Swiss Pre­ci­sion In­stru­ment

FRED NI­COLE AP­PLIES HIS KNOWL­EDGE FROM TOP- END BOUL­DER­ING TO THE SUB­TLE ART OF SHOE DE­SIGN

Climbing - - GEAR SHOE DESIGN - BY BREN­DAN BLAN­CHARD | PHOTOS BY CAMERON MAIER

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 20plus 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.

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.

“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.”

Sim­i­larly, piec­ing to­gether a pro­to­type from an idea for the “per­fect shoe” isn’t easy. “I know how a shoe should ide­ally re­act, but it’s not al­ways easy to trans­fer what is more like a feel­ing to an ac­tual shoe,” says Ni­cole.

CRE­ATIV­ITY

Dream­time didn’t strike Ni­cole as an in­cred­i­ble prob­lem be­cause of any one move. In­stead, “the aes­thetic of the line is what struck me,” he says. Though it be­came a new stan­dard for boul­der­ing, he didn’t climb it for the sheer dif­fi­culty. “The rock it­self is some­thing unique. I did it for the pu­rity of the line,” he says.

In the small room of a three-story brick build­ing in Zurich, home to Gecko Sup­ply, Ni­cole wears a mask to pro­tect against the fumes from sanding rub­ber and strong glues. Though the room gets plenty of nat­u­ral light from the sin­gle-pane win­dows, each piece of ma­chin­ery has its own over­head light so Ni­cole can scru­ti­nize the de­tails. Industrial belt san­ders cre­ate the work­shop’s heavy feel, while shelves lined with skin-col­ored foot mod­els (lasts) sit be­low pic­tures of his past as­cents and trav­els. Scraps of rub­ber cover the floor—for a sin­gle shoe model, he might cut five dif­fer­ent types of rub­ber.

Sketches and notes from past at­tempts help him ad­just his work­ing model.

Ni­cole has been spon­sored by Five Ten since 1994. He re­mem­bers quite a few “fa­vorite shoes” he’d love to climb in again, but he doesn’t want to re­hash old clas­sics. “It would be great to find a new way to get that same kind of per­for­mance,” he says.

As you cre­ate a new rock shoe, you face dozens of op­tions at ev­ery turn, each of which can have a pro­found ef­fect on over­all fit and feel. Just chang­ing the rand rub­ber can change the ten­sion you feel when toe­ing onto an edge, even though no part of the rand makes con­tact with the rock. Sim­i­larly, mak­ing a soft mid­sole will al­low you to use the ten­sion through­out the shoe to toe-hook, whereas a stiffer mid­sole will ben­e­fit edg­ing per­for­mance.

On one re­cent model, Ni­cole ex­per­i­mented by adding ex­tra rub­ber to the arch for sup­port. At first, he started with a softer rub­ber made for a more sen­si­tive shoe, but once the shoe had set over sev­eral days, he found that it no longer held ten­sion. And so, it was back to the draw­ing board.

To­day, just over six months into the de­sign process, “I feel more com­fort­able with the cre­ative part of de­sign­ing, but I’m slowly learn­ing to be more me­thod­i­cal and pre- cise,” Ni­cole says. “It’s an em­pir­i­cal method, where you test and ad­just un­til it works.”

To track his progress, Ni­cole keeps a de­tailed note­book to record all the tiny changes and ad­just­ments he’s made to each model. Prior to a shoe’s fi­nal pro­to­type, when it’s ready for test­ing, Ni­cole will com­pile 20 or more pages of draw­ings and notes.

RE­FINE­MENT

While work­ing Dream­time, Ni­cole sur­prised him­self by fig­ur­ing out the ba­sic move­ments over a hand­ful of ses­sions. But, af­ter that, the de­tails be­came im­por­tant. The tiny crimps and slop­ers didn’t give way un­less each move was done just right—late into his first sea­son on Dream­time, he fell close to a dozen times on the fi­nal moves. Sub­tle changes to the start­ing beta—pick­ing the ex­act lo­ca­tion for each foothold and mak­ing mi­cro-ad­just­ments in body po­si­tion—were the only way to avoid fall­ing at the end.

A rock shoe comes to­gether when the de­signer has picked a last, the ma­te­rial for the up­per, the mid­sole, the sole, and the rand rub­ber ( see “8 Steps to a New Rock Shoe”). Each as­pect has an im­por­tant ef­fect on the over­all feel, but that in­te­gral ef­fect might not be ob­vi­ous un­til the shoe is as­sem­bled and tested.

