Fontainebleau guides – what’s new?

Adam Hocking on Rubis sur L'Ongle 7B+, Gorge aux Chats Photo: Si Panton

Fontainebleau is undoubtedly the best bouldering area in the world. Each year climbers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the sandstone boulders hidden in the forest 30 miles south of Paris. It is a huge area with thousands and thousands of problems spread over many different venues. To the uninitiated it can be confusing; how do you engage with something so vast?

Over the years there have been various guides produced to the area, although there was always the feeling that we were not being told the full story.

The first guide produced by a Brit was Steven Gough’s Bleau guide back in 1997. This was quite a landmark for British climbers; fired up by repeat viewing of the Real Thing (Jerry Moffatt and Ben Moon’s 1996 film which featured the boys cranking hard problems both at home in the Peak and out in the Forest), the Brits descended en masse clutching said guide, keen to experience the ultimate boulder problems.

There then came a few French guides, such as Escalade a Fontainebleau/Fontainebleau Climbs in 1999/2000 and the slightly better Fontainebleau off-Piste in 2006. Both books were popular, but vague descriptions and poor maps ensured that many of the forest’s best kept secrets remained exactly that.

The 7 + 8 guide, released in 2002, was a revelation; arty, minimal design and a strict criteria (no problems less than 7A and no traverses) meant that it appealed only to elite climbers; nonetheless it sold well. An equally popular revamped version came out in 2007.

In 2006 Jingo Wobbly produced Fontainebleau Magique which focussed upon the lower grade circuits and then in 2008 Stone Country released Essential Fontainebleau, a competitively priced (only £10) mini-guide which served as a good introduction to the area (it is now out of print – but see end of article for news of a second edition).

In 2010 Bleau en Bloc was released. This German language production is very comprehensive; at 646 pages you wouldn’t expect anything less! However unless you can read German its practical value is limited.

Fast forward to 2012 and even more guidebooks have emerged. What follows is a quick appraisal of the new kids on the block:

Fontainebleau Fun Bloc (David Atchison-Jones, Jingo Wobbly) £30 320 pages A5 portrait

Following on from the Fontainebleau Magique guide, David Atchison-Jones has returned to the fray with another, more comprehensive guide. There is an impressive amount of information packed into the new book, with 45 areas and over 7000 problems given full overhead map topo and photo topo coverage. Grade 7 + 8 specimen hunters and lower grade circuit followers are both catered for (it even includes 17 kids circuits); classic traverses are also shown.
The maps are excellent, arguably the best of any current guide to Fontainebleau.

On the down side there are no problem descriptions (even the briefest of beta – like you get in the 7 + 8 guide – can make the world of difference) and no indication of quality for individual problems. There is no mention of conditions (which are the quick drying crags?) or advice about skin friendliness either. There are also no crag summary or individual crag introductions. If you want to work out the best venue for a given day you are, to an extent, left to your own devices.

The information trail in the book is also slightly counterintuitive – If you wish to go to Elephant you don’t go (as you might reasonably think) to the start of the Elephant section, rather you have to check the page number (page 307) on the initial opening spread map. A small map on page 307 gives page numbers for each of the areas, which are described in the pages before the map. Which is all a little strange but I suppose you will get used to it, and to be fair to Mr Atchison-Jones it does allow for some very page efficient layout (i.e. you get to carry a lighter book as you trek around the forest).

Who should buy this? Despite the quibbles mentioned above, this is probably the best ‘single’ guide to buy at the moment. It will suit a group with mixed abilities well, with something for everyone from first time kids to seasoned visitors.

Font A Bloc 1 (Jacky Godoffe) £28.95 336 pages A5 portrait

Jacky Godoffe has been an ambassador for Font for the last 30 years. I once bumped into him at Bas Cuvier back in the early 90s and he spent the next few hours giving me and my mates an extended tour, effortlessly cruising up problem after problem as we floundered in his wake. A true gent and an awesome climber.

In the late nineties he collaborated with Jo and Francoise Montchause to produce the original ‘purple’ guide (Escalade a Fontainebleau/Fontainebleau Climbs) and then in 2006, Fontainebleau Bouldering ‘Off Piste’ which surprisingly was given an English translation by arch traditionalist, Ken Wilson.

Jacky’s latest offering, Font A Bloc 1 (released in 2010) is the first of a trio of guides covering the classic grade 6s (V3-V5 in old money) and the 7 + 8s. This guide features the areas close to Fontainebleau (i.e. Isatis, Cuvier, Cuisiniere, Apremont, Salamandre, Rocher Canon, Rocherd’Avon, Gorges du Houx, Rocher Cassepot, Rocher du Calvaire, Rocher de Bouligny, Rocher Saint Germain, Rocher des demoiselles, Mont Ussy – Roche Hercule); the second volume (due out this year) will cover the sectors around Milly la Foret and a third volume will be dedicated to the peripheral sectors around Nemours and the Ferte Alais.

