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Sonnie Trotter Repeats New Test-Piece and Relives History

The top Canadian climber made a second ascent and saw an old friend at Back of the Lake

Sonnie Trotter, one of Canada’s most accomplished climbers at 40 years old, visited Back of the Lake on the last day of August and made the second ascent of the hardest new route at the crag.

Braden Bester cleaned and bolted The Empyrean this summer and sent it last week. It starts up Turtle Mountain, a 25-metre 5.10, and heads into Venom, a classic 5.11+, for a few bolts before breaking left up a steep coloured wall.

Bester graded the steep 40-plus-metre route 5.13d, a grade that Trotter agreed with after his recent second ascent. Trotter told me it’s like 5.13b/c to a V7/8 dyno-ish move with the right hand into a finger slot. The move is all about precision while managing a deep pump.

While at the crag, Trotter and I ran into Geoff Thornton-Trump, a friend and longtime Canadian Rockies climber, who was climbing with his two sons: Alexis and Leo. They had been climbing since 9 a.m., we arrived at a late-start 3 p.m.

Giving Trotter a catch on The Empyrean  Photo Lorea McFarlen

Trotter and Thornton-Trump reminisced about the good ol’ days in the late 1990s, specifically when they first met. Trotter was 17 in 1997 and was visiting Lake Louise with his parents. He’d seen a photo of a climber on Female Hands 5.12b at Back of the Lake and wanted to climb it.

He walked to the crag to check it out and found a partner-less Thornton-Trump who had a rack and rope. He said to Trotter, “Hey kid, you climb?” Trotter said yes and Thornton-Trump said, “Well go get your gear and let’s climb.”

Trotter ran back to the parking lot and grabbed his harness before running back. He and Thornton-Trump spent the afternoon climbing together. Trotter sent Female Hands.

Trotter and Thornton-Trump at Back of the Lake 23 years after meeting and roping up in the exact spot

After some base-of-the-route storytelling, Trotter roped up for his redpoint burn on The Empyrean. He made quick work of the lower 35 metres and then entered into the first crux, which me pulled through with little difficulty.

Before the upper boulder problem is a good rest where Trotter swapped his hands out to shake blood back into his fingertips. The temps were in the single digits with a frosty breeze coming off Mount Lefroy. The cold conditions made for great friction between Trotter’s rubber and the quartzite.

He then slipped his Patagonia mid-layer off and dropped it to the rock below before starting up the final few metres. I’ve watched Trotter climb a lot and you know when he’s about to drop the hammer, and when the sweater came off it was clear that the hammer had been dropped.

He pulled through the upper roof and made a stab at the finger slot, which he stuck with nearly no dynamic movement in his lower body. He then made the awkward traverse right to the anchor, which Bester bolted after climbing Venom.

Sonnie Trotter on The Empyrean Photo Julia Nowakowski (feature photo)

At 5.13d it’s not the most difficult route at the crag, that honour might go to Trotter’s The Path 5.14R, but it’s one of the longest and most sustained. “I love rock climbing,” Trotter hollered after his send.

He lowered and complimented Bester’s work and first ascent. He told me the bolting was a mix of new and old-school with some spicy runouts between well-bolted cruxes. Read more about the first ascent and watch a video of Bester here.

We packed our bags and walked to the lake to soak up the late summer evening light and quieter-than-most-summer-days trail before walking back to the parking lot. Along the way, Trotter told me that our mutual friend, Nick Rochacewich (who bolted Blue Jeans on Yamnuska), had finally sent The Path. He’d been projecting the trad line for more than five years. It’s his first 5.14. More on that later.

As we neared the Chateau and groups of tourists, I joined in the photo-taking and snapped a few of the last-of-the-season alpine flowers along the shoreline. It won’t be long before the larches turn gold and the snow starts to fall.

Another perfect day at Back of the Lake.

Trotter on The Empyrean Crux