Fontainebleau Part 2: all the pretty ducks

In part one, we got a taster of what it’s like to be a pretty duck in a today’s climbing gym.

This time, I want to talk about what it’s like to be a pretty duck among other pretty ducks, outside. Specifically, within the framework of one special event, Women’s Bouldering Festival at Fontainebleau.

For the record, I have always been, and will likely continue to be, a proponent of the diversity in this habitat (climbing or otherwise). Ducks, elephants, fish, capybaras, whatever. You be you, and you do you. Live and let live.

But here’s a natural phenomenon: when we notice a drop in population of certain species, it can be due to a variety of reasons, and most of them turn out to be external. Lack of food, predators, disappearance of fresh water supply, disease, etc. Rarely do we find a fault within the species itself.

Pretty ducks are no different. Foster a welcome environment where they can climb, be respected, and be treated as equal (based on a 2019 survey among climbers and parkour folk, “welcome environment” and “respect” turn out to be gender-neutral and quite universal, but more on that later) and they will soar, and rise, and ascend. And they will make it better than before, just for the fun of it. That’s what the Festival is all about.  Diversity (by the means of mass insertion of under-represented species) and environmentalism (make the place better than you found it before, not the other way around).

Click here to watch the video from year 2018.

My personal experience of it, both as a guest coach and a participant, challenged my by then well-set opinion about the “female” events: mostly social gatherings to bitch about how the future is female. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Women’s Bouldering Festival did promote diversity in action, and as such did not exclude non-female people. Though majority female, there were male and non-binary mentors, staff, and friends of participants. The common denominator? See above: welcome environment and respect.

WBF’19 Route-setting clinic

Here’s a much abbreviated IS and AIN’T, so that we’re on the same page.

Welcome environment and respect IS:

  • desire to truly connect with fellow climbers and environment coming from the place of authenticity
  • exercise of good etiquette whilst being outdoors in a mixed human group or solo
  • openness and desire to understand the values others hold, even if they don’t match up with your own

Welcome environment and respect AIN’T:

  • beta spraying (however “well-intended”)
  • unsolicited advice or recommendation (however “well-intended”)
  • monopolizing space
  • general rudeness and disregard for common decent norms of behavior

Both lists can get a lot longer, but this is a gist of what both pretty-ducks and other species agreed on in that survey.

But back to the actual happenings at the Festival.

On Friday, we opened up with a route-setting clinic at Karma Salle D’Escalade Fontainebleau, designed and led by Nataleigh Bell and Jacky Godoffe.

The steel fingers. Believe me, they are.

Nat “SteelFingers” is a Belgian beastly climber, trainer, a seasoned competition and commercial route-setter, and now a co-owner of BlackBox, the only bouldering gym in West Flanders.









The hands of the legend

Jacky Godoffe is sometimes referred to as the “Godfather of Route-Setting”, “Fontainebleau personified”, and is undoubtedly a climbing legend. He currently heads the route-setting at Karma Salle D’Escalade in Fontainebleau, which has very generously hosted the annual route-setting clinic by WBF.





The participants demographic ranged from seasoned, established route-setters (some of whom crossed the ocean to attend the Festival), to just curious, to world-class climbers, and everything in between. Chapeau to both instructors for making it challenging and accessible for everyone, with a great product in the end of really fun and challenging boulder problems!


Nataleigh Bell (left) with two participants at the route-setting clinic


WBF’19 Route-setting clinic

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


On Saturday and Sunday, an optional, but well-attended, yoga workshop led by Tiffany Soi, warmed up all the pretty ducks for the full day of mentored bouldering, parkour tasters (provided by experienced parkour coaches Annty Marais and Natalia Boltukhova), bouldering workshop with the Austrian elite climber Karoline Sinnhuber, and injury prevention-and-rehab clinic by Natalia.

I also want to make a substantial side note about the diversity of the participants and the attitude of the Festival towards them. In my personal experience of a participant and a coach, way too many events draw a clear line between a “student” and a “teacher”.  At WBF, it was precisely the vastly different mix of levels, experiences, and backgrounds that led to learning through exchange model rather than “teacher-student”. It brought to the forefront the many talents, strengths, dreams, journeys and achievements that we shared between all of us.  It truly felt that at one point or another everyone got to be a mentor and a learner, on one subject or another.


Annty Marais is happy on the rock!


Barefoot Natalia on Buddha (6b)


Mentor Dylan Asena, friend of the Festival and of this pretty duck.


Between attempts, and right before the barefoot “send train” on Buddha.

On Saturday night, prominent female climbers delivered presentations about their experiences of competing internationally, dealing with injuries and failures, and climbing while pregnant. More than a handful of times I caught myself sucking the air in to scream “Preeeeeaaaaach!!!!!” (but I have been working on my listening skills, -and on my tight glute, – so no speakers were disrupted). It is greatly satisfying to get yet another first-person testament to a holistic approach toward the variety of human bodies and states they are in, promoting adaptation vs “disability”.

On the closing Sunday night, a great and wonderful pile of stretching and rolling (and massage-gunning – Thank you Andy Day!) humans and parkour dogs buzzed with the high of the weekend; experiences, stories, and contacts were exchanged into the late hours.

Although the Festival officially closed on Sunday night, many of the participants, mentors, and staff stuck around on Monday to give their time and physical ability to the Office National des Forêt in their conservation work in caring for the Fontainebleau Forest. How often do we go into the national parks for our “recreational activities” and give something back? Leave in a state better than we found it in? We built structures to prevent erosion, laid down stairs, and carried so many rocks, which, depending on the carrying method, turned out to be either a great warm up for climbing or an antagonist workout.

I must say, it feels damn great to work hard the whole day (even though, surrounded by such amazing humans, it felt like play, and went by very quickly) and realize that we have done something very useful for the site that we have been using. Besides, we gained a lot of insight of what goes into conservation and preservation, and how fragile the balance between climbers/climbing and nature can be, but also that it is entirely possible to create a working symbiotic relationship between the two.

Some of the completed and in-progress restorative conservation work

To conclude, I recommend this Festival to anyone – and especially ALL THE PRETTY DUCKS – who wants to explore bouldering at Fontainebleau, level up in their skill, meet strong, dedicated, funny, smart, caring people, and experience first hand what natural human connection within outdoor activity can do for personal growth, and for the environment.

Are you in?

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