We sit here, nestled among big dry-green and brown hills, as the wind rocks the van in a motion somewhere between soothing and spewy. Our sleep spot in Albarracin is a good one, a designated car park that is spacious and sunny, if a little exposed at times, and almost empty at this time of year. The other members of our transient family at the moment are Kili and Duci (the Fiat) from Berlin slash Southern Bavaria. A few others have come and gone, the orange juice guy with a tickly morning cough, a smiley Spanish couple, lovely Marty (and Roberta, his big Mercedes bus) from Brighton who so kindly gave us his guidebook, and of course Frances and Will, our vanning buddies for the beginning of the trip. It’s a fairly simple life up here, mainly concerned with food, sleep, bouldering and clothes management. We fill our days...
With the past, passing and present company, there are some consistencies...
Sometimes winter days call for change, and ours was to the warm(?) climes of Spain. Will and Frances were already there, the bouldering of Albarracin is renowned for being awesome, as well as the town itself very beautiful, and south seemed a good direction to take. So we packed up (read: two days of frantically removing everything, installing a gas hob and then putting everything back in), said goodbyes to our ever-patient families and friends, and left an unusually sunny England on the Seven Sisters to Dieppe.
It was obvious as soon as we began driving down through France that it was chilly. The windows all froze on the inside when we slept, and the temperature gauge plummeted as we progressed, reaching a Baltic -9oC around Puy as we drove through an ethereal, frost-tipped landscape over the Massif Central at about 5pm. Our wiper squirters froze at about -7oC and didn’t rejoin the party for about five days. Spain was marginally warmer, hitting an exciting 2oC high, and we arrived in Albarracin to dry, if brutally windy, conditions and a slightly weary Will and Frances, in time for an afternoon boulder. It was fortunate that we took advantage of this, because that night it dropped a fat load of snow over everything.
La Zahora, the super-friendly and generally lovely climber’s bar, allowed us to sleep in their car park whilst we were too nervous to follow every other car through the ice and snow. We spent two days drinking copious amounts of café con leche and eating big bowls of patatas bravas and salad, and then realised that we would have to brave the roads or go broke in the comfort of the bar. The main roads turned out to be fine, but the climbing wasn’t, each boulder capped by a big pillowy mound of snow slowly dripping down the holds. We made an executive decision to go to a nearby sport climbing spot, and similarly beautiful Spanish town, Cuenca, where the temperature gauge might again poke its head above zero.
The sport climbing in Cuenca is vast, on golden cliffs that border a meandering valley. The people of the area seem super active, passing in a constant traffic of walkers, cyclists, joggers and kayakers, whilst a relatively low number of vehicles made for a tranquil area. However, the lack of bouldering gave us itchy fingers, and judging that a couple of days was enough time for snow to melt, we headed back to Albarracin.
We were totally wrong in our estimates; the snow was still heavily present to the extent that whilst we could get up the 24 hour parking and the first car park for the bouldering, we were unwilling to drive the extra few minutes to the main parking as the tree cover had prevented the road from de-frosting. The extra walk was no bad thing anyway, it ensured that we were warm when we began to climb. Those first few days we would just climb anything that was dry, and a bonus if it happened to be in the sun too. It was nice to be moving and pull on rock, but at the same time frustrating, as our climbing was restricted to what was dry and our movement was restricted by the snow and ice, which still lurked about making the ground treacherous.
On what was to be Will and Frances’s final evening we went out for dinner in the old town, which is absolutely beautiful, soft stone buildings and winding streets all under yellow light. We found a restaurant that looked nice, but not so nice as to skimp on portion size, and the very smooth maître-de looked at us and immediately assigned a cheerful young guy with a stud in one ear to our table whilst he served the more refined diners. The food was good, if a little lacking in vegetables (probably down to our ordering) and most importantly, filling for a pretty reasonable price. And they gave us free shots of herby liquor at the end of the meal.
After one more day’s climbing, and a bang-tidy curry, Frances and Will left for the UK. The next day was the great melt, when the snow suddenly started to shift, but made everything soggy in the process, and then we did a rest day Mega-shop, which nearly required a rest day in itself. And since then, mostly just climbing, eating, sleeping, checking the weather, fetching water, the odd shower, the odd beer or coffee…
What better way to start the new year than nearly naked on a sunny beach, climbing, paddling and sunbathing... Not the 1st, that we spent hungover and curled up in bed watching films, but near enough, January 3rd. This wasn't anywhere particularly tropical, but in Cornwall, England. Geddin. Who needs to follow the sun?!
