Thursday, June 16, 2011

Horizontal Alpinism

French poppies
"The idea of a circuit was devised by Fred Bernick as a sort of horizontal alpinism, a substitute for a mountaineering route..." -Fontainebleau Climbs by Jo and Francoise Montchausse and Jacky Godoffe
Bouldering was my climbing childhood. My friends and I must have done the nine-hour round trip drive from the University of New Hampshire to the Shawangunks to go bouldering at least a half dozen times before I ever even thought of roping up there. I even traveled to Nepal's Khumbu Valley in 2004 to go bouldering, just bouldering, in the shadows of the Himalaya's greatest peaks. It was the most accessible (read: cheapest) way into climbing for me as a college student, plus, a childhood of gymnastics and horseback riding/stall cleaning developed my shoulders for the powerful movement it requires.

So I went to the bouldering mecca of Fontainebleau to fulfill a dream that seeded itself more than a decade ago. But the times have certainly changed since then. This trip, I stopped in Font on my way to Chamonix to climb mountains.

All I'd heard about the magical forest of Fontainbleau is true: it really does have more climbable boulders strewn in a 1,000 kilometer area than I have ever seen anywhere. There really are four generations of French families out climbing together on any given day of the week, and the oldest of them are wearing the shortest shorts and climbing the hardest, scariest problems.

'Cul De Chien' (Head of the Dog - can you see it?)

I was a good alpinista and spent the first two of the three days I had there climbing Fontainebleau's classic moderate bouldering circuits, training for a mountain climbing summer just as the area was originally developed for, and just as French alpinists have been doing for more than seventy years. (Another curious thing about Font is those circuits. The boulders are painted with colored numbers and arrows to create hundreds of circuits for climbing. There are circuits for children, circuits for beginners to experts, circuits for crimping or for crack climbing, and everything in between. It is such the norm that routes that are not in a circuit are literally called 'off circuit'!)

But my boulderer instincts got the best of me by day three. I could not take my eyes off of the incredible lines of the harder routes that were 'off of our circuit'. We were having fun on our easy climbs, but the real boulderers, who were pushing themselves at their absolute physical and technical limits, were having a different kind of fun that I remembered very well. So with a few hours left in the day I finally gave in, stacked my crash pad with many others under the classic 'La Joker', and sat down to change my climbing shoes from the oversized pair that I needed to break in for mountain climbing this summer into more appropriate 'racing slippers'. I threw myself at it until I'd lost any reserves of fingertip skin and arm and core strength I had left.

Changing those shoes was like changing personalities and it felt great to get a glimpse of that self that I came to climbing from. Indeed, I aim to reacquaint myself more fully with that side soon. But first, I have some mountains to climb.

The scene in Fontainebleau

Stay tuned for more from France! Huge thanks to Jack and Catherine and all of our new friends from The Forest.


Dougald MacDonald said...

Sorry, but 'cul de chien' is a dog's ass. And no, I can't see it.

Janet said...

oh my gosh you are right! i think i need to study my french. and i think it looks more like a turtle's head anyway...