'Voices in the Forest'

I thought I knew the forest and decided to produce a guidebook. Now, there are a few infinite numbers in maths, such as the Golden Ratio, or the elegant vanishing point of Pi, which suggest we cannot map the world without a formula that summarises our human limitations. My formula was to be that guidebook, the key to a forest's secrets. The forest of Fontainebleau is to me one such infinity, and my brief years of wandering the forest and bouldering on its rocks has only brought me closer to a love of the infinite and the endless adventure of climbing, whereas when I started out I thought there might be a revelatory summit to all this climbing - some, well, point to it all. There wasn't and there isn't, but something of the code was understood.

I had grand ambitions when I first came to Fontainebleau, but it decided to rain on us for a week, so we walked around a lot, boggling at the maze of boulders and trying to find famous problems such as Carnage, Sur-prises, Le Toit du Cul de Chien, The Joker... when it did dry out I remember struggling up a 6b groove thinking it was a famous 7b, then walking round the corner and gulping at the reality of my mistake. I couldn't even step off the ground on the real 7b!

My natural desire to map and notate everything led me to a long-term idea of producing an overview guidebook to the forest. At the time there was only the 1986 circuit guide 'Escalades et Randonnées' by Les Editions Artaud. I was charmed by this guide as it was entirely in French and was produced for none other than the French and had some blurry photographs of nonchalent PA-shod old-schoolers on some terrifying highballs. I had studied French at school to A-Level standard, but in a fit of Gallic pride and pique, I did not sit the exam, I thought I knew it all and wittered on cockily with my pen-pals on trips to the Massif Central or the sun-baked Loire coastline. When I eventually picked up the Arthaud Fontainebleau guide, I knew not a jot of what they were talking about- what was a surplomb, a sour plum? Grattons? Eh? What were these bizarre circuit maps and the strange codes of TD+ or AD-? Who was Jacky Godoffe? Jo Montchaussé? What was the COSIROC, a Mafia organization?

So I figured I had to climb all the classics, go to all the areas, learn the technique of bouldering that the 'bleausards' were so famous for. I learnt more than I achieved, I fell off far more problems than I got up and I quickly learnt I was not and never really would be a 'bleausard'. But over the years something else happened, the forest got into my blood, and slowly I began to discover the 'secrets' of some of the classic bouldering problems. I began to get a glimmer as to what Fontainebleau really meant, even to the top-level climbers. Everyone finds their grade in the forest and for everyone there is always the impossible, so what charms us so much about Fontainebleau and makes us want to return so much, despite so much failure?

As climbers, we are not the first to feel kinship with the forest. What was the forest before that, and how were the rocks viewed, were they noted as at all significant? In 1882, the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote an essay about Fontainebleau. Read this excerpt and imagine he is talking about bouldering rather than painting, which was his intended topic:

There is something... in the very air of France that communicates the love of style. Precision, clarity, the cleanly and crafty employment of materials, a grace in the handling, apart from any value in the thought, seem to be acquired by the mere residence; or if not acquired, become at least the more appreciated.

The message is not that different - while the forest was the home of Impressionist painters in the 1900's, the 20th century shifted the forest's focus onto the physical art of climbing. The forest as we know it (as climbers) became just such a proving ground and educational laboratory as it once was for the painters.

Millet's The Sheperdess

Stevenson had first arrived in the forest as a young writer keen on landscape, foreign climes and romantic philosophy. He was instantly taken with Fontainebleau, and the artist villages such as Grez, Bourron-Marlotte and Barbizon, from where artists would daily pack up their easels, paints and lunch-pack to sit in a glade or by a jumble of rocks and learn the hues of light on stone and through leaf. Painters who caught the quality of light were rewarded with some posterity in our landscape galleries: Millet, Corot, Rousseau, Cezanne. From these villages, they started a whole philosophy of painting and landscape 'impressionism'. Barbizon is today a single street of expensive hotels and art galleries leading to the Gorges d' Apremont, which is now laid with the bouldering mats of climbers rather than the paint boxes of artists, so I guess the forest has simply chosen a different canvas for a while!

The most striking subjects of the forest are the rocks, the trees and the vast fields surrounding the plain on which Fontainebleau sits, which when you cross them give the impression you have stumbled onto the great plains of America - it seems impossible there should be hidden gorges and lush forests anywhere! This habitat was a rich source of human emotion for the painters' eye, Millet especially loved the people who worked the fields of 'Bière' (from the Latin for 'plain', not 'beer'!). They walked through the ancient chemins and boulevards, maybe following some of the Sentiers Denecourts (recent in the late 1800's) that wandered through the more esoteric corners of the block-ridden forest.