We headed down to Pedn Vounder, a cove at very nearly the end of the country, with Wojciech, Izabella, George and Ben the dog. None of us, except possibly Ben, were prepared for how warm it would be down there after a frosty night, and ended up shedding most of our clothes as soon as we had negotiated the path down. Judging from the number of people swimming in their underwear it seemed that noone* had expected it. The water was clear and turquoise, and the vegetation pretty lush for January; it felt like being in Thailand or somewhere...until the water's cold bite reminded us sharply where we were.
*Other than, that is, the dedicated ensemble of experienced exhibitionists who (considering their flawless full body sun-tan) have most likely been frequenting the beach in birthday suits all year round
Climbing was a delight too, the low sand levels had exposed some tough bouldery starts to the trad routes, and we played on these and other bits and pieces; granite aretes, highball slabs, steep and technical crimp fests and some juggy walls too. It pretty much ticked all the climbing boxes we could ask for.
Following explorations and lunch, we hit the steep walls in the 'canyon'. A huge slanted chasm slices into the cliffside running down to beach level, with a slab of black and red granite on one side providing easy descent for endless flowing water from above. It's counterpart is a similarly red and black patched wall with enough feature to keep your fingers busy for days on end. As mentioned previously, the fluctuation in sand levels also adds another layer of variety, it that you never know where your route will start. The order of things on this day meant lower starting points with slightly stingier features and ultimately crux points between the ground and the third or fourth move. Below is a video of a climb in this style that Wojciech and Sam .
Whilst the boys played on their wall route, Izabella soaked up the sun, Ben dug up the landings and George found creative new uses for our boulder pad, I soloed some of the short trad climbs on the next wall over, gentle routes with plenty of breaks and features. One route on the right of the wall is probably short enough to be a neat boulder problem, with a couple of big, spanny moves at the beginning to a relaxed finish. Happily, all were fully exposed to the sun's warmth - other than, sadly, for the photographer.
As the sun threatened to drop down behind the headland, we began the hike back up the little path before the growing shadows reminded us that we were in the middle of winter. By the time we reached the cars the air was cold and the sun was gone, we drove off with the heating on.
The last half of November and first half of December saw us living in the south of France, an area almost saturated with good sport climbing. Boring stuff like work and short winter days meant that we became weekend warriors; the limitations actually made climbing trips more valuable, and despite the early nightfall the days were sunny and warm...when they weren't being spoiled by r-a-i-n.
A short travel-break in the forest allowed us to enjoy five days of rain trickling through the trees and over the rocks. To be fair, we did have a lovely day climbing with Will and Frances, who stopped off on their way to Spain, but that was about it...
The sunny climb lured us into a false idylism rudely spoilt by some surprisingly squally, and apparently totally unseasonal rain, for about... the whole week. The river next to our apartment grew increasingly torrid and the ducks, coypu and local alcies that had been scattered about the banks on our first day all vanished in favour of, presumably, more sheltered areas. We did manage to sneak in a day's bouldering at Vidauban. There is enough easily accessible rock here to get a good burn on, and some fun problems. It is also very beautiful, with rough red rock and a lovely view over the surrounding countryside. We left feeling satisfied, tired and raw skinned, to the pitter-patter of returning rain.
We finally got round to finishing off editing a couple of reels of bouldering footage from the forest of Fontainebleau. The video was shot during our long trip away over the summer and contains some of the ascents that we were happiest with. There were other climbs that we were also really chuffed with, however a camera wasn't always present. This is probably a good thing. C'est tout.
Neath Abbey Quarry is a dark reddish, sandstone crag on the edge of the Mynnyd Drumau, in the south of Wales just shy of Swansea. Apparently, in 2002 the cliffs fell down (to the surprise of the inhabitants) creating a jumble of rocks and a bouldering playground that has been recently developed, primarily by Liam Fyfe and Alex Mannion. We went to check it out last week on an unusually warm, sunny, November day with Dan and Jonny.
