Back To Experience

Sonnie Trotter: The Prow Wall

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Black Diamond Ambassador Sonnie Trotter’s climbing career is full of impressive first free ascents throughout his homeland of Canada. Earlier this year, he freed one of his proudest: The Prow Wall, a 200-meter shield of smooth granite on Squamish’s Stawamus Chief. The story behind the eventual free ascent was 20 years in the making and here, Sonnie shares the moments and people that were part of the experience.

Last try of the day, last day of the year, last layer of skin! How many times have we heard the story? It’s “almost” cliché, but it’s not, because if there was no success on those last-of-the-lasts, there wouldn’t be a story—there would only be another failed attempt, which would disappear into the blackness of thousands of other failed attempts. Still, it’s one of my all time favorite stories to hear, and, because it doesn’t happen everyday, it remains enchanting, special and exciting.

Climbing is full of these stories, and I eat them up. And once in a blue moon (maybe every other year, if I’m lucky) it even happens to me. This is the story of how I climbed The Prow Wall.


All images: Rich Wheater

***

Five years before, my good friend Jesse Brown raised another glass of dark red wine to his lips and looked at me with smiling eyes. I knew he was serious when he said we’d go up there together, up to the last unclimbed headwall on the Stawamus Chief. As a young, ambitious and curious climber I had been staring at that wall for years, wondering what was up there and why it hadn’t been climbed. The Prow Wall was one of the cleanest faces in the Squamish valley: over 200 meters without a major ledge or a forest of trees, a clean sweeping face high above the cold waters of the Howe Sound. And Jesse knew all about it, after all, he bolted most of it.

We made plans that night at his house in the Smoke Bluffs to go up there together, from the ground up and see what would happen. He suspected the crux pitch may go free at 5.13b/c, but since a hold broke, it was hard to tell. He and a friend had spent years rappelling, cleaning, scouting and bolting a way through the wall, they would have done it too had it been just a smidge easier, or had his partner not passed away. Jesse fell in love, had two daughters, and never could find the time to rekindle his relationship with the line.

We started early, hiked through the humid forest and on up to the windy ridge of the Squamish Buttress. We made good time. Feeling fit, strong and optimistic. I led every pitch, onsighting most of them, but got completely shut down by a dark water streak, a wave-like feature, scooping up from blank-looking slab to barely overhanging and back to slab again. The holds were there, I could see them and touch them, and it really didn’t seem like it should be so hard. Time and time I fell off. Beat down. I wore my tips to pink and wondered if we would have to rappel since I couldn’t get to the next bolt.

Frustrated, I created a loop of slings and stepped into the bolt, standing up ever so gently. Using every inch of my six-foot frame, I just barely managed to latch the bolt above. I placed my hand on the slab searching for a micro edge, something to give me hope that the pitch would go free. And I found it. Sadly, I had nothing left and we moved on before I could do each of the moves. We hooped and hollered all the way to the summit, and topped out in the heat of the afternoon sun. Two friends, with eight pitches of perfect rock below us and the sun on our faces—it was a good day. We walked off the backside and—as I do with most unfinished climbs—vowed to return.


***

Five years later, I got my chance. With a heavy traveling schedule, some early spring coastal rain, and a two-year-old toddler on our hands, I decided to hike up by myself and inspect the line, it was easier than trying to make plans with a fellow climber. I suppose I wanted to make sure the holds I had imagined were still there. I rappelled in with high hopes.

After five days of cleaning, adjusting bolt placements, moving anchors and working the moves, I felt ready for my second ground-up attempt. Although I was never able to link the crux section alone on my soloist, I was able to do every move fairly consistently. It seemed like a series of V5, V6, V7 and V8 boulder problems. Nothing too desperate—but desperate enough that it was far from a sure thing.

On the morning of the big day, I received a text from my partner, Jeremy. He had a hard night with his daughter and both he and his wife were exhausted. He just couldn’t make it happen. Being a father myself, I completely understood the situation and I began texting around looking for a backup. I was desperate. It was 7:00 am. I threw my head back down on the pillow and waited.