One thing that is striking about the 19th Century paintings and early photographs is the relative lack of forest cover compared to the reserved lushness of the 21st Century, or indeed the dense wooded darkness of Royal hunting grounds before the forest became gradually more republican after Napoleon. Wood gathering was controlled, but perhaps became less policed, and many old postcards show the high Gorges plateaux, such as at Apremont, Franchard and Belle Croix (Cuvier) as remarkably desert-like, rocky and barren.

Corot's Le Rageur - guess where?

The rocks in Corot's Le Rageur remind me of the rounded, streaked boulders at Cuvier, with possibly the Rempart in the background. Maybe they were always so, but certainly trees have been allowed to grow and mature through the 20th century so that now areas such as Franchard, Cuvier and Apremont are deeply shaded and wooded except on the very highest viewpoints.

Tourism was the newest industry in Europe after the Napoleonic wars. In Fontainebleau, it was a retired soldier who took up the mantle of giving the rocks and the forest significance. Of course, as we know these days, this can lead quickly to a tacky overindulgence, but the retired Napoleonic soldier Claude Françoise Denecourt saw both a business opportunity and a means of expressing his love for the forest. That it would be taken over by walkers, cyclists and hooting boulderers in the 20th century he could not have foreseen and maybe his maps, which we use today as the main navigation pointers to the climbing areas, did not originally intend to despoil the forest's mysteries. In their original context, they were as valid reflections of the forest's magic as any of the artist's brush strokes. Denecourt took a small pot of coloured paint and discreetly marked out his favourite walks and diversions, highlighting gnarled old trees and unusually shaped rocks. His first major map appeared in 1839, showing the network of colour-coded walks starting out from the Gare de Fontainebleau, where he would set up stall to sell his early guides, independently published by a local patron. Trains arrived hourly and the wonders of the forest were soon mythologized. Later, they would simply be figmented and embellished, so that the famous Caverne des Brigandes at Apremont, which is nothing more than another common hole in the rocks, maybe once used by hunters, was reputed as the house of notorious thieves and brigands. In the height of 19th century tourism, it even had a stall selling beer and cheese. Denecourt's maps were forest's first 'topos' and when the climbers came along, they naturally saw the featured and lettered boulders as immediate challenges to friction and domination.

Denecourt's first map of Font

It is likely children scrambled over the rocks ever since Stone Age humans carved petroglyphs in the softer caves of sandstone while they waited out storms or simply rested after hunts. They are natural challenges to anyone wishing to prove their boldness, or maybe a natural soap-box for proclaiming and rallying, or simply for viewpoints and quiet reflection. However, the first attempt at any serious climbing began in 1874 when Ernest Cézanne created the French Alpine Club in Paris. They took trains to the nearby forest of Fontainebleau, climbing some of the easier and taller pinnacles, no doubt using them to 'keep their hand in' until the summer holidays. The shadow of the Alps still loomed over the boulders until something odd happened in 1908. A small group of climbers explored the forest and formed the Groupe Rochassier which actively sought out unique short climbs in Fontainebleau that did not necessarily need ropework. Jacques Wehrlin climbed one such route in 1908 which is the large crack left of the modern classic of Duroxmanie at Cuvier East. It might not appeal to the present-day boulderer (fashions change!), but it was certainly seen as a problematic climb that required focussed technique and employed the key elements of good climbing. Wehrlin himself noted in an essay that at Fontainebleau 'the sandstone is quite smooth and the holds are rare' which suggests he was looking for something more than just the summit experience - he was after the absence of holds and the idea of impossibility, long before the likes of Philip le Denmat, Jacky Godoffe, Fred Nicole and other such modern luminaries. After the withering decimation of WW1, the Groupe de Haute Montagne, led by Jacques de Lépiney and friends, opened the delights of Cuvier with such classic problems like La Fissure de la Prestat, which still hankers after alpinism in its highball nature, but was deemed sufficiently absorbing in its own right to be given a name - the sign that bouldering was marking out its own territory.

Probably the single most active individual in the pursuit of bouldering 'problems' was the wiry, muscled machine that was Pierre Allain. As a young man in the 1930's, he broke technical boundaries with ascents of such testpieces as L' Angle Allain and the Fissure des Alpinistes. These are high fifth grade problems that are still technical and hard even by today's standards and should not be sneezed at... I have seen 8a climbers fall repeatedly off his famous Angle at Cuvier Rempart! Pierre Allain spent so much time in the forest that he even developed the first true rock-climbing shoe: a rubber-soled and edged boot that could keep friction on small rugosities and edges as well as smooth scoops. The plethora of technical rock shoes we see today all spring from this one boot... Allain recognised very early on the precision and variety of footwork required for high-end bouldering. No doubt he rolled his eyes at the damaging hordes of hob-nailed amateurs as they tried to scrape and thrutch their way up delicate slabs. He went into commercial production with these ergonomic shoes in 1948 and the bouldering world had its first technical pioneer! His book Alpinisme et Competition, which was first published in 1949, stood up for Fontainebleau bouldering as an art in itself:

Here the numerous routes - perhaps five hundred at Cuvier alone, a third of which are genuinely difficult - aren't measured by dozens or hundreds of meters. Our stones, only good for scrubbing cooking pans, as a certain Chamonix guide described them, are only a few meters tall... but that's what pleases us and makes for the excellence of this school of climbing. No need to deploy ropes, no need for long waits... we move rapidly from one to the other... here it is only a question of pure climbing...

