Interviews Fred Nicole

by Kyle Dunsire © 2000

This Autumn saw the arrival in Australia of one of the worlds strongest climbers, Fred Nicole from Switzerland. Fred, who is travelling with is girlfriend Mary Gabrieli, amazed people with his incredible ability and legendary strength, but impressed many more with his warm nature and his unassuming behavior.

Fred’s climbing credentials are outstanding, having established the world’s first V13 and V14 boulder problems, and his routes Elfe and Bain De Sang (9a/35) confirmed as some of the world’s hardest. While here, he dispensed with all of Australia’s hardest boulder problems, added many new ones, and repeated few hard routes for good measure. Fortunately the only setback in an otherwise perfect trip came in the last week while attempting the extension to Attack Mode, where he succumbed to an embarrassing but serious finger injury by ignoring the ‘Don’t Feed the Wombat’ sign at the Nowra Animal Park.

The following interview was conducted on Fred’s last night in Australia by Kyle Dunsire for the upcoming video EOS II, and though Fred may be embarrassed about his limited English vocabulary, his answers still read well (especially in a French accent).

My God! It’s really personal. I am actually 76 (kilograms).

180 (centimetres).

How many one-arm chin-ups can you do?
What is that! {Laughing} I don’t know. I think today, not any.

Your favourite food is Big Macs?
No, certainly not. This is one of my vices.

Okay, seriously, why did you come to Australia?
For bouldering, for climbing, for travelling. We started a long trip around the world here. We spent 3 months here. It was a really good trip.

What is special about climbing in Australia?
You know climbing everywhere in the world is something different. Here is a different continent, a different geography, a different geology, so it’s a kind of rock you never find in Europe. It is similar in South Africa. I think Australia, for European climbers, is one of the first ‘exotic’ destinations that we speak about, since maybe twenty years now. When I first started climbing I read some articles about Kim Carrigan and some people like that, Wolfgang Güllich and the Arapiles with Punks in the Gym. I met, once, Garth Miller in Europe, and he spoke to me about the ‘new school’ – Nowra etc. And, then I heard about this new boulder area in the Grampians and I read an article in Climb magazine, (sent to him) from Paul Westwood in fact.

So how did you pay for this trip? Sponsors?
Our big trip, yeah, is payed for by Sponsors (One Sport, Prana, Arc’ teryx, and Metolious) but for this trip specially, we were invited by Ben Christian (of Uncarved Block) and Tim O’Neill; otherwise we would not be here. It was for a project of a bouldering/climbing video of Australia. We worked for it, and we hope the result will be great.

Do you ever get mistaken for Bob Dylan?
Some Australians think so. This was the first time in my life.

Which do you prefer, routes or boulders?
I really like to climb. When I started climbing in Switzerland we didn’t really have sport climbs - well bolted and stuff like that. The hardest routes where I was living were maybe 22 or 23, and really badly bolted too. So me and my brother (François), to go farther (progress) we must try new techno-routes, and we improve all our new techniques by bouldering.

For me it is a bit the same in fact, but there is the problem of the exposure. Which is, maybe, more obvious in the reality of bouldering than climbing. But psychologically I think it is harder in routes. At first I was really afraid about space. You know, vertigo… {looks gripped} arghhh. So for me, bouldering is more natural, but I really like climbing too and I continue to practise both when I can. {Pauses} But, I more boulder than I climb.

Then why didn’t you do more routes here (he climbed about 10 routes from 18 to 32)?
There was so much to do bouldering, and my goal in first was to boulder. I was really interested to see all this new stuff in the Grampians. To try all these extremely hard problems, which were established by Klem Loskot - Cave Rave and Ammagamma.

What’s your perfect boulder problem?
I don’t know, every problem is different. I think it’s really hard if you go in life always with an ideal, that you expect always something. I think Ammagamma is a good boulder problem. It is maybe not the best one that I know, but I like it; the line is great, and the style of climbing is great. That’s a nice problem.

We have seen you flash V10’s and V11’s. Do you still fall off V7’s?
Yeah, I do. I do. {Laughs}

Why do you think you can climb V14?
It’s just because for fifteen years I’ve tried always my hardest. Before it wasn’t that hard, but for me (I tried) as hard as the stuff I try today, maybe harder. I really like this idea to push your limit. But not just pushing your limit, but to understand the rock, the way you can work with your body. Climbing is extremely interesting; there is so much factor. It’s a beautiful activity. I really like it.

It’s an activity that has a planet scale. The rock can be different everywhere. This is what makes it really wonderful.

You climbed your first V14 boulder (not traverse) 4 years ago. Will we see V15 soon?
My first V14 was Joyeux Leon in ’92, but it’s a traverse. My first V14 boulder, that was the old version of Radja, was in ‘96. We will see a V15? I think so, yeah. Certainly.

Who’s going to do the first V15?
I really don’t know.

We have seen you a little bit hesitant to comment on some of the grades here. Why is that?
Because grades… {sighs}. It’s complex. It’s complex. If every climber was able to take a grade as just simple information and to command them easily without emotional attachment, then I think we could easily say a grade. But actually I think there is so much small war between climbers. It’s so important to some people to say, "Ok, your grade is like that. But what I did in my boulder or climbing area is harder."

Sometimes it is hard to comment on a grade, because something might fit you well, and you can climb it easily. But sometimes, like you said before, I can fall on V7 yeah, and I can find a V7 really hard. If you can climb V14 you can still have more problem with a V10 than a V14 if it is not your style.

Are you disappointed that you didn’t find any harder problems here?
There is in fact the hardest in Australia, Eve Rêve, that I did. I am really happy with what I established until now in Australia. It was a great time for me that I could open/introduce and repeat so many good problems in so many styles. Really, there are some V10’s and V11’s that give me such a good impression, perhaps better than the V14s.

Is it hard to find projects that are on the limit of what you can do, but still possible?
Oh yeah, that’s always really hard. This is why we practice climbing everywhere in the world, and not just on one cliff or in one bouldering area. You always try to find some new stuff, new problems, to open new dimensions.

What do you think of Australian climbers?
They are like all other climbers, there are some nice people {laughs}. It is interesting the way they practise climbing. All the different styles, the traditional style of climbing with the gear. It is something typically Australian, just like the carrot {grins}. The Australian climbing is really a world apart, that’s for sure.

Are there any highlights or standout routes?
Yeah, there is a lot in fact. In the Grampians, I really like the Hollow Mountain Cave (Mt. Stapylton) – this big roof. To have done Cave Rave was great, but to do Eve Rêve (the other finish) on my first attempt was a big surprise. It was really beautiful – a great moment.

The Sydney bouldering scene is really great. So much bouldering area in a town - such a big town with some green space in between is unique. I really like Armidale, and all the problems there - that was wonderful. I like everything that I saw in Australia, and I wasn’t frustrated at all. Just about the wombat!

Are you going to come back?
I think so, really. I would like to, I hope.

Thanks Fred?
No worries!