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Do you really want to Open new boulders?

Hiho, hiho, it’s opening I go,
with a brush on a stick and a whap and a flick …
hiho, hiho hiho hiho!

Girls, do you know, that here in Fontainebleau the current numbers of problems being opened by women is at just over 1% of that opened by men? This is not taking into account historically opened blocks, as that brings the number down to less than 0.01%. Women constantly bemoan the fact that the sport is still male dominated, male graded, and that many men still act as if they are in authority, regardless of their experience level. What is it that holds us back from taking our own initiative and owning our place in this sport? Yes, there is still room for society to change, but we need to help bring this about.

One of my thoughts is that women are more likely to consider their actions before their ego. This is a super important factor in opening routes, and, in my mind, the very first to consider.


Why do you want to open a new route? For me the motivators for opening routes fall into 3 main categories

1. Ego
2. Paying forward
3. The love of rock/Artistry

If you honestly check your reasons, and feel that your reasons for wanting to spend hours getting sweaty and dirty are because you want to be in the guide book, be a part of the area for ever, or maybe to be the one to make a route harder for the sake of it, or to gain notoriety as an ‘opener’, please don’t! Please go back home and re-think. If this is your driving force, the routes you open are likely to be forced, and often the ego will override your ability to be impartial. Often a route will be less appealing when you take a closer look, and it is important to be able to say ‘no’ to ourselves, and leave the forest be.

It seems altruistic to think of opening routes as a way of ‘paying forward’ to future climbing generations. Indeed, it is hard work, and there are people in the future that will benefit from your work, but do you really think that this route is going to make THAT much difference in a forest that already has over 40,000 routes? Do you think that it would be kinder if the forest in this particular spot was left untouched for the enjoyment of walkers, or just for the forest flora and fauna? Indeed, instead of spending 2+ days of your life scrubbing, cleaning, working and climbing a boulder, there are so many things you could do with that time that would benefit the sport, or the playground, more.

The one motivator that seems to me the most genuine is the artistry of opening. If you walk through the forest and look at a boulder, and you see a beautiful line, in an inspiring place, where you can maintain the natural beauty, disturb as little as possible, and create something that will inspire and uplift other climbers, this to me is the incentive to open a route. If you are inspired by the natural beauty of a climb, you will leave beautiful lichen wherever you can, and give the moss a hair-cut that will still look natural from the path.

Before haircut

After haircut (notice the path that runs the other side of this block


With your incentive firmly in mind, you then need to make sure that what you plan to do is ethical, and legal. This is a complete minefield, and there are camps at both extremes. Some people feel that the forest is free for everyone to use, other feel it is completely wrong to disturb a single piece of moss. As yet there is no clear ‘law’ on the subject, but there are guidelines that we need to stay within.

There is an organizing body, called CoSiRoc, who are largely responsible for the painting and maintenance of the circuits. They have a database that includes all the legitimate climbing areas, as agreed with the ONF, who are the forestry commission (Office National des Forêts). These areas have boundaries and are clearly defined in a place where nobody can find them, deep in the CoSiRoc website somewhere. Within these areas, climbing activity is accepted. As yet 'opening' is not even a topic that is considered as public 'climbing activity', so there is nothing specific in place regarding the law. There are, however, laws to protect the trees, and the species, and anything that disturbs wildlife known to be on the red list of endangered species, could face fines.

These designated climbing activity zones, specified by CoSiRoc, refer mainly to the areas where there are existing circuits. Opening in areas outside of the know circuits is, as yet, not even recognised. Legally, the "domaniale" forest is a land privately owned by the national government, under the ONF management. Public can assess it, but it is not for the public to decide over its use, at any stage. In this respect if we wish to do extensive ‘opening’ we should first ask permission from the ONF. For this reason it is better to keep opening to a minimum. One or two beautiful lines opened in existing, or highly frequented areas are unlikely to upset anyone, but if you discover an area where you would like to do any extensive work, you really do need to contact the ONF, and/or CoSiRoc.

With the word of the law as yet unwritten, it ends up falling to the individual opening a route to be respectful and mindful of what they are doing. The ecosystem here in Font is quite unique, and if you are not aware of the delicacy here, please make sure you read up on the endangered species before you consider removing any habitats. There are some basic rules that we should abide by as respectful users of the forest.

