukkataival is the only person known to have linked this circuit in a day, as intended.

Vincent Renoncé does the Jet Set (7a) variation to Service Compris (6a+) on the Red Circuit (TD+) at Roche aux Sabots.

Vincent Renoncé does the Jet Set (7a) variation to Service Compris (6a+) on the Red Circuit (TD+) at Roche aux Sabots.

Now we’re past one hundred years since Wehrlin wrote out his “Training” piece in a 1913 edition of La Montagne, explaining, “Nowhere else could one better learn how to climb.” Even today, we often describe Font’s rounded, techy blocks and blobs just as Wehrlin did a century back: “ … the sandstone is quite smooth, and the holds are rare.” Wisdom and warning to carry across the centuries, highlighting the style of these sandbagged sandstone lumps. You can fill a day by getting bouted by impossible Red Circuit (TD) slabs. You can get back to movement basics on the Blues (D). The leaps on some of the fourth- and low-fifth-class Greens are enough to give you pause at some high lip, staring at a little green dot, out and down across a deep gap in the chaos of broken stones. An Orange AD or Yellow F (for facile) adventure can lead you tunneling, leaping, and traversing high above the sandy ground. The Blacks (ED) at Cuvier Rempart are tall and committing—real bouldering well off the deck. For the explorer, you could trace the faint, forgotten Blues up the back of Cuvier, or the big, old Black arrows in the mossy stone along the Grande Randonnée (GR) trail. Some areas even have a White Circuit for les enfants, with pint-sized slabs and mantels on meter-high blocks.

Regardless, the method is to enchain the listed problems in numerical order to create a particular experience. The old-school mountaineering links are of a classic alpine-training style, while other circuits will concentrate on slabs or overhangs or even clinching, techy highballs up to 7c/V9 deep in rarely traveled woods. I once heard of an all-jumps circuit lost somewhere in Cuvier, in which leaps of faith and sometimes madness carried a rare few folks, seen in vintage photos scattered around the bars and restaurants of the forest, flying across impossible gaps, the takeoff high and back, their landing meters away. They wear knickers, collared shirts, and hipster ankle boots with thin, flat soles that must have shuddered and skated upon impact. My knees hurt just looking at the photos.

Timothé Denys on Le Chasse-Pied (4+), problem No. 21 on the Blue Circuit (D) at the 95.2 area in Les Trois-Pignons.

Timothé Denys on Le Chasse-Pied (4+), problem No. 21 on the Blue Circuit (D) at the 95.2 area in Les Trois-Pignons.

Mostly, however, you’ll find well-marked and mellow Yellows, Blues, and Oranges. To first set out, Au Départ, you’ll find a little painted plaque designating color, difficulty in the Adjectival System, sometimes date of establishment, and sometimes the creator. These plaques are typically simple to find, often being among the first boulders of any area, listed in nearly any guidebook. Sending and then departing problem one, you ascend through consecutively numbered lines, often following little dots and arrows of corresponding color, pointing the way to the acceding bloc. Particular to some problems are variants, marked out with a b (bis: “encore”) or a t (ter: Latin for “third”). Sometimes a starting foothold is marked with a dot, and sometimes you connect the dots up and across a stemming span between cloistered boulders to chimney through some dark, hanging corridor. Most of the circuits are well marked and looked after, but it can be easy to wander off, as the dots and arrows can be small, and amazing blocs are everywhere. After what usually stacks up to 30 to 40 problems, you’ll reach the Arrivée—usually a summit, a glory spot to look out over the rolling hills and rocky shelves of the pays de France.

Even today, new circuits are still occasionally discovered and cleaned. This process is overseen by volunteers at COSIROC (COmité de défense des SItes et ROChers d’escalade), who manage and maintain the circuits with the accordance of the French forest service—the Office National des Forêts. Under the current rules, the number of Font’s circuits is not supposed to increase, but new circuits can be approved when older ones are not maintained and go forgotten. There is no restriction on the number of new individual problems, and even though there is management of the area, the odd guerilla circuit may spring up in an out-of-the-way zone. These woods are vast and full of hidden dells. The thicket in the evergreen forest is a dark tangle viewed from the road, hiding thousands more blocks from casual view. A bike ride across the spider’s web of old cart roads and footpaths crossing Fontainebeau will reveal isolated, quiet, and rarely trafficked zones full of more of the same high-quality climbing you see at the most popular areas. There are still plenty of gems—both individual problems and circuits alike—to be found.

