I touched down at Charles de Gaulle and made my way swiftly out of arrivals. The rest of the SHAG group had landed about an hour beforehand and I didn’t want to keep them waiting longer than necessary – we still had to drive a little further south to reach our final destination for the week: Fontainebleau.
While this was now my fifth trip to Font with SHAG, being based in Austria since 2014, this yearly trip is one of the few remaining links I have with a city that I grew to love and called my home for three and a half years. It was in Glasgow and through SHAG that I truly caught the bouldering bug – so it seems a fitting tribute that once a year I spend a week at the birthplace of bouldering whilst the dulcet tones of Scottish banter reverberate in my ears😉
Being one of three stalwarts of the SHAG Font trip, over the years I’ve learnt a few things about how best to approach a week in the enchanted forest. My biggest lessons have come surprisingly not through my successes, but through having to endure the frustration of injury. In 2014, I badly twisted my ankle dismounting from a boulder at Dumbarton and had only been walking for a week before heading to Font. Before the 2015 trip, I injured my shoulder whilst bouldering and found hoodies blacklisted for weeks as I could not lift my shoulder to get out of them. While injuring oneself two weeks before a trip is not conducive to achieving PBs (although ironically my hardest Font climb was done with a very dodgy ankle!), what it has taught me is the value of enjoying the forest time and the magical place for what it is. So thus, whilst this year I was finally (relatively) injury-free, I went without the goal of achieving PBs (although if it happened, bonus!), but with the mindset of enjoying the company of friends I hadn’t seen in almost a year, and the prospect of frolicking in beautiful forest and clambering up the odd boulder or two.
So what follows is just a few personal highlights from Font 2016 –moments that remind me why I love this sport so much, a sport that has helped me keep my sanity through stressful periods of my life, allowed me to laugh again during emotionally hard times, and taught me the importance of camaraderie and having a little self-belief. I know they’ll bring me a quiet smile when I am back in Austria and missing the lovable rag-tag bunch of SHAG’ers, and I hope for you readers, it’ll at least provide some mild entertainment.
A typical scene setting off to find boulders to play on for the day. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Smith)
Our first day of bouldering, we headed to Diplodocus. The weather was going to be a relatively cool 26 degrees so it made sense to head to one of the less shaded venues as it was going to heat up significantly as the week progressed. Also, only Mark, Billy and I had been there previously (during Font trip 1 and 2) – so for the rest of the crew, it would be a new venue to explore. My memories of my time there was that it had a good range of easier problems, thus it would be an ideal way to ease us into Font sandstone climbing and allow us to brush up on our mantling skills – which we would undoubtedly put into practice throughout the week.
Acclimatising to the Font sandstone at Diplodocus. (Photo courtesy of David Robertson)
The highlight for most of us that day surely was the moment we heard Billy’s roar. I was at another boulder a little further away at the time but I knew that it must have marked something significant. For a lot of us there, Billy has played an important role in nurturing our development and love for the sport, thus his personal achievements are ones that are always collectively celebrated. We came from our various boulders towards where we heard the roar and found Billy breathing heavily and barely able to speak, but looking decidedly chuffed. He had finally conquered his nemesis climb from Font trip #1 – Technogym. This climb also claimed the life of his camera during that trip so Billy clearly was pleased to settle the score.
Billy’s delight at sending Technogym. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Hamilton-Reilly).
With some elegant bum-shuffling, a few burly moves to move out of the cave and then a mantle to top out, you have to work hard for the 6a tick. Jamie flashed it this year – a testament to his elegant yet strong climbing style. It was fantastic to see.
Jamie flashing Technogym. (Photo courtesy of Laura Begbie)
Having tried it previously and not being strong enough to do the burly moves out of the cave, I was keen to try it again as I knew I had definitely improved my upper body strength since our last visit. However, the burly move out to the lip again proved to be the crux for me. I worked that section in isolation and quickly discovered a right drop knee and left arm cross move that worked. “Sweet!” I thought, “now I just had to link it”. However, while in isolation the move felt very easy, I never found the exact sweet spot again to allow me to move through that section smoothly. But like Billy, the boulder had gotten under my skin, so whilst the rest of the crew settled around to eat lunch, I doggedly tried to re-find my small person beta and scrutinised every little nub and bump to see if they were the holds I had previously used to make the move. I also tried working the burlier version, however it was a low percentage move for me with my feet usually brushing the mat (I could hear Billy shout ‘DAB!’ in my head each time). I wasn’t going to leave this boulder though, I knew it was within my ability.
Stuck at my crux on Technogym. (Photo courtesy of Billy Sands)
In the end it was Fran who was my saviour – she has only been climbing for a relatively short time but has an enviable amount of natural ability and moves beautifully over the rock. I only met her for the first time at last year’s trip but got some effective beta vampiring action off her. So I was more than happy when she wandered over to discuss different possibilities for my crux. Within minutes she was able to find me an alternative to the drop knee that still allowed me to do the left hand cross move. And thus, more than an hour after Billy’s roar, I was also able to stand atop Technogym. It was a small personal achievement but what I enjoyed was the fact that I had to persist with the problem, go through the torment of unlocking the crux and promptly forgetting how I did it, and then discussing movements and alternatives to find yet another version that would eventually got me to the top.