1. Area: There are certain areas that we should avoid at all cost if we wish to maintain a good relationship with the ONF (which is really important for the future of climbing in the area!!). If the boulder is in a bio-sensitive area walk away! These areas are marked as areas of ‘Biodiversitee’, and are under scientific observation and maintenance. It is just rude to mess with this. Also, if an area is private, it is imperative to check with the land owner before starting scrubbing.

2. Seasons. It is generally accepted that Spring is the most sensitive season for the local flora and fauna, and that disturbing a species at this point in the lifecycle could be critical. There are many rare species here in Fontainebleau, so insensitivity could be disastrous. Obviously there are areas where the wildlife is disturbed anyway, and there is unlikely to be any delicate species in direct proximity of highly frequented tracks, or heavily used climbing areas.

3. Respect other land users: be aware of views from footpaths, and leave areas looking natural where possible

4. When clearing or stabilising landings be aware of impact on erosion. Don’t change water run-off routes, or damage roots of near-by vegetation

5. Don’t open a new problem just because you want to open something. Make sure the new problem has quality.

6. Only open problems on boulders with good rock quality. If a problem disappoints; walk away

Preparing a climb

Once we have selected a project, and checked the area can sustain it, we need to focus on the climb itself. It’s interesting to note that much of the stuff we do to open a boulder is absolutely wrong to do on existing routes. It is wrong because of the impact it has on the rock, and on the nature around. For this reason we need to make ABSOLUTELY sure that we think the route will be a good one before we start.

1. If it’s not completely overgrown it might be someone else’s project. Please double, triple check to find suspiciously clean holds or faded brush marks. If in doubt ask Bleau.info.

2. No wire brushes unless absolutely necessary. Use stiff natural bristle brushes to remove stubborn moss, and soft brushes to remove dirt and sand. A potato scrubbing brush is a great choice, or a stiff equestrian brush. Remember, that a hold that has its surface removed will degrade super fast. If you need a wire brush, use copper, not steel.

3. Safety of future climbers is important, so check landings, check for dead trees, brush downclimbs. If there are dead trees, you can push to topple them, but do not chop down trees.

4. When opening easier routes. Make sure of the downclimb being appropriate.

Random forest block

Cleaned Block with 5 problems on


Once you have brushed, cleaned, prepared the landing, and climbed the problem, you can submit it to the guide books. The easiest way of doing this is by submitting to Bleau.info which has become the go-to website for climbing information in the Fontainebleau region. The person who runs this website is also the person who writes the 5+6, and the 7+8 guidebooks, Bart Van Raaij, and with the reprints coming out every 5 years or so, eventually your route will make it to the main climbing database for the area. These are the guidelines for submission, as approved by Bart at Bleau.info

1. Submitting should be done by email to [email protected], with clear route location and description.

2. A simple clear photo is essential, and beta videos are appreciated if possible, in YouTube or Vimeo format, but if not possible, send Bleau.info the video through WeTransfer.

3. Avoid over-complicated rules, people don’t like being told! The rules of a climb should be simple. No eliminates, or, only if absolutely logical, simple and clear.

4. Not too many variants on existing problems.

5. Grades are the hardest thing to decide. If possible have a friend repeat it without knowing your suggested grade. If this person is a completely different morphology this helps. If you really can’t decide, make a best guess, and mention this when submitting. Over time the grade will change by consensus

Overall this is a huge topic both ethically and environmentally. Emotions run high in all camps. I would really love to see a greater number of women opening routes, because this is OUR sport too. I feel that in some ways we make better openers than guys, because we are often more in control of our egos. We are also fearfully underrepresented in the grading department, and should use our voices to even the playing field.

Please ask your questions. Lets start a discussion. Lets make this something we do too!

Opening boulders ... be prepared, it's hard, dirty work (This is a video of our tech team opening a boulder in Hautes Sablons. I know he's a guy, but I never video-ed the process for myself!)


Helen Dudley

Mum of Sebastian, 11, and Theo 8. Living in Arbonne-la-Forêt.

After making transitions from trad, to sport, to motherhood, Helen now lives in the Fontainebleau area dedicating as much time as possible to bouldering and playing in the forest with her two boys.