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Bouldering in Fontainebleau without a car

Panoramic view of boulders in a forest
The view from a boulder in Mont Aigu

I visited Fontainebleau, France for a week at the end of August. There's plenty of information online about bouldering in the surrounding forest, but I didn't find anything definitive about the feasibility of doing it without renting a car. I eventually stumbled upon, a great resource that includes an interactive map suggesting that there are a decent number of bouldering areas within walking distance from town. This page describes my experience in case you're thinking of trying something similar, but the summary is that there was more than enough easy-to-access climbing to keep me busy across five days.

Getting around

Many areas contain circuits of numbered problems, with each circuit assigned a color denoting its approximate difficulty. I initially marked all the areas that seemed walkable from where I was staying near the west side of Fontainebleau, but I later narrowed the list down to four areas with orange (AD for assez difficile, or “fairly difficult”) circuits. It's easy to get an idea of the circuits and consensus-driven grades available in a given area using, but don't be too surprised if your expectations need to be revised after your first day of climbing.

Rock with a painted orange arrow and the number 1
A straight-up problem

The start of each problem is marked with a hand-painted number and an arrow indicating the direction to climb. Traverses are indicated with multiple arrows showing the path that the route takes, and suggested footholds are marked with dots. My understanding is that your torso should be roughly aligned with each arrow.

It usually seemed pretty obvious which holds were “on” and “off” for a given problem (although when I watched videos of others climbing a few of the more-confounding problems, I saw some questionable use of adjacent boulders). Some boulders also have one or two variations in addition to the numbered problem, marked b (for bis) or t (for ter).

Finding the next problem in the circuit that you're doing can be challenging. There are often helpful painted dot-and-triangle markers pointing in the rough direction of travel, but topos were still essential for finding my way around — each area that I visited was a sprawling jumble of boulders, and the circuits usually took meandering paths between them. There are various guidebooks that probably make navigation easier, and also links to supplemental 5+6 and 7+8 mobile apps, but given the paltry amount of climbing that I was doing at lower grades, I just relied on topos that I found online through web searches like “[area name] orange circuit”.

A dirt pathway through a forest
Rte de Cheyssac on the way to Rocher d'Avon

While it was straightforward to get walking directions to each area using Google Maps, I was initially worried that I'd be spending a lot of time trudging up narrow, winding mountain roads as cars whizzed past me.

Those fears ended up being unfounded: nearly all of the roads that Google Maps suggested to me turned out to be unpaved pedestrian-and-cyclist-only paths and hiking trails. I occasionally saw other people walking or cycling on these paths, but for the most part, I was alone, walking through a peaceful forest.

Wild blackberry bush with berries in varying degrees of ripeness
Une mûre pas mûre

It's also worth mentioning that there are plentiful wild blackberry bushes throughout the forest. At one point, a passerby saw me picking berries with my large, rectangular crash pad on my back and engaged in some wordplay based on the similarity between the French words for “blackberry” (mûre) and “wall” (mur). Luckily, his English was good enough to explain the joke to me.

After the fact, I learned that there's a well-known expression based on this: Une mûre mûre murmure au mur, or “A ripe blackberry murmurs to the wall”.


Climbing shoes with dirt and moss stuck to their soles
Making my poor footwork even worse

The forest has many sandy patches on the ground, and there were also a lot of fallen pine needles while I was there. I'd recommend bringing an older pair of climbing shoes if possible, since dirt and tree sap seem unavoidable — even if you're diligent about changing shoes whenever you move between problems, there are many traverses and exits that necessitate walking around in your climbing shoes.

Bringing a small towel to wipe off the bottoms of your shoes before each attempt is essential, but I still found myself frequently needing to clean off handholds or wipe my shoes mid-climb. The constant threat of having sand or pine needles between my feet and the rock made using even solid-seeming footholds exciting!

The first crash pad that I rented from Wildways was large and heavy, with thin backpack straps. This was a mistake: it was hard to move it between problems, my shoulders were sore after carrying it for 30+ minutes, and trying to carry it on the narrow sidewalks in town was unpleasant for me and everyone around me. I wised up and switched to a smaller, lighter pad for later days.

