Fred Nicole: From Top-End Bouldering to the Subtle Art of Shoe Design

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Fred Nicole has been an important figure in bouldering since the 1990s. In 1996, he established the world’s first V14, Radja, and then in 2000, the first V15: Dreamtime. In 2016, at age 46, Nicole put up Chakijana, a V14/15 boulder problem in Rocklands, South Africa. Though he’s stepped out of the climbing spotlight in recent years and has always been a reclusive, enigmatic figure—a soft-spoken “man of the forest”—he’ll have something new to offer the community this fall: climbing shoes.

More than 15 years ago, Nicole began working at Gecko Supply GmbH in Zurich, Switzerland, resoling climbing shoes. Here, he began tinkering with his own shoes, looking for ways to improve them, taking apart the original Five Ten Anasazi Velcro and rebuilding the shoe on his own last. Now, he gets to design his shoes from top to bottom. It’s been an interesting transition: While only Nicole’s personal investment in a boulder problem is at stake with each attempt, a rock shoe will make an impression on thousands of people.

“For me and a boulder problem, it will just be a personal feeling,” Nicole says. “But when you make a climbing shoe, it will be mainly about what others think.”

Living in Zurich, where he’s been for 20-plus years, Nicole does most of his work at Gecko Supply. He talks frequently with designers at Five Ten via Skype, email, and phone, and also travels to Five Ten’s HQ in Redlands, California. Throughout, Nicole has applied the traits that have defined his bouldering career—vision, creativity, refinement, and perseverance.

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Vision

Walking through the woods of Cresciano, Switzlerland, in early 2000, Nicole found what would become Dreamtime. It was on a hillside in an area he hadn’t climbed at before. On a 30-degree overhang, crimps and clean-cut slopers swooped out steel-blue stone. At first, the moves felt improbable, but piece-by-piece they began to come together.

For Nicole, designing a shoe is the personal process of figuring out how to create a seamless union of climber and rock. With his project for Five Ten, he will likely be designing multiple models.

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“I’m not specifically making one type of shoe, because I don’t like the same shoe for every type of climbing,” he said. “Even if I like sensitive shoes, I would like to be able to design an edging shoe that still has that sensitivity. There should be a good interaction between you and the shoe. That’s the point, I guess: to have something working and reacting well with your body.”

Nicole has approached shoe design with the same openness with which he first approaches a boulder problem. After several short trips out to the boulder, Dreamtime was “like a sketch drawing,” he says. He could do some of the moves and had a vague idea of the line, but it would still take many days of effort to tease out the details. “It was hard to read and understand how to use the handholds at first,” he says. “You have to be creative to be able to interpret the rock, and translate it to movement.”

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