Parking is possible in a cul-de-sac just below the crag, avoiding any imposition on private property. We met Dan and Jonny there, and began the walk up through the woodland, up the slippy slope, across the muddy track, over the swampy stream and along some rocky bits, putting us at the first boulder, and lunch. We climbed a couple of routes here, a nice 6b and 6b+ (Rail to Rail and Rail Diversion) and a few other bits and bobs, before heading further up into the boulders.
It's a good thing we climbed these, as they were the only routes that most of us managed that day. Our only other send was Dan's, of the delicate Techtonics (7b), despite splitting his fingertip on it. Sam and Jonny worked Half State at the top of the crag, with some progress, until sundown snuck up on us. The combination of being behind a hill and the change in clocks meant it got dark pretty quick and the long stumble through the boulderfield and brambles would have been testing had we left much later.
Success and failures - (right) Dan Stephenson keeping the side alive by making a heroic, post-finger-split ascent of Techtonics (7b) and left, Sam making one of many failed attempts to close Half State
Opinions seem to be split on this area - this write-up on the South Wales Mountaineering Club site is fairly scathing, whereas the UKC overview is more enthusiastic. Our opinion is a bit divided, too. The location is rather beautiful, quite wild and very tranquil despite sitting just off the M4. The climbing that we did was nice, on frictionous holds, and the blocs are pretty, featured, and with soft profiles that blend into the vegetation. The approach, on the other hand, is adventurous - a Mountain Rescue Leader that performed a rescue operation at Neath described the ground rather strongly as "exceptionally treacherous..."
Our conclusion; the number of problems here, over 120 with potential for more, make it a rather lovely, worthwhile venue so long as you don't mind a bit of brambles and stumbling. We'll be back for more...with approach shoes, thicker trousers and a smaller picnic.
In the spirit of appearing like we're doing something with this website, and out of habit, this post contains our sHitlist; a slightly smug run-down of the boulders we have climbed this trip. Having just spent the better part of three months on and off in the forest of Fontainebleau through the hot, cold, wet and dry we definitely had plenty of time to scramble atop a rock or two. Without too much beating around the boulder, we've also selected our top three climbs...
Welcome to Tijuana (7c), Apremont Envers
Originally, I got on this boulder late on a summer's morning only to find that (surprise, surprise...) friction was nowhere to be found over 30ºC. Spoiled attempts, thinning skin and lots of frustration led to abandonment until the furnaces of hell had subsided. A month and a half later I revisited it on a crisp September morning and oh my, oh my, it felt good. Every hold had some bite and with a few little tweaks at each section of the climb, I found a solid sequence that allowed me to cruise. After such defeat initially, being able to come back and crush made it all the more memorable.
I was originally captivated by this rock after a visit in spring of this year. I had a play on all of the moves on one of our final days of that particular trip but felt pretty quickly that this was a tactical error. Tired and feeling like my 'go' had got up and gone, I didn't make very good progress.
Still though, after returning home following that stint, I was reworking the moves in my head and found myself quite inspired. It's approximately 12-15 moves on pretty reasonable holds considering the grade. The bulk of the difficulty comes from spanning between slopers, maintaining body tension and having enough beans to make the last few powerful moves, again through some pretty demanding sloper holds. The aesthetics of the line also played a part, it being a rising traverse that requires a strong down-climb sequence followed by an elegantly violent couple of moves to top out. All of this takes part on a boulder that resembles a flying saucer that has crashed into the hillside. Being back in summer required some pretty early starts to get the most of the cool conditions, in the end it went down second go of the third session. Loved every moment of it.
Opium (8a), Recloses
My first true Fontainebleau 8a. With much shock I found myself topping out during the second session of trying it, after being resigned to it possibly taking many more hours of attempts. Yay!
Mémoire d'Outre-Tombe (7a+), Rocher Fin
This striking protruding roof was a vague project of mine from a year ago, when I felt pretty close to climbing it but lacking in endurance. On trying it again at the beginning of October, I realised that not only was my endurance still possibly not up to it, but that the last few moves felt hard enough that I didn't actually know how to do them. I found the perfect sequence for the last moves, and then completely forgot it and had to find a new way, with a high right heel that allowed me to move my hands up the 'nose' of the boulder. Naturally, I was too tired to climb the route.
Two days later we returned to Rocher Fin and I worked the end a couple of times then, feeling fresh and strong, climbed the full route, my fourth 7a+.
