Fred Nicole: the father of modern bouldering!
Interview with one of the climbing legends22 December 2021
Talking about climbing, bouldering and creativity with one of the climbers who have contributed most in making this discipline what it is now!
In the history of modern climbing the name of Fred Nicole is one of those literally carved in the rock, a symbol that goes beyond futuristic results and performances, to become an example of how, with creativity and vision, one can become a source of inspiration for subsequent generations!
Nicole will always be remembered as the icon of the rebirth of bouldering in the 90s and above all as the one who made this discipline universal and global, with respect to the previous history (starting at the end of the 19th century !!!) in which bouldering was mostly tied to single mythical characters (for example John Gill) or to places altogether circumscribed (Fontainebleau, the Colorado of the '70s or, in Italy, Val Masino).
However, despite the invaluable work that Nicole has done in this context, it would be simplistic to consider him only a boulderer, since his contribution to climbing has been more extensive than just bouldering.
In 1987, just sixteen years-old, with his brother Francois he distinguished for the famous repetition of the unrepeated Toit d'Auguste in La Turbie (a short and intense route of 8b+ by Partick Berhault). Then Fred left some milestones that are still today references, such as the legendary 9a by Bain de Sang, one of the first route of the grade in history and still one of the hardest slab in the world.
However, in the 90s it was precisely in bouldering that a new era was opened thanks to him! A vision ahead of years, a creativity and a desire for exploration that led him all over the world to explore the most disparate boulders, breaking the limits and pushing the bar further and further.
Author of the first world 8B (La Danse des Balrogs, now rated 8A+), of the first 8B+ (Radja) and obviously of the first 8C with the legendary Dreamtime in Cresciano. But not only! In Fontainebleau he solved some problems that have been open for some time (for example the legendary Karma or Fatman Assis among many), in the early 2000s he is one of the pioneers of Rocklands (for example on the 8C lines of Monkey Wedding and Black Eagle) and the Grampians (Eve Reve 8B +), as well as the author of many extreme passages at Hueco Tanks (Slashface 8B+, Esperanza 8B+, Terremer 8C etc.). And these are just a drop in the ocean of what Fred has given to bouldering! A climber who can truly be said to be mythical and who, with his legend, continues to represent a reference.
In the great media explosion that climbing and bouldering have been experiencing in recent years, Fred continues to climb and, in collaboration with Five Ten, he has also brought his experience and creativity to the development of new climbing shoes. From time to time we see him still active at very high levels and an example is the ascent of Legacy, 9a in Rocklands, which is also the cover of our UP 2019 Yearbook.
Despite being a constant presence in climbing, for some time, however, we have not had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the past, present and future of bouldering and climbing. So it is with our great pleasure to offer you the interview below, in which we retraced with him the main steps of his life as a boulderer and asked him his point of view about the modern evolution of climbing.
A privilege that we are happy to share with you!
Fred, with your futuristic lines and your creativity you became a symbol of bouldering, probably the one who more than any other can be considered its father, in this modern guise. Beyond what you represent for bouldering, on a personal level can you tell us what bouldering represents for you?
Climbing and more specifically bouldering is a passion that gave me a guideline through most of my lifetime. I mention climbing because I started with mountaineering. I started climbing because of a movie with Patrick Edlinger, but modern route climbing and bouldering didn’t exist in the region where I grew up. With my brother François we first practiced bouldering as a training for rope climbing.
Because the lack of possibilities to go to climbing places (and there were no climbing gyms back then) I started bouldering on a few old stone walls scattered in Estavayer-le-Lac, a medieval town, where I went to school. In retrospect some very nice problems on an interesting support, but probably (most surely) forbidden in the meantime.
Speaking about history, the father of bouldering, from what we know, would probably be John Gill, but there were also other people practicing back then, mainly in Font or England and presumably many other places. I was lucky to meet John Gill in 2011, thanks to Chuck Fryberger, during a little trip to Colorado and to see and climb some of his mythical problems.
But when I started climbing, the boulderer that inspired me the most, was Jacky Godoffe with his “Les croniques de Bleau”. He is also the one that made me discover Font years later and became a good friend.
La danse des balrogs, Radja, Joyeux Leon, Dreamtime and many other lines are milestones in bouldering. Still from your personal perspective, can you briefly describe which results you consider as fundamental steps of your career and the meaning you give to each of them?
Those mentioned are the most known. But the one line of which I have great memories of is an unknown traverse in Eclépens. A milestone for me for sure. Maybe the first time I stepped in the 7s grade. Till there I wasn’t what you call a talented climber. It was a personal breakthrough and from there on I had an exponential growth that led me to do the second ascent of “Le toit d’August” a mytical route from the iconic climber Patrick Berhault in1987. We climbed it with my brother François and it made us step out of the anonymity that we had till then.
