Spring bouldering in France

We drove from London and through the Eurotunnel, arriving in Fontainebleau in the early morning hours. It was grey and wet, and felt icy. Brown leaves gave the forest an autumnal look. Putting our tent up we were shivering with cold.

We had a nap, and when I woke up first, I walked from the still empty campsite to the town. It’s a short walk over the river and by a ruined castle. In the boulangerie they refuse to speak English, but they’ve got the best coffee eclairs in the world, and they’re worth the humiliation of not being able to pronounce a single French word. I awkwardly ask for two and cross the road to get a coffee in a dark restaurant always filled with smoke. The barman serves me without removing an almost burnt cigarette from his lips. He mentions the price, and I have no idea how much, so I give him three euros. I think he mutters merci, but doesn’t give me my change.

It didn’t stop raining well into the afternoon, but Sadie insisted we drove to Cul de Chien, so she could try a problem called ‘Arabesque’. As we walked from Trois Pignons, the weather got better, but the rock still felt drenched and there was no way of pulling on. I doubt I could have pulled on even if it had been bone dry.

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Saturday is a pizza night at the campsite and a small lorry with a built in charcoal oven pulls into the carpark. It’s comforting, not to have to cook in the rain, and we stuff ourselves silly, hoping for the forecast to turn.

The rain kept banging on the tent fabric for the whole night. The following morning was as miserable as the one before. Trying to shelter the stove’s fire to make another cup of coffee, we realised we didn’t want to stay. The front from the Atlantic left only one place in Europe sunny, so we packed up our two tents, three crash pads, four people, and two hundred fifty euros’ worth of food back into Jon’s car, and set off to on an eight hours journey to Provence.

Before it got dark, we caught a glimpse of the snowy peaks of the Ecrins. The car kept climbing up, and it kept raining, making us doubt the possibility of good weather at our destination. Patches of dirty snow adorned the road side, but on the other side of the mountains the temperature rose and the night sky was clear.

It was a pleasant change to pitch our tents in the dry, and we didn’t think much of how windy it was. The mistral kept us awake all night, but the morning was crisp and sunny, and the wind seemed to have died out.

At the campsite’s reception we were given a photocopy topo of the area, with a big sign reading ‘DO NOT TAKE OUTSIDE’ written in French on the cover. Emily’s expert pleading soon granted us permission to take it to the crag, and following a recommendation, we set off in search of a sector called Piaf du Chien.

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A windy, white road leads from the village to a mountainside and, as the car goes higher, snowy hilltops appear on the other side of the valley. The land has a Spanish feel about it, dry, with intensely blue skies and the smell of pine trees.

There’s less rock than in Font, or maybe it’s just more difficult to find. Paths are easy to lose, and navigation requires a topo, a functioning GPS (a good old compass would do), and a fair bit of luck. The development of the area is in its early stages and the rock doesn’t seem to get much traffic. As a result, many of the existing problems are overgrown with moss, and many others await discovery. I was surprised to realise there’s no new-router psyche in me, being content to stick to what’s already there.

The sandstone quality varies with piles of choss standing right next to excellent problems. We made our way through five sectors, and it was enough to entertain us over four days. There aren’t many beginners’ blocs, but mid-grade stuff is aplenty, with a few super hard problems dotting the forest. We became to treat the mysterious B-grading system as equivalent to soft V numbers. However, the internet maintains that B5 amounts only to about Font 6A, so maybe we got way more spanked than we thought.

For Jon’s birthday we ordered a bottle of local rose on the main square in Annot (at least I like to think of it as local), and the following day we were joined at the campsite by our UK friends who stayed at the Verdon. It’s just over an hour’s drive from Annot, but we had no gear apart from the bouldering mats. Sadie disappeared for a day of sandstone trad at the local crag, and came back very happy, hands covered with tape and bruises.

We decided to make our way back to Font for the Easter weekend. My fingertips were already in bad nick, a result of a week on grit proceeding our French trip, but I was psyched to get back on last year’s projects. As I was fiddling with Jon’s knife to fix something around the tent, a realisation that the blade’s blockade wasn’t locked came too late. The knife folded around the tip of my thumb, and I saw the blade smoothly sink into my nail. I cursed both in English and Polish, and had to lie down on the grass as a wave of nausea washed over me. I marveled at how delicate we are, reduced to a miserable state by a small cut. Realising this was the end of my weekend climbing, I cried as the blood dripped on the ground.

The journey back to Font was dragging forever, and even the vistas of snowy Ecrins didn’t sweeten it for me. I cheered up only when we decided not to cook at the campsite, but find a cheap restaurant in Nemours. Later, we were again pitching our tents in the rain.

We spent the next day walking in the wet forest, and trying to warm up over coffee in Milly. Sunday was the first time we saw blue sky in Font this year, and initially I was quite upset by not being able to climb. Sadie and Jon both pushed their grade effortlessly, and it took me some time to realise I can enjoy myself without always trying my best. We went off with Emily to do an orange circuit, and it gave me such pleasure, I almost felt as if I discovered climbing again.

On Monday on the orange in Beauvais there were many French people, most in their sixties or older. Enjoying themselves, chatting, relaxing in the sun and gracefully walking up holdless slabs, they seemed more climbers than anybody else. Two elderly girlfriends, one of them actually wearing a beret with a little antennae, were bubbling away with such ease, as if they were sipping coffee, not scaling blocs one after another.

As one of them spontaneously gave me a spot while I was shaking my way through a blank traverse, I felt a sense of belonging. It was hard and technical, and I didn’t make it. I think it was graded 3C.

For the first time in a while, it was just good to be trying.

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