La Pierre et le Sabre / La Belle Arête (6c), Cuisinière
I was very excited to climb this route, mostly because it is an arete, which I suck at, and quite highball, which I also suck at. It is beautiful, as suggested in the name. The problem follows a crimpy rail into the arete, where you move round the feature and stand up to a slopey 'jug'. The top out is then, in theory, a relatively simple rock up.
It felt like the route lasted for an age, using a lovely heel hook to move out to the arete, then inching up with micro-movements, just tickling the bottom of the jug and having to trust the feet more, pushing up until I finally had the hold. The jug was less juggy than I had hoped for, and the top out took me more time, more creeping up with shaky disco legs. But I got it, topped myself out, and was just ridiculously excited to have climbed this lovely, tenuous line.
La Joker (7a), Cuvier
'Nuff said! La Joker is a super-classic, a 7a climbed before 7a existed, and a route I didn't think I could climb. We went to Bas Cuvier on our way to the ferry port, a last day burn on a busy, sunny October day. I tried the Joker a few times, moving into the characteristic side pull a few times and getting nowhere. I was ready to move on, but Sam and a few other people that were working the problem harrassed me into a couple of last tries. On the first, I started to push up on the high left foot, and the second I pushed up and then found a right toe. The next moves flowed easily, and left me at the top of the boulder, surprised. A bit of recombobulation later and I managed to haul my ass over the top. Who needs to climb La Marie Rose?! (Probably me)
The heady, sociable atmosphere at Cuvier that day was awesome fun, and just made us sad to leave, and hellish keen to go back.
Below are the lists of our more noteworthy ascents including the climbs mentioned above, along with possibly one or two others...
The change from summer to autumn passed almost overnight, and a moment's pause gives us a chance to reflect on the last few weeks. These have been crazy hectic, full of change and new opportunities, but also full of sunny bouldering expeditions and the odd sweaty sending session in the Forêt de Fontainebleau.
The long drive back through France didn't take much time, our slow, stop-start form of travel was replaced by something almost approaching efficiency. Only approaching, mind; at least three hours were spent traversing out of an enormous, beautiful, really annoying gorge that demanded constant changes between third and fourth gear. The remainder was a little faster, with one night spent at a picturesque 'aire' on a river surrounded by hundreds of large, shiny campervans that dicked on ours - they ain't got no tiger though, yo.
Temperatures in the forest were just as hot as when we had left it, and the weather was just as blazingly sunny. Sending conditions were, at an average of 35ºC, obviously subpar, however we had bigger fish to fry. The last weekend of August was our first weekend working with Rock and Sun, guiding, instructing and generally hanging out for their Fontainebleau based climbing holidays. In an ideal world we would have spent the few days before running over our sites in a relaxed sort of manner, but we were waiting on on a parcel from DHL who were adamant that they would deliver on the Tuesday, until about 10pm when they finally conceded defeat and ruined most of our Wednesday too. So we covered all of our sites in a day and a half. Pas de problème.
The long weekend went really well, and we have since done a few more which have also gone swimmingly. The clients have been, without exception, lovely, and captivated by the forest and climbing. We have tried to be clear about the ethical values that help to keep the forest beautiful for everyone, and are hopefully creating a mini army of clean-footed, chalk-brushing, litter-picking awesome climbers.
Back to what we do best - craghopping. The south of France has a fairly incredible concentration of quality sport climbing sites so a drive across is never going to be quick if you stop as the temptation hits. Everywhere we went we seemed to be surrounded by cliffs streaked with cream, blue-black and ochre or slabs of grey dissected by cracks and seams. What could stop us...
Sam being a sub-standard navigator
Within the Ardèche region of France there are many, many sport crags in an idyllic area of winding rivers and, in comparison to Gorges du Tarn, friendly cliff faces, as well as a small amount of bouldering(!). We wanted to climb some routes, but as we were missing short falls onto a pad we were going to give the limestone bouldering a whirl too.
It's full summer, and like last year we have left our cosy hobbit hole of bouldering for the airy heights of Mordor sport climbing in southern France. It's good to make sure that we can still climb for more than four meters. So where better to head than to the steep mega-routes in the Gorges du Tarn?
