Definitely dirtbag and sure-as-heck hair-raising, rock climbing is not a sport for the weak. What is it that moves these athletes of ascent to their happy places? Canmore climber Sonnie Trotter helps us understand how he went from the flatlands of Ontario to becoming Canada’s greatest rock climber. By Jayme Moye.
Sonnie Trotter, 38, Canmore, Alberta
Canada’s top rock climber, Sonnie Trotter started out in the flatlands of Ontario. His first official climb, at age 15, was on an artificial rock wall at a summer festival in Toronto. Shortly after, one of Canada’s first rock-climbing gyms opened a 10-minute bike ride from his home. A naturally athletic kid who played hockey, soccer and did gymnastics, Trotter found climbing intriguing. So much so that his mom finally bought him a pass to the gym. On weekends, Trotter and his new climbing friends made the three-hour drive to Lion’s Head, where they camped out and climbed the town’s eponymous limestone crag, the best in Ontario.
“I was lucky to have some slightly older mentors, people from the gym who took me under their wing and showed me this alternative way of living your life,” he recalls. “Other than just going to parties on Friday night with your teenage friends and smoking pot and getting drunk.”
After high school graduation, Trotter drove to Colorado, to a popular sport-climbing area known as Rifle, home to the hardest routes he’d ever seen. There, he surprised everyone, including himself, by climbing four routes rated 5.14. He was 17 years old. “That trip was eye-opening for me,” Trotter says. “Not only to the lifestyle—that there were people out there so dedicated to rock climbing that they were living in their cars—but to what I might be capable of.”
The trip gave Trotter the confidence to try climbing full-time. He entered the competition circuit, becoming the first Canadian to win a US national climbing competition. In the outdoors, he progressed to climbing some of the hardest-rated sport climbs in the world, at 5.14c and 5.14d. “When I’m up there swinging, or when I’m sticking a hard move, there’s a sensation I get of flow,” he says. “I don’t know the science behind it. I just know that when I climb, it surges through me, and it’s joyful, and nothing else makes me feel that way.”
Trotter moved to Squamish, where he mastered traditional, or “trad” climbing, which differs from sport in that climbers must place all the gear required to protect them in case of a fall, and remove it when they’re done. In that arena, he is perhaps most well-known for making the first free ascent of Squamish’s 37-metre Cobra Crack, widely regarded as the hardest pure crack climb in the world, in 2006. Cobra has been repeated just ten times since (including Will Stanhope in 2009). Some of the routes that Trotter established in Canada and Europe have never been repeated.
When asked to name the feat in climbing that he’s most proud of, Trotter doesn’t have a specific project. Rather, it’s the fact that he stuck with doing the one thing he truly loves at a time when being a professional climber in Canada wasn’t even a thing. “I still don’t have much money,” he says. “But that’s not the point for me. It never was. I wake up happy every single day.”