Climbing, Camping, and Injuries

Fintan considers the best ascent

Conor, a friend from work, announced that we should go on a Camping and Climbing holiday in Fontainebleau, France. Fontainebleau is the Mecca Bouldering. When you go bouldering, you climb up rocks, generally no more than 20 feet in height, with no equipment other than super tight shoes, chalk to give you grip, and a cushioned Crash Pad placed beneath you to break your fall should you slip.

So six of us — Adam, Natalia, Fintan, Chris, Conor, and myself all booked flights and space in a campsite near the Fontainebleau forest. While Adam, Conor, and myself all knew each-other from work Natalia only knew Adam, and Chris and Fintan only knew Conor. We were separate groups of friends brought together by a love for a mildly dangerous sport, and Conor’s drunken instance that we all book flights right now.

And then Conor lost his passport on the day of the flight. Despite his best efforts, he wasn’t able to talk his way onto the plane using various forms of ID (the French are understandably twitchy about security at the moment) so the rest of us were introduced and off we went, a sad Conor driving off to the pub with some of his less adventurous friends.

My tent was the blue, ambitiously categorised “two person” tent on the left

We arrived at the campsite at midnight on Friday, tired after the flight. Adam and Natalia had arrived earlier in the day, so while they already had their expensive looking Polish manufactured tent pitched, the rest of us had to figure out how to get set up in the dark. After about an hour of flailing all the tents were pitched and we were more than ready to get some sleep.

Some of us managed it — Chris and I had prepared for cold weather, with ground mats to protect us from the heat-sapping soil. Mine was even lined with silver foil, to reflect the cold back down (it was the cheapest one in the shop, I swear). But Adam, Natalia and Fintan didn’t have ground mats, and they suffered for it. Fintan described it later as being so cold that his extremities first went numb, and then started to hurt.

We camped on the bank of a lake. This photo was taken before ~400 geese showed up.

To make matters worse, the lake that we were camping next to was the day-time home of several flocks of geese. They landed in the lake at 6am, and immediately started having the loudest HONKing sessions I’ve ever heard. We were all woken up.

Over breakfast that morning, Natalia had the idea that maybe we should consider giving up on camping (it was Conor’s idea and none of us were really enthused by it anyway) and track down an Airbnb. We found one within a 10 minute drive of one of the bouldering forests, had an awkward Google Translate conversation with the host who only spoke French, and then stuffed all five of us, our bags, our tents and two crash pads into our tiny Clio. Once we were all loaded up, the three of us in the back couldn’t see through the windshield thanks to the crash pad we were balancing on our knees.

Hiking through the forest to find our boulders

Five days before the trip began, I was in Gravity climbing gym, practicing. Climbing outside, on real rock with no guidance is a totally different animal to the guided climbs you can do in a gym of course. But every minute of practice helps.

As I was attempting to dismount from an overhang, I slipped, fell, and landed awkwardly on my right leg. I had hoped that it would get better in time for the trip, but I wasn’t so lucky. I knew that I wouldn’t be doing much climbing, so I reset the holiday in my mind — instead of a climbing holiday, this would now be an opportunity to get really practiced with my Fuji X-T10, a camera that I’d bought a few months before but hadn’t had the chance to go on a real outing with yet.

Adam and Natalia watch Chris attempt our first boulder of the holiday

The thing about bouldering is this — it’s not that dangerous, so long as you don’t push yourself too hard. We only had one person in the group climbing at once, and as they climbed, at least two others watched, ready to jump into action should they fall, and direct their fall towards the crash pads.

I fell off the side of this boulder while trying to line up the shot. My already-injured leg was very unhappy with me.

Even with these precautions we had two injuries over the holiday, but only one was climbing related. Chris fell off a boulder and awkwardly landed on his ankle, twisting it. The next day, his entire foot had swollen up. I also fell off a boulder, but as I was trying to set the camera up for the perfect group shot. I suffer for art.

As I fell, I misjudged the amount of pressure that my injured leg could take, and I’m fairly sure that my surprised expletive-ridden outburst convinced the others that I’d just snapped my leg in two.

Fintan hugging a boulder

Bouldering guidebooks rate climbs on difficulty through two layers of granularity. First, a colour or a number, then sometimes a letter. At Fontainebleau, the colour grading system is similar to ski slopes — white, yellow, orange, blue, red, and finally black. The guidebook we were using rated in both colour and numerical difficulty (the numerical system taken from the UK method of grading difficulty), and if the author wanted to get more specific she might add a letter from a to d to the number.

Interestingly, we found that following the colours/numbers system didn’t always match with the perceived or actual difficulty of climbing. Often, the author would include mental difficulty as well as physical difficulty — and one of the rocks that Adam, Chris and Fintan climbed even had a coffin icon to indicate that if you fell off, you’d probably die, even though it was only rated Orange.

Despite it being a reasonably easy climb, it involved going very high, and rotating around the slanted boulder in a way which would make it almost impossible for your spotters to catch you and redirect you to a mat.

Probably the tallest and most dangerous boulder that the group climbed

After two full days of bouldering we had to return the rented crash pads. At this point, anybody who wasn’t injured was sore and tired from 10 hours of straight climbing. Once we returned the pads, we decided to visit Château de Fontainebleau, one of the largest royal château in France.

We got to walk through a huge amount of the giant castle, including the Papal Residences, the chapel, the sovereign Grands Apartments and the Napoleon I Museum.

This giant hall reminded me of something from The Red Keep

One thing that struck me as we walked through the apartments — these castles must have been incredibly dark at night! Most of the rooms were lit by LED stand-ins for candles, and even with the extra power outputted by LEDs they were super dim, and just a little gloomy. As we were touring on Halloween, I couldn’t help but think that the princes and princesses must have had a great time running around and scaring each-other around every corner.

The Gallery of Diana. I wonder what secrets are in these books, dating from 1853 when Napoleon III turned it from a hallway into a Library

Overall, despite injury, the trip was a huge success. We’re planning on going to Fontainebleau again early next year. Except we’ll entirely skip camping next time.

All photos were taken on my Fuji X-T10 with the 18–55mm kit lens. I considered bringing another lens with me as well, but decided that I could only risk so much camera equipment to a camping trip. Some have been cropped or slightly cleaned in editing, to remove something which didn’t make sense in the crop.

To see more photos from the trip, follow me on Instagram where I’ll be posting my faves. I’ll probably end up dumping a whole load of them on Flickr too, at some point. These are just 10 of the 80+ photos that I picked from the 350+ that I shot. If you have a favourite photo community website, I’m looking for one now that Flickr is almost dead! Let me know!

And if you liked this photo essay, hit ❤️!