The 25 Bosses circles les Trois Pignons, the vast playground of woodland, beaches and boulders within Fontainebleau forest, taking in the high points along the way. It translates (less romantically) as something like the 25 bumps. We had the walk pegged, in all our wisdom, as a good rest day or rainy day activity. As it turns out it isn't really either unless you have a pretty decent hiking fitness, or don't mind sliding down wet jumbles of rocks - although we managed it, not objecting to the latter, our fitness is probably substandard and we definitely felt it the next day.
An idiot abroad.
As a way to really experience the size and variety of landscape in les Trois Pignons, it couldn't be better. We went on a journey, along higgledy-piggledy rocky paths, through deep, quiet, shadowy forest, emerging to sunny hillsides speckled with purple dots of heather and then more forest that bordered on the tropical, steamy and lush with small sprawling chestnut trees. The viewpoints are epic and almost definitely worth the climbs, especially to see the ring of hilltops that we had already topped, and the surrounding fields spread away.
Summer has brought us back to Fontainebleau Forest for more bouldering, catch ups with friends and the chance of a new career. Climbing conditions are far from ideal but the forest is quiet again after the Easter rush, and bright and mysterious with the masses of vegetation. The sun is hot and the beer is cold, and we have a few weeks off...
Life ceased to be a whirlwind once we got on the road, once we realised that there was no way our van conversion would be completed on time and relaxed with family for a last English supper. And then we drove, the next morning, frantically late of course, down to Newhaven for the ferry departure. It turned out that we weren't late at all and had time to buy last minute beans and peanut butter for valuable gifts. The Seven Sisters was a delight as always; the sunny evening tempted everyone on deck where people were playing violin and guitar to pass their voyage.
The sun set, the ferry docked in France. We drove a little, through quiet dark showers, and stopped in a rest area by a cute little hedge and picnic bench. Opening the doors to get ready for bed, we realised that our little hedge was the only shelter from the highway, and evidently the layby pee spot. C'est la vie, we had already stopped. The night's sleep was peaceful, and not too fragrant, and we were only awoken by the aire overlord doing some gardening, kicking mole hills and giving us accusing looks as he picked up toilet paper (that really wasn't ours). Time to drive to Font.
We arrived to some seriously hot, muggy conditions and a plague of mosquitoes that made the afternoon's climbing at Isatis, with Ian, quite testing, but so much fun to be back climbing on the sandstone. For the next few days we lived in the van, enjoying the easy life of sleeping, climbing, eating.
During this period we met Trev and Dees, of Rock and Sun, to explore the prospect of working together. It was a real pleasure to meet them both, and to learn more about the company, which seems genuinely run with passion and a friendly, facilitative ethos. We did a couple of days training with them as well, and are really excited to see where this will lead (pun unintended - this is bouldering not sport...).
After a few more days we went to stay with friends Helen and Jason, for a bit of a holiday and climbing together. As the weather grew hotter again we began to get up in time for early morning hits on Rocher Cailleau, for Sam to work the Alien bloc and Amber to establish inappropriate projects. He has climbed Alien and Vandale (both 7c) to date, rather beautifully after some solid dedication; I have yet to lay mine to rest - I suspect it may be a very long process.
Recently, we made quite a significant change in our lives. We said a very sad goodbye to the KOB, our trusty VW Golf that made our adventures possible for the last year and a half... followed by an apprehensive yet excited 'hello' to our new VAN (name pending). The KOB went as a wedding present for some friends, and is currently awaiting it's makeover in the form of astro-turf and faux wood panelling. We can't think of a better home for it. And as for the van, it's looking quite different from the half ply-lined panel van we bought home.
The conversion has been a bit manic; we didn't have nearly enough time for what we thought we needed, and everything took much longer than we had planned for. Such is life. We still have some odds and ends to tidy up, some larger than others, but we're proud of our rudimentary camping car. We recycled as much as we could in the conversion process, using scraps of wood and ply, insulation from a skip and some kindly-donated bed slats. We fitted a window and a vent which have been invaluable, but were, at the time, processes bordering on the traumatising. And we spent half the building time cross-headed and fuzzy-eyed trying to realise our slightly over-elaborate plans (although that could have been the carpet glue).
As stressful as it may have been, squeezing in insufficient hours at the end of working days, spending weekends filling our lungs with sawdust and aerosol glue, as soon as we pulled the bed out for the first night's sleep and it actually worked, it all seemed worth it.