Lisa Rands on Big Jim (6c/+) on the Black Circuit (ED) at Petit Bois de Nemours.

Lisa Rands on Big Jim (6c/+) on the Black Circuit (ED) at Petit Bois de Nemours.

Nowadays for me, I’ll indulge in a couple of unhurried bouldering sessions before heading out to wander the back of beyond, sometimes looking for new or forgotten lines, sometimes just walking the GR or an old footpath. Soon I’m following faces and slabs that zigzag up some hill or ridge-top, and I break into the bright-orange sun atop a crimpy white face. I turn, and now above treeline see the sun set brightly west, all orange and red, cutting long, filtered rays through the bare pine-pole forest. The boulders in the trees are speckled gold. The treetops sway in the wind, a great green blanket shaken out before bed. The air is clean and quiet, and the “A” for Arrivée is at my feet, confirming I am once again in the right place at the right time.

Font Logistics

At a glance, here is the 411 on climbing and staying in Fontainebleau. For more, visit climbing.com/font411.

Season

Spring is often ideal—I love March, though others swear by April.

Getting around

This is not Hueco Tanks—you’ll need a rental car, as the areas are spread out across the 250-square-kilometer forest. If you’re staying for a month or so, it’s easy to pair your rental with your airfare. For longer stays, look into kemwel.com or Peugeot Open Europe for a long-term lease.

Accommodation

Get a house. Camping in the climbing-area parking lots is illegal, despite how many people get away with it. The forest suffers as well, as there are absolutely zero facilities available.

Guidebooks

Bart van Raaj’s 5+6 and 7+8 (7plus8.com) are the new standards, featuring straight-up problems only (no traverses) and info on circuits. Jingo Wobbly’s Fontainebleau Magique (jingowobbly.com) is pretty nice, too.

Favorite Font Circuits

Here are a few classic circuits to get you started. Also, find 7plus8.com topos for the Red and Black circuits at Rocher Saint-Germain and the Black Circuit at Franchard Cuisinière at climbing.com/font411.

Green AD at Apremont

Scrambles and hops across theblocs and gaps of Apremont Est. A collection of 42 very easy slabs, arêtes, traverses, and downclimbs with an out-for-a-walk, warm-up feel. Painted in 1952.

Red TD- at Franchard Isatis

Lots of face climbing as you wander up and across the ridge at Isatis. 62 problems, mostly in the 5 range.

Blue TD- at Cuvier

48 problems from 4- to 5+ with a great balance of slab, arête, and face climbing, plus a couple tall problems thrown in for flavor. The first problem and the “summit” problem are quite memorable.

Black ED+ at Petit Bois

One of my favorite areas—quiet, out-of-the-way, and a nice little picnic area in the spring and pleasant on a warm day. This circuit is much more serious, with difficulties up to 7c/+ and several high and committing lines up to 7a+. 36 problems, mostly 6b+ to 7a.

Red TD+ at Cul de Chien

This quick-drying area is open and sunny, and often busy on weekends or after bad weather; it offers 38 problems from 4- to 6a, heavy in the grade 5 range. This circuit is an example of how the processes of maintenance and traffic can affect Font’s climbing: The circuit was redrawn in 2015, eliminating 15 highly polished and worn problems in favor of 15 new ones. 

Font V-Scale Conversion

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The Fontainebleau Scale for bouldering is an open-ended grading system ranging from 1 to 9A and using a +/- and/or an additional letter to subdivide the grades. Meanwhile, the grades for colored circuits can vary among the very oldest, and there are a few odd-colored circuits outside the norm. The vast majority of problems/circuits in the Bleau will adhere to the following:

  • Yellow: PD, Peu Difficile, 1a–3c (VB–V0)
  • Orange: AD, Assez Difficile, 2a–4b (VB–V0)
  • Blue: D, Difficile, 3c–5c (V0–V2)
  • Red: TD, Très Difficile, 4c–6c (V1–V4)
  • Black: ED, Extrêmement Difficile, 5b–7a (V1–V6)
  • White: ED+, Extrêmement Difficile Supérieur, 6b+–7c+ (V4–V10)

Chris Schulte has frequented the Magic Forest for the last 15 years. The first time he got on a plane was to go climb Fred Nicole’s 1995 classic Karma at Franchard Cuisinière.