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This is Our Playground ….

This is OUR playground! We should look after it.

Fontainebleau is the birthplace of Bouldering. It is the Mecca for boulderers world-wide. That gives us a kind-of ownership over the forest. Right? Well, this is an easy mindset to fall into when you consider that there are more quality boulder problems per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world, and there is nearly 300 square km of it! It’s easy to think that the place was designed for us, like a giant kick-ass bouldering gym. Well, the world works in mysterious ways, but I’m not convinced that this was fore-front in the Creator’s mind on the third day of biblical conception.
Lets take a different view…

The creation
Font rock is a fine-grade grit known as sandstone. It was formed when the area was a shallow sea, sometime during the Oligocene period, around 30 million years ago. This is fairly young in rock terms, and it is not a classical rock type that underwent high temperature, or high pressure to form its solid state. It formed from the sand that collected under the water. At some point there was an event that covered the sand in a layer of silicrete dust, and as the water level fell, and the sand dried, this silictrete cemented the surface in a duricrust. Wind and weather wore away the weaker patches of what remained, leaving behind isolated blocks with greater silica content. I liken this to a sand dune that has been rained on and then sun dried. Often a crust will form on the surface where the particles have aligned with each other. If you poke at the crust, all the loose sand trickles out. Obviously Font sandstone is not quite this fragile, but if you break through this duricrust, the underlying rock does not withstand wear or weathering.

From Then to Now
The earliest noted settlers of the area were a nomadic population of cave dwellers around 40,000 years ago. Evidence of their existence is littered throughout the area in the form of etchings and carvings in the back of sandstone caves and sheltered rocks.

These are of great historic interest, and several areas have notices and barriers forbidding climbing on these rocks, but the carvings can be seen throughout the forests and most of them are unprotected.

In the 3rd century BC Celtic and Liguarian tribes inhabited the region, and artefacts have been found in some of the popular climbing areas.

In the 10th century AD, the nobility of Paris and the surrounding areas became increasingly interested in the forest for the pastime of hunting. By the 11th century a Medieval castle was under construction. Hunting was considered a valuable training for war, and the knights would frequently form hunting parties in the forest. It was Francis 1st who redesigned this fort as a modest hunting lodge which was completed in 1528 in the form of the Chateau de Fontainebleau.

From then until the 19th century, Fontainebleau was little more than a hamlet. The economy of the area was primarily from the quarrying of sandstone for paving in Paris, along with the precious sand from the area. The high silica content of the loose rock meant that it could be used for the highest quality glass. Moreno glass imported Fontainebleau sand all the way to Venice, before creating the magnificent mirrors that hung in the opulent hall of mirrors in Versailles.

Exquisite Baccarat glass was made from Fontainebleau sand because of its particular mineral content.

Another interesting export from the area was the highly acclaimed Fontainebleau oak that grew tall and straight. Reputed for its technical characteristics, it was sought after for barrel making and the aging of the most prestigious wines.

At this point in time the forest would have been a pretty scary place, haunted by wolves, convicts and highwaymen, but as the beauty of the forest became romanticised, the art world was enticed. The evocative shapes of the sandstone and the light quality beneath the forest canopy drew painters, writers and poets. With an art movement towards Realism, the famous Barbizon school of art materialized. In 1861 a handful of painters, writers and walkers from Barbizon succeeded in creating an Artistic Reserve of more than 1,000 hectares. This represents the world’s first ever nature reserve.

From this leisure blossomed: horseriding, randonee, cycling, picnicking, all became an attractive pastime. At this point, in the late 1800s, relatively late on in its history of the forest, the rocks attracted the attention of the Club Alpin Francais, and foreign visitors were invited to train on parkour sites of Franchard and Apremont as mountain training. In early 1900s, Casella, Prestat and Wehrlin trained for Himalayan ascents.

It was at this period that the visionary Claude François Denecourt, who was enchanted by the beauty of the forest, invented nature tourism: in 1842, he created the world’s first marked rambling trails, called sentiers bleus, or “blue pathways”. His work was continued by his disciple, Colinet. They created a total of 150 kilometres of walks.

In World War II the chateau was a german headquarters and the forest was the hide-out for many of the resistance.

So as we take a glance back through history there are many groups of people who could claim that the forest was created for their sole purpose. As climbers we have occupied over 125 years of dominion in a forest with at least 40,000 years of known history. Who knows what the next ‘ownership’ will look like, but I hope that we are not considered to be the ones that ruined the forest for everyone else.

  • Biological importance of Fontainebleau*

  • Fontainebleau forest has been the subject of interest for botanists and biologists for centuries. Why on earth is this little piece of the planet so important?

    - Alternating substrates in the forest result in varied terrain; plains, plateaus, hills, exposed/non-exposed slopes, silicious sands, rocks, limestone mounts, and alluvial soils. Habitats vary from dry to wet to aquatic.

    - Fontainebleau’s geolocation places us in an area with 4 distinct seasons. More interestingly, however, we are at a biogeographical crossroads, with a convergence of 3 climates, Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean.

    - Non-indigenous species such as migratory birds and bats, use Fontainebleau as a stopping place due to its attraction as a wilderness amongst a swath of habitation.

    Taking all of these of these unique ecological circumstances into concideration it’s easy to see why Fontainebleau forest has a wealth of fauna and flora which abounds here.

    The area is of such biological interest that the UNESCO conference of 1948 was held here in Fontainebleau. This conference resulted in the creation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (UICN). The world’s most informative source of information on the status of endangered species, known as the Red List, was founded here in Font as a result of that conference.

    Our Part
    Bearing all of this in mind it is easier to see the tiny part we play in the history of the area. Unfortunately, with the growing interest in our sport, our impact is become greater and greater as more climbers venture into the outdoors. Please help. Please become aware, and help to make others aware of what we have here in Fontainebleau and how best to preserve it.
    Much of the information here was taken from the Fontainebleau Tourist information page. Please do have a read and find out lots of other interesting stuff about the area.


    Rob B., November 19, 2023

    I really appreciate your effort, time and energy to publish these articles and to raise awareness of topics like a sustainable climbing culture around Fontainebleau. I always liked the pro-active approach to problems like over-crowded areas or the massive problem with climbing on wet rock. Therefore I wish that Fontainebleau gets a better more modern and more accessible indoor bouldering gym with training opportunities and system boards. I know for sure that heaps of people just want to climb doesn't matter if it's plastic or rock and if there's an enjoyable and accessible alternative around the forest people are more likely to get inside and stay away from wet rock.
    What do you think about that? Do you think a modern indoor bouldering gym would be beneficial for a sustainable climbing culture around the forest? Cheers Robert

    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.