Nearby areas

A Le Calvaire (map)

A bouldering problem with a crash pad at its base
№16 on the orange circuit

Le Calvaire is just a 10-15 minute hike from the north side of town. I plotted a course to the Croix du Calvaire, a scenic overlook above the town. There's a very short trail leading west from the cross to the beginnings of the orange and yellow circuits at the far east side of the area.

On my first day at Le Calvaire, I just meandered around climbing random yellow, orange, and (very occasionally) blue problems that looked interesting (and safe). I went back a second time a few days later with a topo on my phone and started going through the orange circuit in order.

The problems were mostly easy to find, although I skipped the out-of-the-way №13. The style of climbing changes dramatically after moving to Calvaire's northern wall at №15 — instead of standalone slabby boulders, there are ledges and even some vertical cracks. I ran out of time and energy around №18. Some of the problems were also substantially taller than what I'd seen earlier, e.g. №16 and №17.

B Mont Ussy (map)

Close-up photo of carved-looking rock
Close-up view of rock from №16

Mont Ussy was the second area that I visited, and it was also quite easy to walk to from the north side of town. To get there, I took a winding hiking trail up a moderate uphill slope. The trail that I took spit me out midway through the orange circuit, so I had to look around a bit before I found the boulder with the first two problems.

The circuit felt fairly maze-like: even with a topo, I still spent a fair amount of time searching for problems and tugging my crash pad through narrow passageways. There were many interesting problems, though, with more crimps and overhangs than at the other areas I visited. The rock was also particularly beautiful, having been worn down over the ages in some places to the point where it looked almost sculpted.

Photo of polished footholds
Easy-to-spot polished footholds

I was there on a Sunday and saw many groups out climbing, including a family or two, although I didn't need to wait to get on anything. The area's popularity was evident in other ways as well: in a number of places, obvious footholds had been polished to the point where they were unusable. This made some of the problems harder than their grades would suggest — all of the positive surfaces at the start would be slippery, leaving only vertical or even overhanging smears for my feet.

C Mont Aigu (map)

Boulder problem involving a chimney downclimb
Looking down from the start of №9 on the orange circuit

Mont Aigu is about a 35-minute walk from the west side of town. After crossing under the D607 road, I walked west along Route des Gorges de Franchard, a wide, sandy bike-and-pedestrian path that took me all the way to the start of the orange circuit.

I went there on a weekday and didn't see anyone else in the first hour or two. The rock was a bit more polished in places than Le Calvaire, but still far more pleasant to climb on than Mont Ussy. In 3-4 hours, I went through most of №1-№24, just half of the orange circuit. The prevailing style was similar to what I'd seen elsewhere (slabs and slopers) but with a bit of variety, most notably a chimney downclimb on №9. Having a topo came in handy again in some places.

D Rocher d'Avon (map)

View from the top of a slab boulder problem
Looking down from the top of №22

Rocher d'Avon is just south of town. To get there, I cut south through the chateau's Jardin Anglais, scampered across the D606 road, and then followed Rte de Cheyssac (another pleasant pedestrian/cyclist/equestrian path) east for 15 or 20 minutes before turning south onto the smaller Rte de la Percée. As soon as I saw boulders to my left, I was at the beginning of the orange circuit.

This area was also quite empty on the weekday when I went — in three or four hours, I only saw a couple out running and a pair of climbers. The rock was quite grippy here, which was fortunate since nearly every problem in the orange circuit is a slab. Following the circuit was generally straightforward with the exception of №7, which I spent some time hunting for before noticing a note from December 2019: “a tree fell on the boulder, making it inaccessible”. I made it through all of the numbered problems in the time I was there, with the exception of a few unprotectable slabs where a slip would've had me falling onto rock. I found some of my top-outs to be quite awkward and graceless due to the lack of discernible handholds at the tops of some of the boulders.

Cold winter traverse

The topo that I used from the circuit page also included a few orange problems denoted by letters rather than numbers (M, N, O, and P). The most interesting of the ones that I found was a left-to-right traverse across a boulder that had been carved to commemorate the very cold 1879-1880 European winter.