Climbing With Kids: Climbing in Fontainebleau
I always envisioned myself becoming one of those “cool” parents. You know, the kind of parent who takes her child everywhere. The kind of parent whose child has visited more foreign countries than you can count. The kind of parent who, at the drop of a hat, could buy a ticket online, pack everything into an impossibly small duffle, and zip off on a light and fast adventure around the world. To me, those kinds of parents always seemed like the cool, groovy, relaxed people that, surely, I would be.
Being more the anxious type, I probably should’ve known better.
When I was 18, I went on my first expedition to Madagascar to pioneer new free climbs with a team of women that included Lynn Hill, Nancy Feagin and Kath Pyke, and a film crew including Michael Brown, Kevin Thaw and Rob Raker. I packed 18 pairs of underwear. I don’t even own 18 pairs of underwear now. Midway through the trip, we had to pair down our luggage. In her kindest voice, Nancy told me that my underwear cache was “ludicrously excessive.” Looking back now, I’m surprised other words weren’t used.
Since then, I’ve definitely learned to pack lighter and faster when packing for myself, especially for big walls or expeditions. I can survive on shockingly few calories, live in the same clothes for weeks, shower with baby wipes, and be pretty darn content.
But in my new role of motherhood, it turns out old habits die hard. And despite my best effort, I’m actually the type of parent to pack 14 changes of clothes, 10 diapers, three packages of wipes, two thermometers (you know just in case the first one breaks), 17 books, and enough food to feed a classroom of kids, all for a trip to the park across the street.
“It’s amazing you’ve ever left the house,” Randy always says, due to the length of time it takes me to pack.
Traveling with kids can seem like a daunting thing to most new parents. Traveling with kids to go on a climbing trip where you want to actually get climbing done can seem even more daunting. This past spring, we decided to face some pretty big questions:
Could we travel internationally with Theo AND both get in a good climbing trip?
A bouldering trip seemed most logical as, thus far, bouldering had provided the best medium for both of us getting to climb, and it was the easiest on my recovering body. We decided on the beautiful and massive forest of Fontainebleau, just south of Paris. Randy has spent over a year of his life exploring the sandstone bouldering destination, and I had also been here on two previous trips. We knew we loved it and, as an added bonus, a handful of our friends, most of them with kids under 2, were also heading over at the same time.
We would be a family pack in Font 🙂
As soon as we landed in Paris, of course, I questioned our decision to come here. Would all these precious hours of lost sleep, all the shenanigans, and all the stuff we had to schlep around the world be worth it?
Theo was just about 10 months old, and my body was still in recovery mode. In addition, my A2 pulley in my ring finger was irate from a recent injury. But as we stepped our creaky, tired bodies out of the car at Bas Cuvier and shook off the cobwebs and travel daze, I knew we’d made the right call.
For those who haven’t been to Fontainebleau, picture a paradise of endless, perfect sandstone boulders, dotted with friendly, round slopers with flat sandy landings, all set in an enchanting forest.
Font actually might be the most kid-friendly international climbing destination out there. It’s a place with a vast array of boulder problems, ranging from some of the world’s hardest to circuits for kids and everything in between.
For the next 5 weeks, our family pack roamed the forest, climbed our hearts out, and enjoyed our time balancing parental duties with projecting. I spent the first two weeks doubling down on Theo duty and resting duty, hoping my finger would heal. I also put in some time on some very easy trail runs, weaving along trails around boulders and tall pine trees. It felt great to be active again, great to push my body, even if it was ever so small and slow.
Running also offered ample people-watching opportunities. I saw horseback riders, grandparents walking their grandkids, people picnicking, and pad-wearing boulderers wandering from one outcropping to the next. It was amazing to see dozens of people, who were in their 70’s, hiking at least 40 minutes from any parking area. Back in Yosemite, once I get within five minutes from the car, I usually have the forest to myself, but here in France, I quickly saw that French people of all ages love to get out and actually explore.
Randy and some of our friends had problems or areas that they wanted to visit, but I had zero agenda whatsoever. I was happy to see new areas or go to the same ones, just as long as we were outside enjoying the forest. The kiddos were exactly the same. They just loved being out in the forest, no matter where we were. There were endless small boulders to scamper around, big sandpits to play in, and pine forests to explore.
Our family pack quickly fell into a routine of “mom climbing days” and “dad climbing days.” I was so fortunate to have my friends Becca, Becky, Nora and Nicole to inspire and motivate me. We would tour the orange, blue and red circuit problems, ending each day with no skin left, sore muscles and smiles on our faces. Almost all of us were still breastfeeding, so the dads would take the kiddos until meal time, then bring them back for some food, then go explore the forest some more.
On rain and rest days, there is a lot to do in Fontainebleau itself, or make the hour drive up to Paris. We were able to do both on several occasions. Although I have to say that I found spending all day out in the forest much easier than venturing into the city. However, I’m really glad we got to expose Theo to all of the hustle and bustle of Paris.
The end of our trip coincided with Easter Break, which meant that the Font was packed. For example, we counted around 100 people trying to climb in just one area: 40 of those were kids running around, walking on slacklines, climbing kid circuits, playing hide and seek, or going down a zip line. And, we saw a climber in a clown suit…yep, a clown suit. Those Europeans know how to party in the boulders!
Another day we went to the area of Elephant, where we saw just as many people. Although we missed the quiet forest that we had enjoyed over the previous month, it was pretty cool and inspiring to see so many families enjoying Font. Compared to some of my childhood vacations, and that of many others, spent at amusement parks and movie theaters, this scene was a pleasant and inspiring contrast that made me smile and feel hopeful.
By the end of the trip, every member of our family pack had aspirations to return next year. Some of the kiddos might be ready for the kids circuits, some might be still just scrambling and traversing the bottom of the boulders, and some might just want to play in the sand while the parents climb. Font is an amazing destination for kids and parents. Best of all, you don’t have to pack that much because all the amenities are here … even underwear.
Here is some beta on the climbing and ideas on where to stay.
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Top Kid-Friendly Zones:
Elephant: Amazing sand for the kids to play in
Isatis: So many boulders! With Cuisinere bordering, there is a five-star problem for everyone.
95.2: A good variety for most people, lots of little boulders to play on and sand.
Rocher au Sabots: Nice and flat for the kiddos.
Cul de Chien: One giant sand pit and small boulders to play on
Where to Stay:
We rented a house on VRBO, but there is also Airbnb and the Gites de France system. The gites tend to be old farmhouses that have been turned into rentals. We found that having a home base was best for the kiddos, but renting a van also seemed pretty nice. Font is notoriously rainy, which makes camping, especially with kiddos, less appealing.
Go to BioCoop for awesome, reasonably priced, local groceries. It’s across from the train station.
There is a ferris wheel in the center of Font. We never got there in time when it was open, but I’m sure it will be a hit next year.
The Fontainebleau Chateau is a great tour, probably good for really young ones in the stroller, or a bit older ones that can handle walking the long distance through the Chateau.