Whenever I'm in Paris and I get bored of the croissants and cathedrals (takes about a week), I head just south of the city to Fontainebleau forest, France's Yosemite of bouldering. Fontainebleau, called "Bleau" by local climbers, is said to have the highest concentration of climbable boulders in the world, all of them located in the shadow of the historic royal château of the same name. With hundreds of rocks of all shapes and sizes strewn throughout the forest, many of them just challenging enough for noodling fool-amateurs like myself, the place is an adult jungle gym for all comers.
I head for a part of the forest called Diplodocus, so named because its tallest boulder, perhaps 25 feet high, bears a vague resemblance to that Jurassic sauropod. Climbers have hash-marked the boulders in colors coded for difficulty: Yellow is peu difficile ("easy"), orange means tough but still doable for neophytes, blue is difficult, red very difficult, and black extremely difficult. Totally out of reach to people like me are the white-marked climbs, les ABOs – "the abominables."
Diplodocus is empty except for two young climbers from Paris who have laid out crash pads – foldable, futonlike mats you can strap to your back – under blue-marked climbs. I ask if I can make an attempt, but I've got no climbing slippers, no chalk bag. I'm wearing running shoes. They nod and, I think, snicker. Bleau boulderers describe the ascents not as mere climbs but as "problems" to be solved, equations in the rock, intellectual exercises made physical. The trick is first to understand the problem, read the mystery in the rock, and then solve it with the right mix of force, dexterity, reach, poise, and certainty – the right number of moves, preferably as few as possible. This blue problem starts with crimps – seemingly impossible fingerholds, perhaps a 10th of an inch to hold onto – and unfolds into a bastard of a shoulder-hold, where I have to place all my weight on my right shoulder while reaching for a left handhold. I make several attempts to solve the mystery of gravitational force, but I'm eventually forced to admit that the blue is simply too hard. I give up.
A while later, the two climbers hike out, and I've got the garden to myself. Once they're gone – and I can fully embarrass myself – I try a red climb. The rock laughs in my face. I have more luck with the yellow and orange circuits. I'm feeling the grip, I'm tight with the rock, I'm solving the equations. Soon I'm racing up 14-foot boulders. The thrill is that I know I can't allow myself to fall – the certainty is that I'll be hurt, maybe even crack my head toppling backward on adjacent boulders – and I can't climb down. I'm committed.
Finally, I decide to try an orange problem that looks to be an easy six-foot ascent. My calculation is that it will require six moves. I try again and again, dropping each time off the rock and into the soft sand. I look at it for a long while: No, dude, left foot first. Then a right-hand power move to a high jug-hold – a hold that's like gripping a jug – then a toehold with the left foot, then both hands bounding onto the jug-hold. In four moves, the equation is solved, and I'm up and flexing atop the world. For four hours, I leap about like this, a child unleashed and entirely pleased with himself.