Looking up from the base of the Eiffel Tower, I shrink.
It's not because of the 324 meters of wrought iron thrusting into the sky above me. It's not the throngs of tourists or the winding Parisian streets I've just passed through. It isn't the whine of Lamborghinis slicing roundabouts, the panorama of unfamiliar languages drifting through the city air, nor the closeness of the overcast sky.
It is history. Years of it – thousands. A blue mist gently compacting me into smaller and smaller dimensions. It takes the me away, if only briefly, crushes me delicately between its palms, and the smaller I become the closer I feel to it. All of it.
History has always been one of my favorite subjects of study. Its vastness grips me. Its paradoxical sense of timelessness shaves away all the personal trivialities of my own life. Absorb it, learn from it, apply the lessons. Somehow, getting lost in the past brings me comfort in the present.
My two week climbing trip to France was a historical privilege. Not only is Paris one of the cultural centers of the world, but just an hour southeast lies the Forêt Domaniale de Fontainebleau, the world's epicenter of bouldering. Like the capital city, you can feel the weight of history as soon as you enter the trees. The boulders sit there like thrones, adorned in moss and decades of chalk, categorized numerically with colored paint, set upon by legendary names and the countless pilgrims who followed.
My focus for the past couple years has been climbing in brand new areas, usually in hopes of establishing new problems or repeating ones that have only just appeared – Colorado's Indian Peaks, Utah's Indian Creek, and spots in New Mexico and Wyoming come to mind. But that's not the game you play in Font. You come here to immerse yourself in the classics. You come here to test yourself on climbs that French hardmen established in the 1940's, the 50's, the 60's and 70's. You come here to join the masses of boulderers from all over the world. You come here to climb the circuits, drink the wine and taste the cheese. You come here to lose sight of who you think you are as a climber, as a person. You come here to be humbled by the forest.
I decided to come in blind. No problem lists, no obsessions over areas to visit and circuits to run, no plans, nothing. The stories I'd heard from friends who'd already visited the forest suggested, in my mind, that I should expect nothing from myself in terms of climbing prowess. Climbing in Font is hard.
There are many lessons I've learned in 13 years of bouldering. One of them is this: the less I pressure myself, the better I perform. Another one is this: if I redefine my measure of "success," I can succeed more often. That's not to say I need to lower my expectations to feel good about myself; I just have to choose different goals. Instead of telling myself I have to climb 8A on this trip, I can say I have to try as many fun, classic climbs as possible.
So I figured I would visit the most infamous bouldering area in the world with the mere expectation of climbing as often as possible – if I surprised myself with a hard send, it would be a bonus, not an imperative to my contentment. Now, looking back, I can say I met my goal, and I was challenged every step of the way. Success.
Those We Call Friends
It's been a very long time since I climbed with a crew of more than, say, four people. Crowds make me antsy. During my time in Font, a total of 15 people cycled through our house (thankfully, a large two-story, four-bedroom villa) at various points. Beyond that, scores of other people we knew were drifting around the forest at the same time, occasionally bumping into us for a half-day session or a high five.
I knew this would be the case, so I let go of any worries I had about big groups long before I left the U.S. And that turned out to be the right call.
Besides the problem of not acquiring enough rental cars for everyone to fit comfortably, we meshed together well. We were never alone; we made each other laugh; we talked enough shit to feel like family. When you function as an individual you might forget what it's like to share. When you become part of a strong group, you might wonder why you ever wanted to be so alone.
On Which We Ply Our Trade
I've never climbed on sandstone like that found in Bleau. The rock is essentially a hybrid: the bulbous, fine-grained stone, pocketed and huecoed and slopey, sculpted as if from clay, is often glossed over with an intrusive layer of dense, sharp quartzite. Oh, you thought you'd be squeezing perfect slopers the whole time? Think again – many boulder problems throw unforgiving crimps at you just as often, punishing your fingertips and knuckles. The texture of the rock ranges from sandpaper to glass, forcing you constantly adjust how you grab a hold and place your feet.
This is where the aspect of humility comes into play. When you arrive in Font, it's important to remember something: you suck at rock climbing. This certainly doesn't apply to everyone; I know a handful of people who have vigorously excelled during their first trip to the forest. But, more likely than not, you're not going to climb your personal best here. At least not right away.
After two weeks in Bleau, I was getting the hang of it. That being said, conditions were not optimal. Give me one more week, a new pair of soft shoes with sticky rubber, a completely regrown layer of tip skin, and perfect 45 degree temps, and I could have possibly climbed a solid V10. But whatever – I was perfectly content climbing V4's in the springtime warmth.
We humans and our fragile egos. We tend to assign reasons where they don't belong; we love to believe the unbelievable. We toss the blame anywhere but where it belongs. We love the cynicism, the jade.
It is easy to get frustrated when climbing in Font. We would pout, curse loudly, complain about the conditions, become sullen, bitch and moan. Our feet would pick off worn-out smears, our wet fingertips would slide from slopers, our heels would explode from jugs caked with chalk. We would hide our sorrows in the evening over bottles and bottles and bottles of wine and loud music. It's difficult to accept reality, especially when you know you can do better.
The weight of the forest lies in its history, its difficulty, its grading scale that borders on the absurd. The ego packs on a few more tons, blaming its surroundings for problems that actually lie within. You aren't climbing on shitty, awkward boulder problems – you are an awkward, shitty climber falling off randomly-formed rocks in a beautiful forest. This knowledge is absolutely freeing, yet nearly impossible to retain.
The weight of the forest is only a drop of blood in the body of the world. And the world, at the present moment, appears dark. It might cause a man to flee from one leaky shelter to the next. You could run from it forever.
Or, instead, you could feel the weight around you. Observe it, touch it. Then, from behind the veil, let it go. Assume weightlessness.
After all, you are climbing in Fontainebleau.
All photos taken by me unless otherwise indicated.