The cradle of bouldering for over 130 years, in Fontainebleau the first 8A already boasts a 33-year history. However, even today, with the advent of a ninth Bleau grade, Jacky Godoffe's "C’était demain" remains a tough nut to crack.
Text: Steffen Kern
Photographs: Rainer Eder
Around 250 areas and some 30,000 problems: you can't find more bouldering, anywhere! However, the first time you travel from Fontainebleau to the dense forest landscape of the "Forêt Domaniale", you could be forgiven for wondering where, amid all the greenery, the gray of the famous Font sandstone is to be found. It is not until you drive into the car park at the traditional Bas Cuvier area that the first boulder in the light mixed forest suddenly looms up just a few meters in front of the windscreen. Thousands more await you behind this, with chalk traces on every surface. Welcome to bouldering paradise!
"In Font, I feel a bit like a kid in a toy store. I think it's definitely the best bouldering area in the world!", enthused the multiple Bouldering World Champion and Anna Stöhr. Jakob Schubert, multiple World Cup winner in Lead and Overall, and member of the Mammut Pro team, is equally enthusiastic: "The great thing about Font is that you can find so many different styles here: if you like crimps, there are plenty of lines for you. If you like slopers, this is the best spot bar none. But for me personally, what's best of all is the fact that there are so many technically challenging boulders. I have never seen as many tricky slabs and mantles anywhere as in Font."
"However, the conditions play a critical role in determining a secure grip on the fine-grained sandstone, even more so than elsewhere."
He's right! Brute force alone will rarely take you far here. Good foot technique is essential, tiny shifts in the center of gravity often mean the difference between success and a rapid return to the ground. Pull, push, prop, stem, press, prance - Font calls for the full spectrum of movements. However, the conditions play a critical role in determining a secure grip on the fine-grained sandstone, even more so than elsewhere. Slopers your hands slip off in a sultry 20 degrees feel truly inviting the next day in 15 degrees and a dry wind. An unmistakable sign of good conditions is the cry of joy of the locals - known as "Bleausards" - resounding through the forest: "Ça colle!" – it's sticking!
Bleausards have been around for a very long time. The first recorded climbing activities date back to the 1880s and the first climbing clubs were set up in the early 20th century. In 1934, the famous alpinist and Bleausard Pierre Allain gave the forest its first Fb 5+ with "Angle Allain" in Cuvier Rempart. Today, anyone pitting their strength and skill against this typical Font problem, with few holds and an "open door", may wish to consider the fact that the first ascenders climbed it in espadrilles. In the early 1940s, Allain then developed the first modern climbing shoe, which was used by his friend René Ferlet to open the first 6A in Bas Cuvier in 1946: "La Marie Rose". As a little aside: while Adam Ondra needed several attempts for both problems in 2012, he flashed Font grade eight problems. Anna Stöhr, who also has a Font eight to her credit with "Tigre et Dragon" (8A), feels it is "not least the ratings that make Font something special. Sometimes it can take me a whole day to make my way up a 7A slab."
Jacky Godoffe was responsible for the first 8A in the forest at the end of 1984. "At the time, I was influenced by Reinhold Messner's book "The Seventh Grade" and was desperate to introduce a new eighth grade in Fontainebleau, an area famous for its strict ratings," recalls Jacky, now age sixty. The name of the boulder in Cuvier Rempart was inspired by another book - Godoffe had just read the 1888 science-fiction classic "Looking backward" by Edward Bellamy, in French: "C'était demain". "I found the name very symbolic for a transition from past to future," recalls Godoffe.
A general feeling of change prevailed in the 1980s. A new generation of Bleausards such as Marc Le Ménestrel, Alain Ghersen, Olivier Carrière, Jean-Baptiste Tribout and Jacky Godoffe complemented their technical climbing skills with targeted athletic training. A trend toward specialization also began to appear. While Jean-Pierre Bouvier climbed mainly traverses, Le Ménestrel preferred extremely challenging technical problems. Ghersen sought out moves calling for maximum strength and Godoffe perfected his technique in quick and powerful moves on rounded holds. However, this was also the time when a very competitive mindset took hold. People guarded their projects and were jealous of others' successes. "We all had big egos back then, everyone wanted to open the toughest boulder problem in the forest. One popular game was repeating new problems as quickly as possible and downgrading them. The approach wasn't always objective, but it was definitely stimulating," says Godoffe describing the scene of the day.
"The first time I attempted the problem, I wasn't sure whether I would actually be able climb it."
"C'était demain" was spared any downgrading. The first repeats were completed by Marc Le Ménestrel and Alain Ghersen, who both confirmed the 8A grading. An easier variant (7C) appeared later, incorporating the arête on the left. Sébastien Frigault notched up a seated start on the boulder (8A+). However, there have not been too many repetitions of "C'était demain" in the 33 years since the first ascent. Eighteen ascents are currently registered on the bleau.info website, just two more than for the popular, but significantly more difficult, "Gecko assis" (8B+) problem. "The boulder is not the most attractive in the forest," Godoffe is quick to admit.
While Adam Ondra flashed "Gecko assis", "C'était demain" made him work hard. Jakob Schubert had a battle on his hands too. "The first time I attempted the problem, I wasn't sure whether I would actually be able climb it," recounts the 26-year-old, going on to add: "It actually all hinges on just one move, the first one. You begin with very high starting holds, which is already quite special. I need at least two pads to reach the starting holds. You use a poor foothold and you need to reach the undercling very precisely, that's a tricky move! But after trying the move many, many times, I managed to get it under control. And I'm pretty happy about that!"