Ding. A moment later my phone lit up. It was none other than Tom Wright, one of BC’s finest British imports. Tom was just back from a trip to Yosemite, a die-hard climber, and keen as anyone I’ve ever met. He has big plans and projects of his own, but is willing to get out with mostly anyone, anytime, and he became my saviour of the day. You see, this was literally my last day in Squamish—family and work commitments would have us back at home in Canmore and tied up for months. The temps were warming up, too. Even if I could stay another week, there’s no telling what the weather might do. I kissed my wife and boy goodbye and with coffee in hand, headed for the big cliff.

We met in the parking lot, shook hands, and while catching up we strapped harnesses to our hips, tied ropes over our shoulders and clipped water bottles to our gear loops.

It was game time.

Suddenly less than three hours into the day I found myself hanging from the rope on the crux moves of the crux pitch. It’s not hard to get up there, 5.10, 5.10, 5.12. But this pitch was nasty.

“I’m not sure what happened,” I said to Tom as he lowered me to the belay. “I think my foot slipped off.”

“No worries mate, you got this,” he replied. “Looks vicious!”

“It’s not that bad,” I said clipping into the anchor and untying my knot. “It’s subtle. Delicately powerful, you know?”

But in my head I knew I had to take it more seriously. I had to tap into a level of strength and focus I usually reserve for these exact types of moments in my life. I knew I could do it, and I knew I had only one more chance before the sun would hit the wall. When that happens, the friction would vanish, and the tiny, slippery holds would get sweaty under my tips.

I tightened my shoes, and went up again, breathing hard, trying to let out my redpoint jitters. I was going to give this sequence everything I had. Calm and collected, I moved into the boulder problem, chalking, breathing, executing. I reached for the first bad hold and was suddenly airborne again. A broken hold had sent me flying. A second failed attempt.

This was no laughing matter anymore. The sun was creeping across the wall and my skin was worn from the heat already. I had to act fast. Without removing my shoes, I took 10 deep breaths and climbed back up to a no-hands rest. I leaned my head against the wall and with eyes closed I went through the sequence one more time, visualizing myself sticking every move perfectly. There wouldn’t be time to fail again.


As I cast off across the coal-black slab, I felt the wind pick up—it was warm air, but the dryness helped my thinning skin dig deep into each crystal of coastal granite. I instantly transformed into sending mode, a place of existence that I can rarely tap into unless I am under a fairly decent amount of pressure and when there’s a climb that needs to get done… that usually does it for me.

I screamed my way to my high point, over-gripping each hold, promising myself that if I could just get onto the slab everything would be fine. I powered my way over the lip, and literally screamed as loud as I could while dancing across the slab moves above to better holds, I wasn’t about to blow it at the end, but surely could have. My fingers were numb and I shook with adrenaline as I tiptoed to the security of better holds.

I suspect the problem goes at V10 or V11 and isn’t really over until you reach the source of the water streak about 15 feet higher. I kept it together and wasn’t about to take this opportunity lightly. It’s been years in the making, days of work, and a miracle partner to get me where I was. I wasn’t gonna fuck it all up with a single distracting thought. My breath and desire carried me to the anchor. It was a good fight.

After that, it was just another 4 pitches (up to 5.13a) to the top. We climbed well, efficiently, and Tom proved to be one of the most relaxed and encouraging partners I could have ever asked for. For 20 years this line had been coined the Prow Wall Project. So I kept the name the same, and called it simply, The Prow Wall. Eight pitches. 5.14a. Not until it gets repeated will we have a better understanding of the grade overall. Slabs are tricky; they can feel worlds apart from one climber to the next. But it’s there now, it’s done, and it’s a decent start.

One thing about bringing these types of lines into reality and hopefully onto people’s “to do” list, is that I’ll always remember the struggle. The process is what I love, not necessarily the send. For me, it’s about exploring, working, sharing, giving, and climbing. It’s the complete package and I’m so honored to have had this opportunity to experience all of these things through this big wall, high in the sky. Routes like this don’t come along everyday, regardless of the grade.

I’ve been climbing for more than 20 years, and when I look up at Stawamus Chief in another 20 years, I’ll recall the amazing times I had with my friends, and I suspect I’ll still feel a hint of pride in the work I put in to make it all happen.

—Sonnie Trotter


Comments