This guide has many of the features that British climbers will warm to, namely problem descriptions, plus hints and warnings about what to expect. Even though the translation was clearly done via ‘Google translate’ I like this sort thing in a guide. The areas also have proper introductions including valuable advice about the character of each venue.
From a design point of view it is rather crude and much space is wasted. The map topos are quite basic too and certainly not as sophisticated as seen in other modern guides.

Who should buy this? This will appeal to the 7 + 8 fans that want more information about specific problems, and are keen to experience the classic mid grade problems too.

5 + 6 3975 straight ups in central and southern Fontainebleau (Bart van Raaij) £29.95 320 pages A5 landscape

The original 7 + 8 guide caused quite a stir when it first came out; indeed on our side of the pond a number of bouldering guidebook producers aped its space lavish design and landscape format.
There were problems though – it was only possible to glean scant information about any given problem. I know from experience the disappointment of searching for an unstarred ‘off piste’ 7A only to find that it was not worth the bother. The horizontally aligned, landscape format was cumbersome too, and certainly not as tough as a vertically aligned, portrait format

This guide applies the same formula to problems in the grade 5 and 6 range, i.e. V1 to V5. For many visitors to the forest this will be the target range, especially if a visit is made during the hotter summer months (when it will be hard to hang the holds on the 7 + 8 test pieces).

The guide uses overhead map topos for problem identification; the absence of photo topos does rob the book of a sense of what is on offer; it also increases the potential for confusion when you are searching for a particular problem.
The two star quality rating system is less specific than the traditional three, four or five star method used by other guidebook producers – indeed, the majority of the problems in the guide receive no star rating at all.
Once again venue introductions, approach maps and details are found in the back of the book. I know this works but I’ve never really got used to it and find the disconnection of information jarring.

Who should buy this? This will appeal to the ‘style-conscious’ mid grade climber who knows their way around a bit already.

Fontainebleau Boulder Maps: Franchard, Bas Cuvier, Apremont £24.95 A1 folded

Getting lost in the forest is a right of passage for any visitor to Fontainebleau; even regular visitors will spend some part of their trip wandering around trying to match what they see around them to a condensed map in an A5 guidebook. In fact I’d recommend carrying a compass just for orientation purposes should you find yourself deep in Blair Witch territory, with no idea of the way home.

On one occasion I found myself in this very situation with a group of mates including Keswickian rock star and erstwhile Llanberis resident, Adam Hocking. I had a compass in my bag but before I revealed which way north was I decided to test the instinctive sense of direction of the group. It was overcast and going dark so there was little clue coming from the sky.
Everyone got it wrong apart from Adam whose internal compass was absolutely bang on; similar tests later on in the same trip saw him repeat the feat with ease. It was only years later that it occurred to me that he had probably done it by looking at which side of the boulders carried the most moss (this indicating the northern side of course).

Anyway, one answer to the ‘getting lost in the forest’ issue is to produce bigger scale and more accurate maps – this is exactly the approach of the Boulder Map series.

The maps do give you a sense of the macro layout of an area in a way that an A5 book will never be able to do. This is especially useful if you are following one of the coloured circuits over a significant distance during the day. Although, if you are looking for a general navigation tool the standard IGN Fontainebleau and Trois Pignon map would be a better purchase.

The boulder shapes themselves are drawn in a fairly nondescript ‘blobby’ style, at best an approximation of what you will find on the ground. That said; there is also a small selection of photo topos included for the key boulders, which should help with problem identification.

The maps are individually quite vulnerable to damage, but do come in a handy plastic folder which will help to protect them when not in use. The £24.95 price gets you three area maps, which makes it quite an expensive way of finding your way around the forest – but then again it’s a small price to pay for clarity, and the maps are quite beautifully done.

Who should buy this? If you are looking to travel light on an extended circuit then this is a good option.

Even more Fontainebleau guidebooks coming soon!

As a final footnote it is worth noting that a third edition of the 7 + 8 guide (with an extra 500 problems apparently!) is due to be published this summer, plus Font A Bloc 2. An updated and ‘fatter’ Essential Fontainebleau 2 is also slated for a release by the end of the year.

Personally, I love the place so much, I’ll be buying the lot!

Simon Panton (currently working hard on the new North Wales Bouldering guide)

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