Consigned to a few months in Cornwall, we decided to quit bitchin' about the lack of bouldering (another climbing centre has recently closed down with the sad disease of Cornishclimbingwallitis) and get ourselves out and about in the south west. And... we have been happily surprised. The sites may be a little sparse, and the walk-ins occasionally pants-wettingly scary, but some of the climbing has been really fun, and even, dare I say... some of the best bouldering we've had...?
Hartland Quay is a bit Mordor-ish, all jagged shadowy rocks and drama. You approach it via a rather time warped toll road, parking at a hotel which has a nice bar for when the tide eats all your problems. Approaches are okay, but give a decent quad workout, lots of pads are helpful with landings that are 'uneven'.
We went to Hartland to meet Jonny and Duma, and check out one of the south west's most excellent 8a's, Supercede. Jonny upgraded it to 8b-ish, and no-one sent it. However, Sam and Duma climbed Carnage (7b), helpfully described by Sam as "nice", and then "good, I thought." Jonny managed to repeat Carnage without destroying it. I made "the hard move", only to find another after it.
Jonny on Supercede, moments before the hand-hold snapped.
Pentire is a very exciting trad climbing site on the North coast of Cornwall. It also has some boulders at the base of the Grand Face (which is very, very grand), one of which is quite famous for having a 7c+, Pycho Cowboy, running along it's steep lip. Leigh had reliably informed us some time previously, and a few beers post, that this route was soft, and that we should all go get it. So we did (try)...
Turns out, the approach is a bit hairy, and quite well hidden, and even when you find it you may have your doubts as to whether it is indeed the approach. It is more hairy in strong wind when you have portable wind catching devices, i.e. boulder pads, strapped to your back. Luckily for us, the wind was blowing onshore and just squashed us into the hill after a gentle tease. When we got to the bottom, the boulder was perched beneath the very Grand Face, on an excitingly wave lashed platform, and Pycho Cowboy was not at all soft, at least not to us. The other problems on the bloc felt quite hard too, although it might have been the sucking and gurgling of waves under the boulder that was off-putting. The scenery was gorgeous, and wild and beautiful, but Pentire did not give us a fulfilling bouldering session.
Godrevy is my (Amber) new favorite place to boulder, climbing wise. It is glorious. The bouldering is at the end of one the nicest beaches in Cornwall, sheltered, beautiful wave washed slate with rough juggy top-outs, route grades from Font 1 to 7c+ and maybe more. On the flipside it is horrendously condition dependant, demanding mid-tides and reasonably dry weather (rare, in Cornwall) with sun or a breeze, but we'll ignore that for now. Pick the right day then, and it is glorious.
We've managed a couple of sessions here, and had so much fun, in part because we could climb enough that it felt like a real work out - so many spots just don't have so much variety. We have both had some success with harder routes too, Sam sending multiple 7's over two sessions, and for me - three 7's and some lovely 6's in one trip. Virginia and Wolff, named for the author whose lighthouse sits just out to sea, are two neat routes that sit aside each other in the Main Bay area, as are Les Temps Passe left and right, strong crimpy lines up the overhang of the Bowling Alley. A guide can be found here.
The sHitlist is becoming a post script to our rocky adventures and consists of our harder climbs throughout each bouldering trip to the Forest of Fontainebleau. This is purely vanity driven of course, a self-inflated sense of elation following the hoarding of our trophies. Some collect skulls or scalps, we collect words on a page, listing the pieces of rock we've either fought to stand atop or elegantly ascended. Whichever way one looks at it, it's strange behaviour.
After several lists from several trips they have gained in length and diversity. To a casual reader, however, they remain just that: a list. So this time we have also picked out our top five boulder problems in an attempt to bring a bit more depth to our collection as well as to give a bit of glory to the mini-mountains that have given us so much pleasure (or pain). It's still pretty geeky though.
Boissy-aux-Cailles is a relatively undisturbed beauty-spot on the metaphorical face forming the sites that dwell within the Forest of Fontainebleau. The rock resides in heavily wooded areas across two main sites, both lovely walks over fields from the cemetery on the edge of Boissy. It obviously receives some traffic as there are a few boulders scattered about that have been developed for climbing and is also well publicised in a couple of forest guidebooks. On a pretty-close-to-perfect day, however, it was ours and ours alone...well, almost.
