Sonnie Trotter recounts how he and some close friends established The Squamish Buttress, North Face Variation, 5.9 (AKA – The Squamish Butt-Face) – the easiest route to the top of the Chief.
Sonnie Trotter taking a five-minute rest after digging out the scoop pitch.
It was an overcast day in early April with a spring chill in the air – perfect for a long route if you can muster the energy. My girlfriend Lydia was up for climbing the Chief, but we didn’t have time for Angels Crest 5.10b or The Ultimate Everything 5.10b, so we opted for the classic Squamish Buttress 5.10c. We figured we could do it fast enough by now. After checking the spotty forecast, we soloed up Banana Peel 5.8 into Boomstick Crack 5.6 and then worked our way through the Magical Forest. By the time we got to the first 5.9 pitch, the sky had started spitting and the wind had picked up, knocking chalk from our bags and whipping it across the South Gully. We pulled on our hats and hoped things wouldn’t get too wet. When we got to the 5.10c crux, we were both so cold and unmotivated that rappelling seemed like a better option. Down we went.
One month before this mission, I was up on the Prow Wall working on one of my other projects and I kept looking back across at the Squamish Buttress thinking how cool it would be to trend left to the obvious ledge system and scramble to the top – it would make for an awesome escape route. Not many days after this realization, I ran into Jamie Selda, a mellow yet highly motivated guide living in Squamish. He told me he saw the same line and thought the only way to connect the two would be to link the dyke feature into the ledges.
As Lydia and I worked our way down the route, we ended up at the diagonally leaning dyke. It was on the North Face of the South Gully so we were sheltered from the biting cold. I looked around for a way to link the ledge to other dyke, but there were no visible holds. Instead, there was a bleak looking seam 20 feet to the left. So, with great scepticism, I uncoiled the rope and began the journey up. Flinging mud from the crack as I climbed, I could barely get any gear and my feet skated on the wet moss. I began wondering if this was a good idea. But before I could answer my thoughts, I was above my last cam and lunging for a ledge. I stuck it. With moss squishing between my fingers, I mantled up while fighting stubborn bushes pressing into my face trying to throw me off balance. I quickly built a belay and Lydia came up with a smile on her face, which indicated to me it was safe to continue.
Happily, I flipped over the rope and took off on a ledge smothered in bushes, branches and carpets of moss. It was probably the most fun I had had all day and the possibility that we might get stuck in the gully and have to rappel made the situation especially exciting. Even more thrilling was the idea that we might actually get to the top. Almost uncontrollably, a war whoop leapt from my lungs. I scampered up a curving offwidth with my back to the wall, smearing my feet up the grimy wet ramp and laybacking the edge. The climbing was surprisingly good. I found another belay and brought up Lydia. Again, she was all smiles and rosy cheeks. Our noses were running and our ears were red, but we were having a rare adventure in our own back yard. From here, big ledges zig-zagged upwards with nothing much harder than 5.6 and soon we found ourselves on top. We were shocked.
While hiking down that evening, I swore I’d go back to finish cleaning the route. The climbing was so much fun that I wanted to share it. Knowing that there was a 5.9 solution to the summit of the Chief was too difficult for me to ignore. I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to rocks and I wouldn’t let this line go until it was done.
Sonnie and Ben at the start of day 1, self portraits on the first summit, looking fresh and ready to rock.
Three months after our first ascent, I woke up with an aching finger injury. Knowing I needed rest and could not climb at my limit for at least a couple of weeks, I became fixated on the idea of going back to clean the new route that Lydia and I had completed earlier this year – even if it meant doing the work alone. Luckily, the next day Ben Moon arrived in Squamish. He was here for a week and had nothing to do. Imagine that: a man without a plan. I now see his arrival as a serendipitous. If he had not arrived with his enthusiasm and strong back, this climb might still be covered in mud. There’s little chance anyone could move that much dirt by themselves. Without Ben, I would surely have broken down on the second or third day, psychologically crippled and crying into my muddy hands.
