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Origins: The Blocs of Fontainebleau

28,500 problems, complete with color-coded circuits: What more could a boulderer want?

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Keenan Takahashi learned to climb in a gym but was quickly lured outside by the inspiration and challenge of real rock. Venturing to the beautiful wooded boulders of Fontainebleau, France, he found what he was looking for on the sandstone blocks: 28,500 problems, complete with color-coded circuits, which decades later were the genesis for color-coded routes in the climbing gym.

Step all the way back to 1947, when Fred Bernick painted up the first color-coded routes in Font’s Cuvier-Rempart sector. The idea was further developed with the standardization of route difficulty and color in the 1980s. Now you can find color-graded circuits all over the forest, giving you a guidebook-free way to explore the area. (Start with the orange circuits, and try to move your way through the black circuits.)

Fontainebleau is considered the paradise of slopers. Many plastic hold shapers try to mimic the fine-grained sandstone texture of the classic Font “bubbles,” but there’s nothing like climbing on the real thing. Water, moss, wind and time have left behind creative sculptures of stone that demand precise footwork, exact hand positions and finicky body English. Because they have been weathered by rain, the egg-shaped sandstone boulders of the forest almost always have sloping topouts, leading to some interesting and technical manteling to get atop even the smallest objective. However, if crimps are more your cup of tea, you’re in luck. Fontainebleau sandstone also occasionally forms with sheer badges of quartzite edges called “grattons” that are improbably thin and incredibly hard.

Font’s most stable (not rainy) weather is between mid-March and early May, or October and November. High temperatures during this time range from 60 to 75 degrees. The best climbing conditions are days with freak amounts of wind, or when the pressure shifts and a Nordic wind blows over the French countryside. Climbers in Font can often be seen huddled around laptops, intently tracking weather patterns as if they’re waiting for a weather window in Patagonia. Fontainebleau is surprisingly family friendly, with many of the gîtes, hostels and accommodations accepting families. Most approaches are also quite easy—some are practically roadside!

One of the best aspects of Font is that you can find a slew of boulder problems in any style imaginable. From the lowest lowballs to some of the most committing highballs in the world, from crimps to cracks, pinches and slopers of all different shapes and sizes, from technical slabs to all-points-off dynos, Fontainebleau hosts what may be the greatest diversity of rock and movement in a single climbing area.

This article appeared in Gym Climber issue No. 1.

Gym Climber issue No. 2 in Gyms Now