Next step was repeating an 8c from Jürg von Känel “Mission Miranda” in Lehn in 1991. It was a confirmation that I could climb those difficulties elsewhere then in my backyards. “La danse des balrogs” the first 8b boulder and “The Crown of Aragorn” the first V13 in the USA were further fundamental steps in my quest.
These experiences led me to conceive a route like “Bain de sang” which I climbed in 1993, and it was for sure an important ascent for me. Some route or boulders might not be important in history because of their difficulty but they became iconic nonetheless like “Karma” that I was able to open in 1995, during a trip in Font where I had the honor and the pleasure of meeting Patrick Edlinger.
In Hueco Tanks, in Texas, USA, I also opened the first V13 in 1995, the first V14 “Slashface” in 1997, “Esperanza” also V14 in 2001 and “Terremer” the first V15 in 2005. All this helped me get known overseas and some brands started to be interested in my doings. It was never intended to be a career. I was just lucky enough to be there at the right time.
Of course, South Africa with the Rocklands plaid an important role in my personal path as well.
When I moved to Zurich to live with my girlfriend Mary, I started to look around and found some interesting places to practice my activity. With some friends for example we discovered Amden, where I was able to climb “L’isola che non c’é” an important step on my climbing path.
I have been climbing for over 38 years so it is really hard to pick up any individual climbs or boulder for me. There have also been great climbing days without realization, that I consider more important than others where I have succeeded.
Right now, climbing and bouldering have “come out of the cellars”, and are increasingly becoming mass sports, however with a loss of some of the original ideals at their base. When you first started your career as a rock climber and then as a boulderer, what was the spirit, ideals and values of climbing?
Climbing for me is a quest of self-realization thru facing and understanding a challenge given by nature. I never saw my climbing path as being a career.
I think the activity might also have gained in value with more people climbing. Every new practician can potentially add something new to the activity.
Some perceive it as a sport while others find a different value in it. Each approach is individual.
Even if some things were different in the 80’s the concept of sport climbing versus free climbing was already predominant. The values therefore were not much different then now. What was different was the climbing/bouldering culture being more marginalized. Media like we know now were not available, and information didn’t travel so fast. That lead to more room for self-interpretation of the activity.
How do you perceive and evaluate the current approach to bouldering and climbing in general? How do you expect the climbing community to change in the future?
As I said before, there are different approaches to bouldering and climbing and I esteem them all as valid. Like every human activity, climbing reflects our society. It is a mirror of all tendences of an era. Since we are facing an environmental crisis in the world, as climbers we have to make our practice more sustainable. Leaving toilet paper and trash in the nature should be a thing of the past (that should never have been there in the first place). Respecting locals and their rules, even if it is annoying sometime, will keep the access to some places in the future. Access is anyway going to be one of the main issues in the near future. Since the climbing population is constantly growing, the problems grow with it.
It seems that creativity in climbing is now increasingly limited, confined solely to performance and the research for exploit. Do you think that there are still frontiers for new discoveries in bouldering?
The creativity can be expressed in so many ways that one should not judge. For example, the route setters in a gym demonstrate a lot of imagination when opening new boulders and routes. The canvas is different, but the creativity is still present also by discovering new movements and new trainings methods. Fortunately, there is also still a lot of pristine rock in the world and there is still room for discovery outdoor as well. This of course for those who are fortunate enough to be able to access them.
Tokyo2020 and climbing at the Olympics: did you follow the competitions? What impression did this Olympic debut have on you and what do you think about the idea of climbing that it may create for those who did not yet know it? The Speed or the Combined format, however, was already a somewhat distorted image of our sport we think.
I was at work and all my colleague were watching, so I did watch them as well. We can argue about the chosen formula, but the performances of the climbers were impressive! What I didn’t understand was why on bouldering the highest point doesn’t count like on difficulty. For the rest it is a logical evolution since the organized competitions exists. I might not like it, but for some it is a form of recognition of the sport being in the Olympics. Speed is maybe the oldest form of climbing competition and the easiest to understand by the non-climbing public.
How do you live climbing in your life now?
Climbing remains an important part of my life. I enjoy looking for new lines, mainly bouldering but sometimes routes as well. I still have countless projects, some I may do, some I don’t know, but even just trying and finding solutions continue to fascinate and intriguing me.
From the height of your experience, which suggestions or ideas would you like to suggest to those who are now approaching climbing and bouldering in order to fully experience these disciplines in their true nature?
There is no right or wrong way. Try to respect and see the place as an all and not only as a platform you want to perform. You should feel an appeal or a desire to climb a line and not only wanting to do it because of the grade or the name. This desire can make you grow over your limits. There are many aspects where we can grow as climbers or simple human beings and it is not just about grades.
What are the projects you intend to carry out now and in the immediate future?
In climbing and bouldering there is a lot I want to do as I said above. In the last few years, I started developing shoes for FiveTen and it’s something I continue to do, because I really enjoy this creative process. Designing, cutting, sawing, gluing, putting them together, and then finally testing them is a rewarding experience.
Thank you so much!
Interview by Alberto Milani