FRED NICOLE - Up-Climbing


Interview by Maurizio Oviglia up2003

It is hard to introduce Fred Nicole, world class bouldering legend and a point of reference for difficulty… Tricky to do so without falling into an endless list of achievements which he has got us used to over a period of 15 years. Fred though is a lot more than a sterile list of numbers and records. With his discretion, his environmental ideas, his endless passion, for years he has embodied the image of the anti hero par excellence. With a few stark photographs, his jeans and a fire lit under his impossible moves, he has managed to remain a point of reference, even for the new generations, grown up in indoor climbing gyms rather than in the freezing cold forests of Switzerland. He has helped Switzerland become today’s world bouldering mecca.
Born in 1971 in the Vaud canton, Switzerland, Frederic attracted attention together with his brother Francois by repeating the famous “Toit d’Auguste”, freed (and not graded) by Patrick Berhault and attempted in vain by many strong climbers of that period. It is 1987, Fred is 16 years old and he has been climbing for only three years! The two brothers propose 8b+, but the gods of world climbing struggle to believe that two unknown teenagers are able to achieve so much. The year after though, at the crag of Saint Loup, an area that will become his personal climbing workshop, he frees his first 8c. This however passes unobserved, until five years later, Fred takes the risk of proposing the grade of 9a for “Bain de Saing”. Before and after he accomplishes an endless series of achievements, almost always first redpoints, that through the years have brought him closer to bouldering, when this was still a marginal activity with low media exposure. Fred has never been scared to propose new difficulties when he thought was right, often provoking skeptical reactions amongst colleagues, but showing an objective relationship with the “grade” and the media. Time has proved him right, and his routes and crux moves are today masterpieces of high difficulty. Traveller par excellence, so much so he deserves the nickname: “bloc trotter”. Fred has faced the most difficult boulder problems around the world, not scared to climb in all five continents. Far from home, as well as in his beloved Switzerland, he has left to the international climbing community extreme moves, but more than anything beautiful lines.
Fred, after many years you are still on the crest of the wave. Where do you find this inexhaustible drive to find and climb new problems?
My motivation has never been to be or to stay on the crest of the wave. The only answer that I can give this question, is that what pushes me is the desire to climb, all the time, and further more. The will to progress and improve. Everything still needs to be done and in fact one of the things that motivates me the most is to find myself in front of virgin rocks which have never been climbed before. The feeling of stepping onto “terra incognita” at arm’s length is one of the most beautiful feelings that I have ever experienced. Trying to “feel” the potential of an area in order to discover it. This is isn’t the only aspect of climbing that involves me, I have often appreciated climbing in places that have already been explored. Climbing seems to me to be an activity full of possibilities, and so I haven’t had time to get bored yet. I truly hope to be able to continue climbing with the same passion as long as possible.
How important is it for you to achieve a first? Do you not find that in today’s bouldering there is a lot of copying and not much creativity?
I do not think that simply achieving a first is the main point. It is true though, that looking backwards at my career, the majority of my realizations are first ascents. This is due to the fact that I have often climbed in areas where everything still had to be climbed, or at least in areas full of potential. When I started climbing, bouldering, was a minor activity, and apart from Fontainebleau, everything still had to be achieved. Still to this day there is an enormous opportunity to find new sites. But in terms of today I do not think that there is a lack of creativity. On the contrary, bouldering is experiencing a period of very creative expansion. I think it is difficult to adequately communicate this creativity in a comprehensible manner. Generally speaking, the only thing that attracts media attention is the grade, and eventually the speed in which the grade was achieved. The context or the creativity that motivated you to achieve the climb are never described.
What for you is the search of difficulty and what is your relationship with the beauty in the movement and the line?
They are two distinct things. A difficult grade cannot summarize the beauty involved in bouldering. The more the years go by, in my eyes it is the character of a move that becomes important: the environment, the beauty of the rock, the purity of a line, without forgetting the flow of movements.
All these variables influence my motivation to achieve a boulder problem compared to another.
A famous Italian mountaineer and climber from the 80s said that the search for risk and the search for difficulty should remain on separate tracks. What influence do you think, risk has or should have in bouldering?
It is a question of personal choice, every one should be free to risk as one wants. Personally I am not a fanatic of risk, and the bouldering I practice is not a risky activity. I use a number of crash pads, good spotters and sometimes a top rope.
Switzerland is revealing itself as one of the most beautiful and more frequented areas of the world to practice bouldering. What do you think? Do you feel partly responsible for this success?
Switzerland is a small country made up of mountains and good rock, and this has always been the case. But it has only been in the past ten years, thanks to a few magazine articles that the mass has started to recognize these qualities and quantities available.
What is your relationship with Fontainebleau? Is it for you a reference point?
Fontainebleau is the area to practice bouldering which has the most important historic context. People have been climbing on those rocks for over a hundred years with a constant frequency that can only be found close to a large metropolis (Paris). It is thus legitimate that the forest is considered the cradle of European bouldering. But said that, it is important to note that bouldering, no matter what, is practiced in other places as well, and each place has its own characteristic…It is useless to keep on comparing various areas wanting to have one single reference point.
Do you think one can talk of “modern bouldering” or do you think not much has changed in the approach to this discipline in the last twenty years?
All of bouldering has experienced an evolution. It is impossible to say that nothing has changed, even just talking about materials used (crash-pad) and the practice of bouldering (spotting, sit down starts, the multiplication of areas to climb in) But I think that the most important change has come from the mentality, bouldering has passed from a minority and marginal activity to being in the spot light, all in the space of ten years.
Some people have critically interpreted Sharma’s habit of not grading moves and your skepticism towards his evaluation. Do you consider this an evolution, or do you think that climbing should be tied to a number?
I do not think that the grading system is perfect, but I don’t think that nowadays there is a better alternative. First of all the grade is indicative, it is a tool to better portray the nature of a route or of a move. It is still an essential means of communication in today’s climbing community. It would be nice though that the grade did not become the only aspect that the majority of people acknowledge in a climb. All this local climbing rivalry for a plus or a minus…
It seems to be, at least in Italy, that bouldering has made climbers more sensitive towards chipped holds. Have you noticed any changes in attitude in terms of this problem, or do you think there is still a long way to go?
In terms of boulders, mentality changes little; the majority of climbers look for a homogenous type of climbing without single moves, while in bouldering it is about solving these hard moves. You end up seeing the rock differently and rethinking about the definition of free climbing. I think this is one of the positive aspects in bouldering… even if chipped holds continue to exist and the mentality develops slowly.
In an interview of a few years ago, you said something beautiful, that I used in my article: “We must not forget that people climb all over the world…” this seemed to be an invitation to not feel (pointing the finger to Europeans) at the centre of the world. What does it mean to you to travel and compare yourself with other climbers and cultures?
My aim has never been to compare myself to other climbers, but rather to do it on different types of rock and climbing areas. It is funny, I have the feeling that travelling should help us feel a little less at the centre of the world, but unfortunately this is not the effect it has on everyone…
Do you think you can compare a group of rocks in the woods, where you climb alone or only assisted by a friend, to an indoor gym, where you are spurred on by many people, just like in a stadium? What space does silence and the relationship with nature have in bouldering? What are the repercussions, positive and negative, that the current success in bouldering will give climbing in the future?
I think that the relationship with nature is at the base of bouldering. To better perceive the richness of the rock, it is indispensable to have a better understanding of the environment one is in. For me it is about searching the microcosm of climbing that brings me to understand the macrocosm of nature, of the environment. I truly hope that the new generations will not forget that first of all we are guests in climbing areas of a fragile equilibrium and that our future depends on our sensitivity towards nature.