Fred Nicole's grades - Up-Climbing

Fred Nicole’s grades

 We resume our investigation into the issue of bouldering grades and the climbing community with a short interview with Fred Nicole, whose career makes him one of the most authoritative voices of the community. He was the first to sail out for unknown destinations with the intent of discovering and opening new lines, and he still is a role model for the young elite boulderers who find his problems extremely challenging. His Oliphant’s Dawn, in Rocklands, awaited more than 10 years for the first RP (by Nalle Hukkataival, see related news). After Bern Zangelr’s critical accents, Nicole’s words sound less harsh: there’s no drama in downgrading after having found a better sequence. Nonetheless, he reminds us that grades and numbers can only interest the insiders, and that grades are a tool, that should not be “misused” for personal conflicts.
Do you think that grade should be tied to a method?
I don’t think it has to be tied absolutely to a method, but it should at least be tied to a line. If the line changes for any reason (new holds, new starts, new endings, new line in between the start and the end, etc.) we can say it is a variation or even a new problem (sometimes). If somebody uses the same holds (line) but find a better sequence it’s totally ok to adapt the grade. There should not be a drama about it – not for the opener nor the repeater. It was always part of the game, if done with respect on both sides.
Sometimes there are some problems that can only be climbed one way and those are the real gems, because they are rare. Those are real lines and their quest is a great motivation, more than just grades.
What do you think about Zangerl’s point of view on physical pre-conditions?
It’s clear that a difficulty is tied to a method. This method is tied to certain morphology. When your morphology is completely different from the opener there is a big chance the grade is not the same for you. The people thinking that having more accurate grade in bouldering or climbing is essential should introduce different categories as in other sports (weights, size, sex, age…)
Do you think that climbers are less respectful of each other now than 10 years ago?
Competitions between climbers have always existed. I’m certain that the discussions about the first 5c and 6a in Fontainebleau 80 years ago were really spiced as well. Maybe it’s more related to the age of some climbers then to an era.
Do you think that the media build up a biased image of the sport, too concerned by numbers?
Yes and no. I think it’s more a problem of our society which is driven by performance and so are many climbers. Some media are only concerned by numbers and are followed by those with the same interest. As long as they don’t force their vision to the community I don’t mind. Others propose nice articles with travel ideas, pictures and nice stories about great ascents, history, actors, communities, etc. and this are the ones I prefer.
Performance is great but it needs a context to be communicated and understood. When everything is just grades and numbers of tries it becomes sterile and uninteresting for anybody who isn’t an insider.
What are currently the values of the bouldering community?
If something is biased in the media it is the idea that we are one bouldering community. Every country has a different culture; there are hundreds of areas, millions of lines and thousands of boulderers. Each scene is unique and has a different approach to the activity. For a few it’s important to unify, for me it would be sad and a loss of charm and character.
How has the community changed in those years?
It has grown really fast in the last 20 years, that’s the biggest change. More people in the western countries and Asia can afford to travel, so there is now a real boulder tourism like for surfing, mountaineering and so on… Which brings new problems like a growing environmental impact, generally followed by access problems like area closures and strict regulations.
That may be the biggest issue for the future of our activity.
Do climbers resent the others’ judgment when grading a boulder? Maybe people keep the grades low not to be accused of inflating the grade…
Everybody should do as he/she feels. In my mind the grading scale is open. Grade is a consensus, decided between the opener and the repeaters. And as Bernd says it’s not always the lowest grade that is correct.

What are the considerations you make when grading a boulder?
Grading a boulder or a route is a subjective estimate to define a global difficulty. It’s very personal and relative to many different factors (shape, conditions, etc.) I base it on my experience even if I know that it’s almost impossible to remember exactly how I felt 20 years ago compared to now on a similar level.
In conclusion I would say that grades were and are interesting tools for our activity as long they are not misused for personal conflicts (no drama, it was always the case so nothing new about it). They are still really useful for a daily and democratic practice. The actual problem seems to mostly concern elite which would like to determine each other’s merits. I think it is more fascinating to realize how much energy and focus all these great climbers are giving for their realization and thank them all for their inputs. Their level is really impressive.