I recently attended the Women’s Bouldering Festival in Fontainebleau. It was an experience unlike any I’d had before and I wanted to get my blogging gears turning again by sharing my thoughts on the festival and the feelings that attending event sparked in me.
To get to the festival, I carpooled with 4 other attendees. This was arranged through the festival’s Facebook group, which proved to be a very valuable resource. I would highly recommend joining the group if you plan on attending the festival in future years.
We met in south London on Friday morning, crammed more stuff into the back of a Mini Countryman than I had ever thought possible, and set off for the channel tunnel. Along the way we shared tales of our climbing experiences, hopes for the forthcoming weekend, and concerns about our lack of camping equipment. One of my carpooling colleagues also regaled us with the story of the last time she got into a car with a bunch of strangers. This involved many recreational drugs, a bulletproof vest, and some homophobic neighbours. Let’s just say this trip was earth shatteringly boring in comparison.
I drove back with my good friend Hannah Mitchell in her trusty van (Van Morrison to use his full title). While the journey was mostly smooth and uneventful, we both produced an alarming amount of fear induced sweat in Calais.
Thanks to some very dodgy satnav work on my part, we drove through the entrance meant for trucks and HGVs on the channel tunnel, ending up surrounded by a herd of huge vehicles. Once we’d escaped from that circle of hell, we got lost, extremely stuck in traffic, and terrifyingly low on fuel while looking for a petrol station. Eventually we abandoned our search for fear of missing our crossing time and hoped that Van Morrison would make it to the nearest petrol station to Folkestone at the other end of the tunnel.
Thankfully we didn’t run out of fuel and become the most hated people on that particular train. We topped up the tank, enjoyed a straightforward drive home, and were greeted by my darling Husband holding two generous gin and tonics.
This was my first trip to the legendary bouldering location of the forest of Fontainebleau and it certainly didn’t disappoint. For lack of a more profound turn of phrase, there’s rocks absolutely frickin’ everywhere. If you climbed nowhere else for your entire life, I’m confident you still couldn’t climb every boulder Fontainebleau.
As someone who doesn’t climb outdoors very often and has next to no knowledge of the area, I initially found the sheer volume of climbing visually stunning but also extremely intimidating. Where are you supposed to start when there are so many sections with hundreds of boulders in each of them? Which rocks are the best? Which will suit my style?
It’s a lot for an indoor cat to get their head around.
Thankfully the festival mentors were there to hold my hand. Me and my fellow attendees were split into groups and given a mentor to choose a location and point us in the direction of some suitable boulders for our abilities.
On day one we were based in the area of Bois Rond but I have no idea what I spent most of the day climbing. I was feeling a tad anxious about being in a big group of people, not having climbed outside for ages and butchering all the French words so I chose to ignore the names and grades of the boulders and just enjoy the moment.
On the second day we went to the area of Rocher de la Reina and I spent most of my time falling off Le Dragon du Komodo (7a+). This area was up a bit of a hill with an incredible view of the surrounding forest and quite a change from the flat swamplands of Cambridge, which I currently call home.
The attendees were grouped based on a questionnaire we’d all filled in about our climbing ability. I knew I was being ambitious when I put my top grade as 7a, which is technically true but that’s indoors and I’ve only achieved this grade once. As I expected, the women in my group climbed hard and I initially felt somewhat out of my depth.
That being said, one of my goals for the trip was to push myself to try harder outdoor boulders. So, I endeavoured to turn those feelings of intimidation into motivation to keep up with these super strong ladies. Largely this was successful.
Although I have no idea what grades the boulders I tried on the first day were, many of the moves felt very close to my limit. I made small but significant progress on every boulder I tried that morning and was feeling chuffed with myself when we moved onto our last boulder of the day, Beetlejuice (7a+).
However, by the time we arrived at the boulder I’d hit an emotional and physical wall. As everyone piled in around the bottom of the boulder and began discussing the moves, I felt the social and physical toll of the day adding up. I wanted nothing more than to get away from everyone and be by myself in the forest with no pressure to chat or climb any rocks. My tank was empty.
I took myself off for a half hour stroll to decompress, have a quick cry, and calm my brain down. I was then able to return in a suitable headspace to sit back and enjoy watching some powerful women show what they could do on the rock.
