Off the Wall
The Women’s Bouldering Festival
by Zofia Reych
We want the event to be inclusive and diverse. Of course, some people still raise their eyebrows asking how a “women’s festival” can be inclusive, but we don’t want to close our doors to anybody, regardless of their gender. What we want to create is a safe space – not safe from any particular group, but safe from attitudes that don’t align with our values of treating everybody with the same respect and giving everyone the same opportunities. And again, there’s this sentiment that nobody’s banning anybody from going outdoors and climbing, and at least within our culture that’s true.
At the same time, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t systemic, cultural barriers preventing people from doing certain things. Outdoor recreation is incredibly empowering; there are countless studies talking about its benefits on an individual’s life beyond the activity. And yet we see few women, and even fewer women of colour, trans or non-binary folk in the outdoors. As one of those people, I can tell you that it is not because we don’t like fresh air. So, our event aims to make it a little easier for those who might face some barriers to express themselves and feel welcome within the bouldering community.
We’re passionate about bouldering, and we’re passionate about the forest of Fontainebleau, but what we’re trying to do goes beyond that. These are our media of choice to push society toward the values at the core of it all: social equality and environmentalism. To give a more concrete example, when people recreate in the outdoors, they start caring for their natural environment in a new way. And if they care for the forest in their backyard or their beloved bouldering holiday destination, they will think more globally too. They might
already have a consciousness of environmental issues, but engaging in activities that have a direct impact, even on a very small scale, is empowering and gives us hope for the future.
The two most important facets of the festival are social equality and environmentalism. We started out only with the first in mind, but when we had to collaborate with the local forestry office to get the event off the ground, and we became aware of the issues faced by the Fontainebleau Forest. Even though these issues might be unique, at the same time they’re symptomatic of greater environmental problems.
If you create an outdoor event, whatever its focus, you can’t ignore the environmental crisis these days. It’s the small things that count, most of all awareness. We help our participants to organize carpooling and we try to minimize our waste. Then there’s the conservation workshop organized with the National Forest Office. After the main event, we spend a day learning about the forest and doing manual labour to prevent soil erosion and protect vegetation. Erosion is a huge problem in Font and much if it is caused by human activity. When we organized the first festival in 2018, I really wasn’t sure if anybody would come. An English-language event in Fontainebleau put together by an outsider, that didn’t bode very well, to be honest. But the response from the international community was amazing and last year in 2019 we had over 120 climbers from all over the world come together. What is important to me is that we’re also increasingly appealing to the locals, we’re gaining credibility. If we want to work together for the protection of the Fontainebleau Forest, it’s essential to build bridges between the French climbing community and foreign visitors. And now we’ve got a foot in both camps.