Jamie is another person whom I regularly beta-vampired off – his footwork is exquisite and he can engage beast mode at the drop of the hat (sadly, I cannot engage beast mode at will). But more importantly, I find he is able to describe his movements really well – which is important for bouldering when slight shifts of weight can be the difference between peeling off the boulder or being stable enough to make the next move. On our previous trip to Font, I regularly called out to Jamie when I was freaking out near the top a boulder feeling my shoulder quivering and knowing I didn’t have long before I fell – his calm talking through got me out of a few situations last year, and this year, his advice was the key in unlocking another boulder for me –Les Charleston at Buthiers. It was as simple as ‘lean to the left’ – I had been trying to top the boulder straight on, however as soon as did as Jamie suggested (after many, many failed attempts), the hold with my left hand became more positive and I was able to get my weight over my leg and push myself over. The subtle changes in body weight positioning were all that had separated me from getting to the top. Leaning left would never have been something I would have intuitively thought of doing – it still felt completely wrong right before I attempted the move, so it was a great feeling to high-five Jamie to acknowledge another team-effort send. I should also thank Laura (who sent the problem last year) for her role too – she patiently spotted me for each attempt and provided the encouragement to persist with each failed top out.
Jamie displaying exquisite style at Chamarande. (Photo courtesy of Billy Sands)
Laura fighting with her own nemesis of the trip – Pas Glop – at Cuisiniere. She sent it after putting up one heck of a fight. (Photo courtesy of Laura Begbie)
While getting up boulders I couldn’t do previously certainly brings a sense of satisfaction, I also get immense fulfilment celebrating in the success of others. I remember the day we were in Cuisiniere, I had just topped a boulder I had been working on and as I was looking for my decent. Helen and Emma yelled excitedly at me to come over to where they had been working on a traverse. They wanted to share the news that they had sent it. I insisted they chose a name for it (it’s now called Chicken Foot Traverse) and took a photo of the proud pair next to their boulder. It was a joy to then have them talk me through each foothold and handhold – as I moved through each section, they would tell me all the nuances they had discovered whilst finding the path that worked best for them. Their elation was infective and I was pleased to have been able to share in their success.
Helen and Emma triumphant next to Chicken Foot Traverse at Cuisiniere. (Photo courtesy of Emma McLean)
And how could I not mention slabs when it comes to Font? As a smaller climber and often needing to get my feet up before reaching a handhold, slabs seem to suit my climbing style as moving feet first comes easily. Although in Font, I find I also have the advantage of being able to fingernail crimp tiny edges for extra stabilisation. Known for my technique within the group, it was hilarious hearing the surprise from a group of Swedes when they heard the sound of nail scraping against rock and realised I was using my fingernails to pull up myself up the wall.
Engaging the fingernails on Le Surplomb des Frelons/TGV at Roche aux Sabots. (Photo courtesy of Billy Sands)
However, my favourite slab moment of Font 2016 was witnessing John’s battle with Gratonnade (6a+) at Isatis. I had done the route previously on another trip but despite doing it again this year on my first go, it did feel quite sketchy for the feet. Fran waltzed her way up effortlessly and Jamie also managed to top it after a few attempts, however John was having a mental battle trying to commit to standing up on a shiny (and rather slippery) sliver of rock only a few millimetres deep with not much purchase for the hands. Several times he would be just two moves away from the top and then berate himself before bailing. But despite it all, he persisted with the route. I could see he wanted to win this particular head game and it was a fantastic moment watching him commit to standing up and then finally being atop the boulder. “Just step up” is something I am used to hearing, however when it comes to slabs in Font, this is often the best approach.
There were so many other moments of the trip that I made it memorable for me – the beautiful sector of Chamarande with its chestnut trees and some of the quality problems we did there, the pool shenanigans that had me with tears streaming down my face from laughing so hard, sitting outside and looking up at the magnificent Milky Way and seeing shooting stars, offloading my troubles to patient ears that let me keep talking till 2:30am, the barbeques and al fresco dining, the post climb ice creams…I could go on and on…but I won’t.
As a final note: Font 2016 was made possible through the efforts of Mark Reilly – so a big thank you to Mark for making this trip a reality. Finding a week that works for 12 people, then organising the gite, hiring of the vans and mats is no small feat. Thanks also to the drivers, John and Kris – you guys allowed me to quietly soak up the views of the French countryside or nap soundly in the back while you delivered me to and from the boulders each day.
And finally, thank you to the entire Font 2016 crew. I have not mentioned everyone personally here but thank you to each one of you for making one lonesome Aussie in Austria not so lonesome for one glorious week in August🙂
Al fresco poolside dining (Photo courtesy of Jamie Smith)
Kris and Mark at Buthiers for some pre-dawn bouldering. (Photo courtesy of David Robertson)
Fran and I get in a spot of morning rock yoga at Cuisiniere. (Photo courtesy of Helen Downie)
Dave looking intense on Pas Glop. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Hamilton-Reilly)
Sarah, our professional photographer, on her first trip to Font and putting in a valiant effort on Les Charleston at Buthiers. (Photo courtesy of David Robertson)