The second day followed a similar pattern but I managed to catch the anxiety before it got the better of me!
We warmed up on some lower grade boulders, including a mantle move that my shins and I made look extremely inelegant, then moved onto Komodo Dragon (7a+). There is no way I would have tried this climb on my own. It’s slopy and super overhanging with a treacherous looking landing. Being in a group of supportive female climbers gave me the guts to give it a go. Although I was a bloody long way off topping it, I got further up the boulder and did significantly harder moves than I thought I could. I genuinely surprised myself on this boulder.
These two days of climbing were the biggest boost to my climbing confidence I’ve had in a long while and have helped me find the psyche I've been missing for a while. I will be returning to Fontainebleau for a week in March next year and I feel extremely motivated to get strong, improve my technique, and be ready to try hard on more boulders at my limit.
After Komodo Dragon, we moved to another part of Rocher de la Reina but, once again, I found I’d reached my limit. I got to the top out of an otherwise reasonably straightforward boulder and felt the panic rising. Thankfully I was relaxed enough to listen to what my body and brain were telling me and managed to climb down from the boulder safely and calmly.
I would characterise my climbing at the festival as a balanced mix of successful tops and informative falls. I was also able to push myself sufficiently to try hard but also be accepting of when I’d had enough.
The Not Climbing
The festival also included two yoga sessions with Tiffany Soi, a welcome evening bonfire and beverages on Friday night and a raffle and talks by the festival organisers, paraclimber Lea Volpe, and Ukrainian climber Jenya Kazbekova on Saturday night.
Accommodation was also included in the ticket in the form of camping pitches at Camping Les Pres. One area of the campsite was set aside for festival attendees so there was a great sense of community at the accommodation. With everyone walking around in their tie-dyed Women’s Bouldering Festival t-shirts, it felt like a colourful and cozy place to be.
This combined with the climbing made for a packed schedule with no risk of being bored at any point during the weekend.
I personally felt a little over-scheduled and like I was often rushing from one activity to the next. This is not necessarily the fault of the organisers or the festival schedule and I understand the desire to put on as much of a show as possible in the time allowed.
If you’re someone who struggles to spend all day and all night with other people, I would bear this in mind, as I will, when considering attending the festival in the future. In hindsight, it would probably have been beneficial to my enjoyment of the whole weekend if I’d ducked out of a few events in order to be by myself a recharge my batteries.
Throughout the weekend, I felt respected and supported by all my fellow festival attendees and those involved in organising the event. Everyone was extremely understanding of each other’s needs and quirks and the overall atmosphere was one of joy and acceptance.
The best example of this came when I hit my limit on the first climbing day and needed to pop off by myself for a bit. I quietly let my group mentor, Tiba, know that I was feeling overwhelmed and that I was going to take myself off for a quick walk around the forest.
In similar circumstances in the past, people in Tiba’s position have tried to persuade me to stay with the group or expressed concern at my wish to be alone. It’s an understandable reaction given the positive skew I think Western cultures tend to have towards extroversion and the high value placed on group activities. However, this type of reaction has often left me feeling frustrated and undermined.
Tiba simply heard what I was saying, expressed her understanding of my needs, and let me know that she would be happy to help with anything else I needed when I was ready.
Friendly, respectful, and kind.
Making multiple moves on the first 7a+ boulder I have ever tried
Pushing myself just the right amount socially and physically
Topping my first boulder in Fontainebleau
Meeting and climbing with Hannah Morris of Hannah Morris Bouldering YouTube Channel fame and getting to do some filming for her (there will be much celebration if any of that footage makes it onto the internet!) Hannah also very kindly provided the photos for this post
Spending quality time with friendly top-quality people in a top-quality climbing location
This crag dog
This event is suitable for women of all bouldering abilities and is a very supportive atmosphere for everyone from first time outdoor climbers to experienced crushers.
I’m glad I pushed myself to try difficult boulders and my confidence in my own ability has been boosted.
If I were to attend the event again, I would divide my energies a little better across the weekend and not try to do too much at the expense of time alone to recharge.
I prefer buildings to tents. Camping never has been my thing!