Fontainebleau: Part 1: I’m A Pretty Duck (who climbs)

My friend went to Laos and brought me back a token, a present: a 3″x3″ fabric pouch (I’d use it for coins and teeth of my enemies small lose-ables) with a colourful appliqué of a semi-deranged bird in a beret. Embroidered words, traced over a 3-yr old’s handwriting, spell: “I’m a pretty duck”. I’d say I am a lucky duck to have a friend who shares my sense of giggles so deeply. But that’s not why I’m telling you this.

The reason I’m telling you this has to do with how I realized that I can use this phrase any time I don’t know how to react to a blatantly inappropriate interaction that somehow still squeezes itself into the tight societal suit it has vastly outgrown.

Picture a scene: an indoor climbing setting. A French transplant, a generally nice person judging by the few times of brief interactions on the bouldering matt, and yours truly are having one of those brief dialogues in between our attempts working on our respective problems in the “cave”.

Y(ours) T(rouly): “Super excited about going to Fontainebleau again!”

F(rench) P(erson): “Nice, I love it there, you’ve been there before?”

YT: “Mhm! Was there last year for Bouldering Festival, going back again”

FP: “There is a whole section with some good slab, you should take your group there, it’s really nice for women”.

YT: *blinks*

YT: “I’m a pretty duck!”, *sends her project in the cave, takes the mic she’s been carrying in her pocket just for this kind of situations, drops it in front of the Frenchperson, leaves the area*

Well, that last line, including the “I’m a pretty duck”, is totally an “I-wish”, but you get the point. Betamonkey material.

I had a few acidic questions that I really had to work hard not to spit-and-burn at that person, including “are there any for men?”. But in the moment even the “I’m a pretty duck” leaves me alone whilst I reign in my raging Hounds of Apocalypse: madness in their eyes, gnarly teeth, and blood-thirsty tongues dripping saliva, that is my righteous What-The-Actual-Duck wrath. Currently, I can either have these conversations in a respectful and digestible way, or I can have them in the moment. So while I’m working on combining both, I also choose to contribute to bigger things in real life, with real people, who are making the real difference.

Group Photo of 2018 WBF Participants and Organizers. (C) Andy Day @kiellgram


Group photo at the end of the route-setting clinic at WBF 2019 led by Jacky Godoffe and Nataleigh Bell

One of those people are Zofia Reych and Sandra Jonsson who have started and run Women’s Bouldering Festival in Fontainebleau. On a regular day, there are seemingly few women that climb at Fontainebleau, AND a big portion of the climbers who contribute, with varying degrees of impact sponsored by ignorance, to the damage of the forest. From that, a simple thought formed: make a climbing appearance with a critical mass of under-represented class of people, and do environmental-conservation work after the climbing. How do you tackle an elephant of an idea like this? Turns out, when you’re a genuine, hard-working human who is looking out for others, you end up attracting the same kind of people, and then the task at hand becomes a wee bit more manageable.

Zofia Reych (@upthatrock), the Festival’s founder & director. Occasional writer, appreciator of lowball traverses, on a mission to boulder 8A. Dog mum to a rescue pup. Currently based in Font. Photo by (C) Andy Day @kiellgram


Sandra Jonsson (@sandralailasdotter)
A true bleausarde from the North of Sweden. Head of Training & Events at Klättercentret, Malmo. Heading for her first Bouldering World Cup this August. Molecular biologist. Photo by (C) Andy Day @kiellgram


Personally, I have a long history of feeling uneasy about female-only events. A vast majority of them tends to segregate women from men (and nonchalantly disregard other gender identifications while at it; even if the small font welcomes LGBTQ folk, they get unrecognizably meddled with the binary “female” term in the title), emphasizing the differences, the inability of the two to co-exist, and thus driving the gap between genders further apart.  Don’t get me wrong, I get the benefit of creating a space for those who feel “unsafe” or “unwelcome” to train in mixed or one-class dominated environment. However, often the main point (of identifying what “unsafe” means, how it’s communicated and how it can be transformed through intra- and interpersonal work) is missed altogether.

The reason I feel great about contributing to Women’s Bouldering Festival in Fontainebleau, both in its inaugural 2018 edition and this year, is that it’s not exclusive. It encourages inter-gender communication, and there are males among mentors and organizers, which stresses the point: we can be all just humans. It also inadvertently encourages women to take charge of and responsibility for their own interests/actions/itineraries/lives where in other circumstances they would be more likely to just defer to the decisions made by their male partner/friend.

While it does create a more comfortable (read: mostly it just comes down to being treated with respect) place for women to climb in an environment that sets proper climbing etiquette, respectful communication (beta-spraying and “I am an experienced climber therefore I know how your body should move” is a common complaint from all genders, but females tend to be on the receiving end more often), and concern for the natural environment, it allows the participants to interact and impact the usually dominating group (white cis males). In such a setting, the critical mass of under-represented group is able to tip the scales in order to be heard, and respected. Especially so when it’s done in a thought out and respectful way, thus demonstrating the communication channels that we so often find corrupted in the mixed social environment dominated by a class.

What’s a better way to start a climbing trip than by going climbing directly after landing at the airport?

I meet my fellow parkour coach Annty and her cousin Marie-Claire at Massy Palaiseau and we make a beeline for a grocery store nearby: picnic, duh. Ah, right, we ARE in France. And soon France, in the form of cheese, bread, and olives, will be in us. Yum.

Le Viaduc des Fauvettes is one of those old tall bridges which immediately screams “Europe” to me. It does so through its golden color of the sandstone, through the calm dominance of the arches over the green trees with curved backs and crooked arms, through the stone pattern resembling the shell of the Cosmic Turtle carrying the world. It feels sacrilegious to climb up it, as if the very act is disgraceful. The feeling makes a “poof” and disappears the moment my feet leave the ground. Now it’s just me, the wall, and the puzzle. The “holds” are chiseled and chipped out, but far from evident where the next one is. There is a lot of time spent in a lock-off position looking for the next move. The “topo” (read: guide book; it’s on Mountain Project too!) does mention the vertical nature of most routes there with a cheeky “hope you know how to rest!” There is a point in time where I have to internally talk to myself to keep breathing and to shake out and stay calm. Someone around the corner is taking a similar coping approach but with the volume turned all the way up.

Annty warming up.


Marie-Claire on Viaduc des Fauvettes

It’s a perfect day, really. Bright blue skies, warm sun on an otherwise brisk autumn day. A puppy, who loves playing in the sand and stealing climber’s street shoes. And a couple of friends who are simultaneously exceptionally chill and extraordinarily into whatever we happen to do in the moment: food, climbing, chatting, driving.

And here are a couple of photos of the shoe and sand loving puppy to hold you over until Part 2: Font, Bleau, and the in-between.


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