My Perfect Adventure: Sonnie Trotter

One of the best rock climbers in the world tells us how he partially accomplished his childhood goal of becoming a ninja, why he thinks rock climbing is poetic, and where he’d like to build his dream house

    Photo: Courtesy of Sonnie Trotter

He’s earned a reputation for his agility and toughness, but ask Sonnie Trotter what inspires him to climb, and you’ll see that this leading athlete also has the eye of an artist. The Toronto-born rock climber with hundreds of first ascents worldwide once dreamed of being an architect, and although he has mastered dozens of challenging 5.14 sport climbs during his 16-year career, he says he’s most drawn to more traditional routes with visually pleasing lines. He pays attention to design, form, and space, describing his favorite climbs as those “that look more like art sculptures than anything else,” and he enjoys the yoga-like synergy of mind and body during the ascent.

Of course, the record-breaking is pretty enjoyable, too. Among his first ascents, Trotter, 33, can claim one of the world’s hardest crack routes, Cobra Crack (5.14) in British Columbia, along with the Path (5.14 R) and the Shining on Mount Louis (5.13+) in Alberta. Now he has his sights set on free climbing the Nose route on El Capitan in California, which he calls “the world’s most alluring line.”

Here, Trotter tells us how he partially accomplished his childhood goal of becoming a ninja, why he thinks rock climbing is poetic, and where he’d like to build his dream house.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
Honestly, this changes from day to day. Sometimes I'm in the mood for a really scary and exhausting adventure, and other times I just want to chill by the beach with my wife, Lydia. I suppose when I think about it, I've been living the perfect day for about 10 years already. I wake up in a beautiful place, surrounded by beautiful rocks and mountains and rivers and valleys. I enjoy coffee with my loved ones, go outside all day, play, and create. And then I finish the day with a fire, a healthy meal, and a glass of red wine.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Oh, damn, that's a hard question. I think I'd go to Patagonia, Argentina, just to feel those big, beautiful mountains. Big mountains inspire me, and I’ve seen so many pictures of them, and they look like they could have a great impact on a person. I know from experience that mountains like that have to be seen with a naked eye—they have to be felt.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
India. My wife and I went in 2008, staying in the southern half of the country. We traveled around for three months, and I spent six weeks bouldering in a beautiful place called Hampi, while my wife was there to practice yoga. The country is incredibly diverse and colorful and exciting. It's like every single day is a new adventure. No matter where you are or what you're doing, you're bound to discover something new, and sometimes that's exhilarating, and sometimes frightening, but that's the nature of traveling, I suppose.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
It would be Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia Clothing, although truthfully, because of my relationship with the company, I’m one of the lucky ones who has already had lunch with him. He's a very intelligent person, and everything he says just makes sense and seems so simple. I think I'd like for some of that insight on the world to rub off on me. In a way, I guess it already has.

What's something you can't travel without? And why do you need it?
It's very hard to travel without my wife, to be honest. It's hard to fully enjoy the places I go without her these days. But if I had to pick something else, I'd say my climbing shoes, because you just never know when you're going to encounter something that's climbable, and beautiful.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
I like to have an idea of the landscape. The first thing I usually do is go for a long walk or a run in a new area to check out the topography. I like to know where I am in the world, and how to get around on my own. I also think it's a bit of a caveman thing—I'd like to know how to escape if I ever needed to.

What motivates you as a rock climber?
Half of climbing for me is the feeling I get from moving over stone—it's very poetic. When you understand how climbing is supposed to feel, it's like surfing or yoga—it's about flow. The other half is about the natural beauty of the rock itself. I'm attracted to visually aesthetic lines, the kind of climbs that look more like art sculptures than anything else.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
When I was a child I wanted to be a ninja. I grew up on a farm watching all the ninja movies I could get my hands on. I thought being a ninja was a proper career path. Then in high school I wanted to become an architect, because I love design and art and form and function. Thinking about it now, I think being a professional rock climber is half ninja, half architect. However, I still have dreams to build my own home some day.

When and how did you first start rock climbing?
Joe Rockhead's in Toronto hosted an outdoor climbing wall at the local fairgrounds, and because I wasn't a big roller coaster fan, I tried rock climbing. I got to the top of the wall, and I thought it was pretty funny because it was called K2. I loved climbing pretty much right away, so I joined the local gym. I climbed nearly every single day after that, and I suppose the rest is history.

What's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring professional climber?
Believe only in yourself, and don't let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do. Understand that it won't be easy, but earning anything worth feeling proud about never is.

Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
Yvon Chouinard, for sure. And also Bob Bergman, the owner of Joe Rockhead's indoor climbing wall in Toronto, who taught me a lot about living well by example. He probably doesn't know he's had an influence on me, but he has. The facility he built was a vision of the future, and climbers flocked to it. He has a keen eye for design. And as a family man, he still maintains a healthy dose of competitiveness, placing fifth at the Cyclocross Canadian Nationals and winning the Provincal Championships in the 50+ age group. He rocks.

Another role model would be Tommy Caldwell. He's been a huge influence, not just on my own climbing, but on rock climbing as a whole, all around the world. He works really hard and loves climbing more than anyone else I know. I first met him back in 2000, I think, in his homeland of Colorado. I was there to try some famous routes I had read about, and he was a great partner. He had this determined way about him that was pretty inspiring, like he had a sense purpose, and that's infectious.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Not really—it always changes. If I had to pick one, it would be: “Do what you love. Love what you do.”  That seems simple enough for me.

Have you ever made a mistake or experienced a near accident while climbing that made you think twice about going out again?
My friend Steve and I had a very bad accident about 10 years ago in Arizona. Luckily, nothing serious happened to us, and we were both climbing again sooner than we expected. He fell about 80 feet to the ground and I somehow jumped under him to break his fall. We both ended up in the Las Vegas Hospital and I thought this was the end of my climbing life. But I think climbers just always find a way back if they truly love it. You see it every day, people with both minor and major injuries still getting outside and still getting after it and that's just awesome.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I think I'd be a carpenter and/or home builder. I've just always loved the smell, look, and feel of wood and I've always been interested in design and space. I wish I had more time to practice it—I'm really just a 5.9 carpenter with 5.12 dreams. But I'm pretty sure I would always want to live in the mountains, no matter how I made a living.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Free climb the Nose on El Capitan.

Build a house in the mountains.

Raise a family.

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