“Once the shoe is built and randed, you do tests with your col­leagues and make changes un­til a few are happy with it. Then, we can start to share them with spon­sored climbers to test and get their feed­back,” Ni­cole says.

For the past two years, Ni­cole has been work­ing closely with Five Ten as a tester. He’s learned firsthand how this process works. If a shoe passes muster, it might con­tinue to­ward pro­duc­tion with only a few tweaks, or it could face a com­plete over­haul and retest­ing. Now that Ni­cole’s on the other side of the fence, he’s found that not ev­ery­thing is as easy as he’d like: “That first feel­ing is gen­er­ally not what the shoe will be in the end,” Ni­cole says.

Though he can’t talk de­tails on mod­els in pro­duc­tion, Ni­cole is an­tic­i­pat­ing the first tests on one of his de­signs. “I am quite happy with what I have right now. It’s some­thing that re­ally fits my foot, but we will have to see with oth­ers,” he says. Ni­cole has been test­ing with fel­low Swiss climbers on the Alps’ lime­stone, gran­ite, and sand­stone. “I try to use them on dif­fer­ent ter­rain, all types of fea­tures and types of rock,” Ni­cole says. But, as he’s said, it can be hard to trans­late that im­pres­sion into a bet­ter shoe. Cou­ple that with dif­fer­ent feet and it be­comes more chal­leng­ing—it isn’t just a mat­ter of mak­ing

a shoe stiff or sen­si­tive, or down­turned or flat, but tai­lor­ing the over­all fit and ten­sion so that the shoe will work in a sim­i­lar fash­ion for many dif­fer­ent climbers.

PER­SE­VER­ANCE

Ni­cole trav­eled to South Africa and Aus­tralia af­ter his first sea­son on Dream­time, which made com­ing back to it in au­tumn 2000 more dif­fi­cult. Some days it was just about show­ing up and try­ing, even if the holds felt slick with Oc­to­ber’s warmth. Though he was into his sec­ond sea­son now and ap­proach­ing 20 days of ef­fort, send­ing wasn’t his only goal; he also wanted to en­joy the process—even if that meant fail­ing on the last moves re­peat­edly. “It can be even more frus­trat­ing to fo­cus on the end goal,” he said. “I tried my best on each at­tempt, but I was not al­ways think­ing about the send.” As Novem­ber brought cooler temps, Ni­cole topped out the block.

While it’s easy to look back on his as­cent of Dream­time, Ni­cole is re­luc­tant to sum up his ex­pe­ri­ence with Five Ten just yet. “Right now, we are re­ally in the process… so it’s hard to talk about it,” he says. “The climb­ing shoe is liv­ing its own story.”

As for the fac­tors within his con­trol, Ni­cole has one les­son he’s been able to ap­ply di­rectly from climb­ing: “It is one of my mis­takes in climb­ing,” he says. “Gen­er­ally, when I do find a way to do a move, I of­ten stick with it. Many things I’ve done have been done later with bet­ter beta, and now I’m a lit­tle more aware of that.” A prime ex­am­ple might be Radja: Other climbers later found a dif­fer­ent—al­most sep­a­rate—line not tried by Ni­cole that dropped the grade to V13. With shoe de­sign, Ni­cole is try­ing not to de­velop tun­nel vision.

“It’s es­pe­cially tough when you imag­ine some­thing be­ing re­ally great and it doesn’t turn out that way at all. Be­ing able to ques­tion your­self over and over is the key,” he says. “I am learn­ing, which is good.”

Much as Ni­cole has pa­tiently spent days and some­times months learn­ing the nu­ances of the world’s hard­est boul­der prob­lems, he has now hap­pily im­mersed him­self in a de­sign ap­pren­tice­ship. “I like it and it’s an in­ter­est­ing process, and it’s a new di­rec­tion in my life as well,” says Ni­cole. “Be­fore, I was just kind of wear­ing a shoe, but now I am look­ing at how to make and test a new shoe to see what is re­ally good or not.”

NI­COLE IN­SPECTS A PRO­TO­TYPE AF­TER PUTTING IT THROUGH THE RAND GRINDER AT FIVE TEN’S HQ IN RED­LANDS, CAL­I­FOR­NIA .

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