Ben Buckland speaks to bouldering legend Fred Nicole about the past and the present
WORDS: Ben Buckland, IMAGES: Mary Gabrieli
Fred Nicole wants to be faster. ‘Faster! Faster would be nice. I am kind of slow, I am a slow climber, I need time to place my feet.’ He even says it slowly, his body very still, as if he is sitting for a portrait. All the expression is in his eyes. Watching, I can’t imagine him ever moving quickly. But slow is the wrong word. Deliberate is better. Listening back to the tape, it is my voice that hesitates. When he speaks it is precise. Taking care, despite his accent, to pronounce things exactly. Pausing to think. A convenient metaphor for the climbing style of a man who has pushed the limits now for more than two decades.
Bouldering in Switzerland came from England, when Thierry Lardet travelled there and brought the style home. ‘He was trying some small traverses, really close to the ground and when I first saw that, I was: Oh! Great, I want to try that as well.’ Patrick Edlinger had introduced them to the concept of free climbing with his Calanques free solos in the early film, La Vie au Bout des Doigts, but it was the UK influence, plus some early articles about the Fontainebleau exploits of Jacky Godoffe and Jo Montchaussé, that really opened their eyes. ‘It was a great inspiration’ meeting Jacky the first time. ‘Jerry Moffatt and Ben Moon later… Jerry was like mid-80s… They were bouldering a lot for sure but it was really restricted to Font and the Grit.’
He realised early on that this style would suit him. ‘I was okay in sport climbing but I was a bit afraid, I was always choosing the shortest routes every time. The first time I went to Font we were already bouldering quite a bit in Switzerland. There was already some stuff in Branson… it came quite naturally.’ That first trip, just two days with Godoffe, was ‘the perfect introduction’ and the first real confirmation that he was climbing at a high level. ‘It’s not the way I like to talk about myself,’ he says, ‘but I did a few things.’
What he calls their ‘primitive way of training’ was paying off. ‘We had no climbing walls so it was a lot about power: hanging, pull-ups and stuff like that.’ But also the idea of movement, something they got from Edlinger, ‘discover[ing] all these new motions… that after we learned to use on real problems. At this time there were just eliminates but after we discovered some great lines… In Branson [where he later established the world’s first 8B and 8B+] when I saw the big face there, the big roof… There was nothing there… Now it seems small. At this time it seemed huge.’
Creating something from nothing is a theme for a man who thought about becoming an artist and who has long been at the forefront of climbing exploration and development. In no place is this more apparent than in Rocklands, where his name seems to be on every page of the guidebook. ‘I can remember the first time we took the road up. At this time it was a dirt road, a red, dirt road. It was incredible. We were really amazed by everything, landscape, nature, rock, everything. It was really an exceptional time.’
We talk about the first hours there. ‘We stopped at the campground… just before Teapot… but it was just before the sunset so we didn’t spend much time. And the day after we went to Roadside and I opened Question of Balance.’ Twenty years later it is still one of the best and most-tried problems in the world. Are these kinds of discoveries still possible, I wonder? He gives a very Gallic shrug before replying, ‘something like Rocklands, who knows but yeah… there is still plenty to open, places to be discovered… in Africa you’ve got great potential. In Europe it’s a bit difficult but it seems like people are finding new stuff everywhere… I’m still looking for new things.’
Maybe it is because we’re a few beers in by now, but here the discussion turns from history to philosophy, to where the sport is going and what it means. He shifts from enthusiasm about the early days in Rocklands, finding and exploring new lines, to a more worried tone, ‘looking for new stuff, it’s great,’ he says, ‘but it’s not just about consuming and finding new places every time… We should be able to appreciate… and respect what we have, not just opening new, new, new and having more, more, more. I’m against this idea… [it’s] too fast and too big.’ It is a problem in society and ‘climbing is a microcosm of society… We are constantly speaking about growth and I think it’s a mistake… we are so many people and taking so much space on this earth. Constant growth can’t go [on] forever. If the sport grows it’s good, but we have to educate people to be respectful with nature. [In] a place like Rocklands, [or the] Grampians, these places, they are great, wild places and all these urban people coming… can be quite disturbing. Their impact is not minimal. It’s there.’
What is the responsibility of climbers and the outdoor industry, I ask, and he jumps in immediately, as if it is a question that he has thought about often. ‘I think we have a responsibility, I think all human beings have a responsibility and climbers especially, since they are a part of the population which is privileged enough to visit some of these incredible places. Maybe it would be good to not just focus on grades and on one problem but to see the big picture, to be able to appreciate just being in a place.’
Maybe this appreciation is part of getting older as a climber. ‘You learn to open yourself with time… it is personal growth and evolution,’ he says, ‘to appreciate these places… Australia, a few countries in Africa, the Himalayas, the South West United States, Patagonia… I’ve really learned to see that as an incredible playground… we should be really thankful and really respectful of what we’ve got… I want to push my own personal limits but [also to] place them in perspective.’
We talk about refugees, closing borders, the privilege of being able to travel when others cannot. ‘It is crazy’, he shakes his head. ‘We are the first generation of humans who are able to do that [and] maybe we are also the last.’ This is true in this biggest, geopolitical sense but also at the small-bore level of access and the ability to visit wild places freely and easily. ‘Most of these… really wild places… there [is] no infrastructure… Cresciano it’s a small village, you go there, every weekend there are a lot of cars. The Access Fund in the US is good for that. It would be good to have this type of organisation worldwide… working really for climbers.’
The organisation of climbers is linked to the growth and the professionalisation of climbing, something that Fred has been a part of less than one might expect, given his status in the sport. ‘I made this choice in a way… I need to work. I’m not rich enough to not work. I am not rich at all [but] I think it’s good. This way my feet are still on earth.’ In part this is because, unlike many top climbers, he pushes back against the imperative to promote achievements, waiting months, for example, before announcing that he’d climbed Le Boa, an 8C in Ziegelbrücke. ‘I think it is important to speak about our passion and our activity but I don’t think too much ego in life is really good for your personal balance. I think it’s maybe not too bad [to] work’ he laughs, ‘even if it would be nice to win the lottery.’
He has similarly distanced himself from the trend to capture everything on film, joking that ‘you spend the day with yourself outdoors and after you spend all evening with yourself as well, looking at you.’ I ask about the trend towards demanding footage as proof of new hard ascents. ‘I can understand the point,’ he says, ‘[but] I think climbing is something free and it is still free… trust and confidence is something human. If you go too far into this… what he did, didn’t he do it? You can… I don’t know.’ He trails off.
Maybe he doesn’t need to have an opinion on this. His record speaks for itself. Though the question is relevant because it is clear that pushing the limits is still very much on his mind. He still wants to take it to another level, to climb even harder than he has in the past. Although it seems that the power to climb the next level is less of a problem than finding the place to apply it. ‘The thing is always… the line… where does it start being possible or impossible. We have to find the right line… this part is really hard… But it’s coming of course. It’s coming. It’s coming. No worries,’ he smiles.
Progression itself is constant, even if there is maybe less pressure to perform these days. ‘I am still learning every day out, it’s maybe why it’s not boring yet, that after all these years I’m still discovering something I can improve in climbing. And at the same time I still just enjoy being outside. Not even thinking about the day after, the next project, the next try in the project, just to be able to have a nice day, just trying, just having fun, not especially sending.’
He finishes his beer, pulling on a scarf against the bitter Zurich night. What’s next, I ask. ‘I don’t know,’ he says, ‘I try to find my own inspiration.’