We could hear all different birds chatting in the trees, although no quails for which the area is named; the small, mottled smooth pebbles that are conglomerated within the sandstone resemble quail eggs. A small herd of large deer scattered before us as we walked through the woods. Most charismatic of our encounters was with a small bird, later identified as a goldcrest, that flittered about the rock we were climbing. It didn't seem to mind us as we climbed, but when we stayed motionless for a moment it alighted on the finish holds to pose for a few pictures.
The last two days have been dry and cold, and finally we have been able to experience what those in the know consider 'good conditions' in Fontainebleau. Temperatures have been between about three and eight degrees, typically considered perfect for some sloper slappin' on sandstone.
Our thoughts have been mixed. On the one hand the friction has been excellent in a bit of a giddy way, sticking moves unexpectedly and finding different sequences. On the other, the friction isn't necessarily so beneficial when your fingers are numb. Eating massive amounts of honey bread, wafers, anything with sugar or carbs, in an attempt to maintain core temperature can also be detrimental to both waistline and wallet. Longevity is also a problem, the smaller amongst us getting cold and tetchy after a few hours. This is actually a scientifically described phenomenon; heftier animals (i.e. Sam) lose heat at a slower rate due to a smaller surface area to volume ratio.
Another upside to climbing in February is the solitude. Everywhere, even Isatis, is tranquil and quiet, and everything feels a little lazy. The white skies that cloak some days give everything a dreamy quality, only sharpened by the bite of gritty rock under balding finger tips. The people we have met, scattered about, have been friendly and interesting; local French boys, a German astrophysicist, a northern lad roughing it for a month.
Hazy days drift by, days spent wandering the forest, followed by nights in front of a fire locked in from the Baltic temperatures outside. It's a bit of a shock for two fair weather climbers, but one not totally unpleasant.
...because we have waffles !
Around Fontainebleau forest, many signs bear the legend 'beware of processionary caterpillars'. Their hairs are extremely irritating and can cause death in susceptible humans and dogs. They can fire them like harpoons, and also use them to follow each other head to tail like these; an entomologist once attached them in a circle, and found that they continued marching round for a week. We were very excited to find a genuine procession making it's way to le Cul de Chien.
On the first day of Font the forest gave to us...more stupid rain. We went for a walk and ran our hands over wet rock, marvelling at how much harder all the problems looked with a glossy veneer of rain and algae. Along a path we discovered a massing of thousands of ants, bustling between gargantuan pine needles. They were fascinating to watch, and to listen to - there were so many that you could hear their rustling - until memories of Indiana Jones (Amber) and Marabunta (Sam...we watched a bit, it's awful) panicked us into an undignified retreat.
The weather reports have been generally conspiring against us; we have spent an inordinate amount of time flicking between three or four sources which contradict each other significantly. Eventually we just went climbing when it wasn't raining or wet, which seemed to work okay. The above photos are from our second day's climbing, an eerie grey afternoon at Franchard Isatis. Nezzo is an elegant prow that Sam had done a few years back and I wanted to give a quick send. In the end it took me over twenty tries, and Sam about four to lay it to rest. On the positive side we had the beta nailed and it's an interesting route to spend an hour or two working every possible variant.
And for no apparent reason other than forgetting to start the post with this, below is the rather romantic view we had from the ferry in Newhaven harbour; gulls sweeping over a scrap metal mountain juxtaposed against an epic ocean skyline.
One sunny mid-January morning, two naïve but enthusiastic boulderers from down South West ventured NORTH. They had a wonderful time climbing hard gritstone in the Peak District, in perfect crisp conditions with winter sun that warmed their backs. Sam was thrilled to have climbed Brad Pit and Amber climbed a 7a roof. At least, that was how it was supposed to go.
In real life, we basically just went for a bit of a ski, a walk and went home again.
It began with some treachery from the weather forecast. Promises of glorious cold sunny weather for Sunday had been broken; on the actual morning the BBC's cheerful sun icon had been replaced with a gloomy grey cloud. We ignored this and went anyway, because this was our climbing trip, and it couldn't be bad weather, and because shutting your eyes means no one can see you. Duh.
Same drill as before... Below are most of our bouldering ascents from the last visit to the Forest of Fontainebleau. The ticks we're most chuffed with.