Trotter, on the second ascent of the route, brought along a scrub brush as well as Ben Moon to show him the goods.
With some apprehension, I took him up the climb. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was thinking he might hate it. Past the first crux, with a twig in his hair and moss stuck to his ear, he pulled back a patch of soil to reveal a beaming hunk of perfect white granite. His eyes lit up and he recognized this was worth the trouble. I still don’t fully know why Ben chose to get involved. He had no ulterior motive and it’s not like he was going to guide the route. I guess he did it because he felt it was the right thing to do. I can’t thank him enough for the motivating company, the laughs and the dried mango with Red Bulls.
As for me, I’m not just a climber. It’s everything I do. It’s what I love and how I make my living. It’s all connected. So when people ask me why, I tell them it’s because I wanted to give something back to Squamish because it has given me so much over the last 10 years. I wanted to get my hands dirty and create something out of nothing. I wanted to expose a climb for the first-time 5.9 leaders, followers, the soloists, the guides – everyone. The plan was to reduce traffic jams and create an alternative exit for those who might be intimidated by the old 5.10c finish. Besides, how long could it take? Two days at the most? No big deal.
Ben Moon pauses with a bit of humour for a picture with the tools of the trade.
Each morning we walked up the back side to the summit carrying more gear. Ropes, gardening equipment, drills, bolts, tarps – it seemed like it would never end. At night, after getting back to the house, my knees would swell up like balloons. Climbing my stairs to have a shower hurt and every night Ben and I would promise to take a rest day. But by 10 a.m. each morning, we’d be on our way back up to the Chief.
The work was tedious, as any new route developer will tell you. Sometimes it consisted of shifting boulders or removing a 20-foot long root system. At other times, we were on our hands and knees with a toothbrush, scrubbing the stubborn lichen from the rock. I can understand why other climbers wonder why we invested so much time and effort. But we did have fun – level-2 style. For whatever reason, this climb was more gratifying than most routes I can recall in 15 years of climbing.
Ben used a tarp to protect finished areas and move more dirt per square foot.
At the end of our fifth straight day, after roughly 40 hours of effort, Ben looked at me with a broom in his hand, his eyes glazed. He had a grin on his face as he said, “We’re done dude.”
I agreed. We climbed out and pulled our ropes. We felt a bit silly walking back down the trail with all or our gear and tools. A hiker we encountered on the way down asked us if we were doing any secret planting.
After a much needed rest day, we rounded up some friends to climb the route with us for the first time. It was going to be a group free-solo mostly because Ben and I hadn’t seen anybody all week and partly because we wanted to share the fun. I could not think of a better way to wrap up the entire experience than by climbing the route sans-rope with some of the best people I know.
Tim Emmett climbs up the layback seam following Alex Honnold and Mason Earle, who is at the 5.9 crux.
Meeting in the parking lot at 7 p.m., we had a few beers, some laughs, selected our shoes, grabbed a few more drinks and headed for the base of the Squamish Buttress via the North Face Variation. The sun was slowly setting behind the Coast Mountains and as the shadow crept up on our heels, we climbed higher up the rock – all eight of us. Occasionally pausing for a drink, or a breather, we practically climbed at a running pace. Watching three of my friends on the crux section all at once was comical, but knowing that they were having fun was rewarding. The orange rays of the sun met up with us again on the summit. We stood barefoot, with nothing but blue sky over our heads, drinking cold beers. The fact that we had just scrambled up 1,200 feet of 5.9 in an hour was completely liberating.
Trotter takes a break after cleaning the sidewalk ledge.
It is said that all acts are self-serving; even the act of giving, because of the joy the giver receives. At the start of it all, I thought Ben and I did the work for the community, but being up there that final evening, in the moment, totally satisfied and content, I realized we might have just done it for ourselves. There was no more work to be done.
Sonnie Trotter started climbing in Southern Ontario, now lives in Squamish and is one of Canada’s most accomplished rock climbers.