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  • Writer's pictureNatalia Boltukhova

Fontainebleau’s Climbing Conservation Efforts in 2020

Looking to make her first visit to Fontainebleau, US climber Cyrenah Smith considers the historical and contemporary perspectives on protecting Fontainebleau's fragile ecosystem and preserving it as a recreation ground for us and the future generations

Without a doubt, 2020 has been an explosive year for climbing despite the global pandemic. From the now-postponed Summer Olympics in Tokyo to an astonishing surge in mainstream popularity, the sport has seen staggering numbers of new fans going from gym to crag.

Of course, it’s awesome that climbers are getting psyched around the world. However, as more of us flood into local crags and, eventually, global climbing destinations, it’s crucial to consider how we’re impacting our surroundings. The more we can cooperate as a cohesive group, the longer we’ll be able to enjoy our outdoor spaces — whether that’s solely for climbing or for other recreational purposes as well.

As the birthplace of bouldering, Font is near and dear to all of our hearts. Regardless of whether you’re a die-hard boulderer or an occasional pebble-wrestler, a local or a faraway admirer (like me!), a first-timer or a veteran, the sandstone blocs of the "Magic Forest” are legendary.

I believe responsible outdoor stewardship and climbing conservation efforts are necessary to ensure that Font remains here for us to enjoy in 2020 and beyond.

Climbing Conservation is Key for Fontainebleau’s Future

Here’s the thing: outdoor advocacy isn’t just something to display on a bumper sticker. Getting your hands dirty is way more fun than watching from the sidelines! Not to mention, climbing conservation lets us give back to the communities and crags we cherish.

Even as an outsider looking in, I see so many reasons why Font must be protected at all costs. Beyond its heritage and natural beauty, it’s unlike anywhere else in the world. Losing access would be more than a shame—it would mean the loss of a piece of climbing’s history.

Historical Context

Admittedly, as an American climber who has yet to visit, I’d only really considered Font from a limited perspective. In my mind, it loomed in the distance as a fabled forest, a stomping ground for alpinists who eventually created bouldering as an autonomous sport.

From hearsay, articles, social media, and other climbers, I discovered its crazy range of problems, from breezy warmups all the way to those with finicky footholds, frustrating slopers, tricky slabs, and moves that need to be worked over and over. And yet, little did I know that there would be so much more depth to this place than expected.

Historically, Fontainebleau has always been treasured for its seemingly endless woodlands. The mixed deciduous Forêt de Bière (French for "Forest of Heather") known as the Forest of Fontainebleau since the 17th century, sits just 60 kilometers south of Paris. The vast and dense bouldering area covers nearly the whole national park of Forêt domaniale de Fontainebleau and Forêt Domaniale de la Commanderie.

From the 10th century onwards, Fontainebleau served as a getaway for kings to enjoy their favorite pastime: hunting wild game. Eventually, a château was built and extended along with the woodland to accommodate extensive hunting practice. Sovereigns considered this their training for war.

The forest also held an economic purpose. Until the 19th century, it provided clearings for animal grazing, sandstone for Parisian pavements, and fine sand ideal for glassmaking. It also produced wood for heating, as well as constructing castles, cathedrals, and ships.

The area of Massif des Trois Pignons, now part of the Fontainebleau Forest, was private until the state purchased it in 1983, bringing the total surface area to over 22,000 hectares.

Today, apart from being popular among outdoor enthusiasts, the forest continues to supply 40,000 cubic meters of wood each year. Fortunately, conservation measures have been put in place to protect both its heritage and its delicate ecosystem.

Ecological Context

Fontainebleau is classified as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. These unique spaces allow us to assess approaches to navigating interactions between social and ecological systems. Here, we can also analyze strategies for managing conflict, biodiversity, and sustainable development. 701 biosphere reserves currently exist in 124 countries, directly influencing the lives of over 250 million people.

In addition to this fancy title, Font boasts a spectacularly diverse ecosystem (not including the climbers visiting from all over ;) For example, 2,700 unique mushroom species and 5,600 unique insect species are native to this area. (That’s a lot of creepy-crawlies and fungi. Then again, this is a forest we’re talking about.)

Plus, the entire region is steeped in the tradition of natural conservation; the first global environmental union, IUCN, was established here on October 5th, 1948.

As climbers, we must uphold this legacy. We can do so by encouraging responsible stewardship and ethics, as well as supporting local groups and initiatives.

Fontainebleau’s Climbing Conservation Initiatives

Because of how highly trafficked it is by climbers, bikers, and hikers, Font is vulnerable to a tremendous amount of degradation — should we choose not to act.

Without proper conservation, we risk losing Font due to:

  • Climbers, or other visitors, disturbing local fauna and flora, especially by visiting restricted areas

  • Littering and improper disposal of trash

  • Noise pollution (Save your “send” playlist for later!)

  • Forest fires often caused by cigarettes and bonfires (both illegal)

  • Soil and sandstone erosion*

  • Climbers not adhering to fundamental etiquette, including too much chalk, leaving tick marks, or not brushing holds

* Erosion occurs when people (often unknowingly) disturb the soil and vegetation surrounding the boulders, displacing sand and exposing tree roots like a set of teeth with receding gums. In addition, not cleaning off one’s shoes and climbing in wet conditions are particularly damaging to sandstone, often resulting in broken or worn holds.

Frankly, not acting like a clown isn’t enough. To continue enjoying Font’s boulders, we need to respect codes of conduct designated by sports associations and the National Forestry Office (ONF).

The ONF is responsible for managing France’s public forests, state forests, city forests, and biological reserves. To protect these spaces, they work with local organizations to encourage sustainable practices. You may recognize them—in years past, they’ve helped to present volunteer conservation workshops during the Women’s Bouldering Festival.

WBF volunteers and ONF staff during the conservation workshop in 2018. Photo by Hannes Kutza.

Apart from the national body, there are grassroots initiatives dedicated to conservation efforts the area. Respect Bleau is one such group creating a supportive space for climbers to learn responsible practices. I’d highly recommend getting involved however you can, or at least staying up to date with their communications!

What’s Next? Staying Tuned & Staying Psyched

Honestly, as I write this piece during lockdown, there’s nothing I would rather be doing than bouldering in Font. With the French forest’s cautious and limited reopening on May 11th, those revisiting will need to be extra vigilant and environmentally-conscious. Meanwhile, I’ll be dreaming of my first visit someday, when I can try hard, fall repeatedly, and exchange beta with new friends.

Yet, even after the travel bans are lifted, our favorite spaces to climb, socialize, and push ourselves will cease to exist should we fail to care for them.

Remember: engage with your climbing communities. Take action to preserve the spaces you love. And don’t be shy about educating others! Momentous change likely won’t happen overnight, but we can each play a role in ensuring that Font is here for us — now and for years to come.

I’ll see you out there!


About the author:

Cyrenah Smith is a climber, writer, and creative living in northern New Jersey in the USA–a stone’s throw from both New York City and the Gunks. Beyond climbing, she is also an avid hiker and volunteer trail maintainer. Through her work, Cyrenah aims to connect outdoor pursuits to conservation and stewardship initiatives, as well as shine a light on how sport can be a force for good.


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