After the second World War WWII, the Cuvier Academic Club, (formed by René Ferlet and Pierre Allain) and the Club Olympique de Billancourt became the most active climbing clubs promoting bouldering in the forest, with some early topos appearing. 'Circuits' began to be marked out in painted trails echoing Denecourt's paths (the first was the red circuit at Cuvier Rempart, created by Fred Bernik in 1947). Circuits were still seen as alpine training ideas, but they were a natural selection of varied and individual problems that mixed unique technical abilities, such as slabs, roofs, arêtes ('angles') and crimpy walls, testing the full gamut of a climber's strengths (or indeed weaknesses!).

Pierre Allain

In the 50's and 60's a natural strength and familiarity allowed climbers such as Michel Libert to climb testpieces such as Abattoir (Font 7a) at Bas Cuvier (1960) and problems began to creep into the magical and technical world of the seventh grades. However, it was not until the 1970's that an athletic approach to climbing took over (probably inherited from gymnast boulderers John Gill and Pat Ament in the USA) and specific training was applied to specific problems. This led to the first true 'power' problem of Carnage in 1977, by Jerome Jean Charles, followed six years later by the first 7c right beside it (La Bérèzina by Pierre Richard). These required custom training, siege tactics and building engrammatic technique on the problem itself, so often months would go by before the climber succeeded in developing his body enough to levitate through the complex positions of the problem. In 1984, a younger generation began to ignore the idea of impossibility and Jacky Godoffe climbed the first 8a of C' Était Demain at Cuvier Rempart. Since then, Fontainebleau has been the 'salon' of high-end bouldering art.

Carnage at night

Around the second Millenium, the forest was becoming a kind of international bouldering safari-park and guidebooks were in demand, if only to give a sense of responsibility and community to the forest's bouldering. The first British guide was Stephen Gough's 'Bleau' which opened the complex bouldering areas to a UK crowd, but this was soon followed by local French guides from Jo Montchaussé and Jacky Godoffe: the 'pink' Fontainebleau Climbs circuit guide and the Fontainebleau Off-Piste guide being the classics. Young climbers fed on a diet of Youtube videos and indoor training walls jumped to buy the remarkable 7+8 guide in 2002, designed by Bart van Raaij, which revealed the elusive locations of all the high-end testpieces of the forest. Dave Atchison Jones brought out a colourful guide to climbing in the easier grades with his Fontainebleau Magique in 2005. Now, in 2008, Stone Country has produced the pocket-book Essential Fontainebleau, which maps and features the top 350 problems in the forest. All guidebooks are naturally limited in such a vast playground of rocks, but all spring from the same desire to communicate a love of the forest and foster the understanding that it is a privilege to climb in such a wondrous place.

Bivouac, editor Colin Lambton

The forest is hardly mysterious any more, but as boulderers we naturally love the endless colonisation of gravity's challenges, and each new boulder is seen as a hub of unreleased movement and mystery. However, it it is worth taking time to absorb the spirit of the forest, as it is not hard to still lose yourself as the painters once did. Wander off-piste a little, leave your guidebook in its pocket, sit quietly on a high rock for a while, and the natural world will appear out of a glassy and over-focussed gaze. You will see what the painters saw: the whispering birch leaves, the light dappling on the rocks, the world of colour shimmering in shades of green, ochre, grey and tan. You might be moved to dig out your digital camera, to try and capture it, but resist just a while - think of the likes of Rousseau, of Millet and Stevenson, unwrapping their lunch, or of Wehrlin, Lépiney and Allain pausing in mid-climb, looking up, breathing the same forest air...

And the key to the forest's bouldering secrets? Do they lie in a guidebook? No, most certainly not, but what does? Brief reflections and colourings, sketches and snapshots of a bigger picture, starting points, arrows and numbers... your own adventure will be the memories and invisibility of experience, the depth of the forest and the crazy geometry that is Fontainebleau bouldering!

Popular posts from this blog

Vertical Landscapes: Exploring Glasgow's Hidden Bouldering

The Lost Township of Grulin on Eigg

Great Mountain Crags of Scotland