What I’ve Learned (full interview) R&I

Greetings from Spain, it’s been a while since I’ve had the time to sit down and write anything substantial.  I’ve been more busy this year than ever before with family life, climbing, hang boards, traveling, training and taking pictures, and whatever spare time I do find, I usually fall asleep, ha ha.  But, today I found a spare moment to post the full Rock and Ice interview by Chris Parker for the feature “What I’ve Learned”.  R&I always edit down their interviews to make them fit nicely into the pages of the magazine, so I’m grateful to have permission to share the uncut version with you on my site.  Hope you enjoy it, and happy climbing.

Rock and Ice Magazine

What I’ve Learned (full interview) with: Sonnie Trotter

Interviewed By: Chris Parker

Standard Background Stuff:

R&I – How old are you?

ST – 34

R&I – Where do you live currently?

ST – Canmore AB, but I have been bouncing back and fourth between Canmore and Squamish for about 15 years.

The Goods:

R&I – What was your childhood like and how did it shape you as a person and climber? What do you feel is the most important lesson you learned from your parents and upbringing?

ST – Freedom.  My parents always let me choose whatever path I wanted in life and whatever that choice was, they supported me wholeheartedly.  I feel that kind of love helped me gain confidence in myself as a younger person.  They raised me and my two older sisters on a 100 acre farm, so I had lots of space to run around and get creative.  I’d say my childhood was pretty amazing actually, lots of horsing around in the fields and forests and getting dirty.  I was a climber from the very beginning, when I was 4 years old, my mom found me perched about 30 feet up in a giant cedar tree on our property, I don’t really remember climbing up or down from there, or why I did it, but I’m sure the view was pretty awesome.

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R&I – How did you begin climbing and what were your early experiences like?

ST – I really began to lose interest in team sports in my early teenage years, and re-discovered the great outdoors through a few school trips.  We did things like camping, canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking and snowboarding, so I was always curious about climbing.  The first rock climb I ever did (with real ropes and a harness) was actually on an artificial wall at a local fair when I was 15 years old.  Joe Rockhead’s Climbing Gym set up a portable climbing wall and named each route after an 8000m peak.  I chose to climb K2 because it had a little roof on it.  With sweaty palms I made it to the top, and was pretty stoked.  Not long after that a new gym opened up in our town and I started going everyday after school. There was just something completely liberating about it.  Soon, I made friends with the older climbers in the gym and began hitching rides with them on weekends to the nearest crags.  Climbing just offered the whole package for me, it was adventurous and I was hooked right away.

R&I – Did you have a teacher/mentor and if so, what did you learn from them?

ST – I feel like I’ve had many mentors in my lifetime.  Right now, I’m learning the most from Tommy Caldwell.  We’ve been friends for well over 10 years, but we’ve been climbing together a lot more in the last two or three and I’m always learning from him.  Not just rope tricks and big wall tactics (because after all, he is the master), but also about how important attitude is towards problem solving and dealing with fear.  He has so much more experience in the mountains than I do, so I’m constantly expanding my comfort zone when we go out together.  He’s one of my all time hero’s.  When times get tough, I often joke, “What Would Tommy Caldwell Do?”

Before that, my biggest learning curve came from the staff at our local climbing gym.  They were all quite a bit older than I was, climbed harder and had traveled a bit, so I followed their lead whenever they let me.  They were my hero’s because they defied what it meant to live normally.  They were often unemployed and drove beater trucks, they taught me how to try hard, how to party, how to trad climb, and how to sign myself out of school early on Fridays so we could get up to Lions Head before dark.  But in a broader sense, they simply taught me how to look at life a little differently.

R&I – What style[s] of climbing were you most interested in and why? How do you think that style has shaped you into the climber you are today?

ST – I first began as a gym rat, so I was obsessed with linking hard moves.  And even though I wanted to (perhaps more than anything else at the time), I never thought I was actually capable of climbing a 5.14.   Then one day, I did one and my whole perspective changed.  After many years of sport climbing, one day near my peak I just got bored with it and even contemplated going back to school.  That’s when I realized I was craving a little more adventure in my climbing and my life.  I took out a bank loan, drove straight to Yosemite and haven’t looked back since.  However, reflecting on it now, I think hard sport climbing taught me how to keep my composure on difficult terrain for a long period of time, so when I finally learned to trust my gear, I had the confidence to really go for it, and try the hardest routes I could find.  Today, I’m still looking for hard natural lines where I can test all of my skills, not just one or two of them.

R&I – You graduated high school and decided to become a pro climber, right? Didn’t you pack up your truck and hit the road (heading to Rifle)? Can you tell me about this time and experience and what you learned from it as you look back?

ST – Becoming a pro climber was not really something I thought could actually happen, I mean, there were no real pro climbers except for Lynn Hill at the time.  Seemed to me like everyone else either had a full time job or they were complete dirt bags.  Chris Sharma was still in high-school so he wasn’t technically a pro climber yet either.  All I knew is that I wanted to climb as hard as I could, for as long as my body would allow me to.  So I chose the dirt bag lifestyle.  I worked as a carpenter until I saved up enough money to live in the back of my pickup truck for a number of years.  In some ways it was the simplest my life has ever been, wake up, eat, climb, and sleep. I’d do this everyday until the weather got bad, then drive to wherever it was good again and do it all over.  I think if I learned anything about that time it’s that at some point you have to live your own life, and do exactly what makes you the most happy, because if you don’t you’ll never fully develop into the person you were meant to be.  I’m so grateful that I had the guts to follow my heart.

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R&I – Have you ever regretted committing to the lifestyle of climbing?

ST – Not one single second have I ever regretted my choice to climb and follow my heart.

R&I – As a young climber, you climbed some of the hardest sport routes in the world, right? Or at least in America if I remember correctly. What was your lifestyle like during this time? Looking back on these years, is there anything you would do differently and what do you think is the most important thing you gained from this time?

ST – I suppose I was one of few people in NA who were climbing 5.14c’s and 5.14d’s at that time, but I still had a very hard time getting sponsorship because I was kind of a nobody from Canada.  I didn’t mind though, it doesn’t take much to be a sport climber if you live frugally. The most important thing I gained from that time would be relationships.  While traveling alone from one State to the next, I met some of the most incredible people, many of whom are still close friends today.  I also met people from the industry, photographers, writers, guides, clothing and gear designers, and those relationships have helped me continue down this chosen path for a lot longer than I first imagined.

R&I – You eventually blew-out your finger on the first ascent of a 5.14d sport route, right? Were you scared you had ended your career? How did you recover and what was your process?

ST – Yes, that did happen, but I wasn’t scared because I had no career really.  I was just a climber funding my own addiction through manual labor jobs.  I knew it would heal if I gave it time and I was completely bored with clipping bolts.  So to help it heal, I finally learned how to hand jam and plug in gear.  My girlfriend at the time and I went to Yosemite, Zion and Indian Creek until my finger was better and I finally understood how to ring lock, the injury was a gift in many ways.

R&I – Did this injury turn out to be transformative? If so, how and why? What did you learn from it?

ST – I learned that it helps to be very focused if you want to get anything accomplished, but it’s also equally as important to have a broader sense of awareness for when things don’t work out as planned.  As climbers, we sometimes get wrapped up in our tiny little micro world of importance. I don’t mean self importance, I mean things like flappers, beta, ethics, tick marks, redpoints, onsights, all these small things that don’t really have any impact on the bigger scale stuff.  So it’s important to have perspective and appreciate that we need both in our life, the narrow and the broad.  That way, when you get a major injury like I did, you don’t just sit around dwelling about it, you get out and make the most of it.  There’s a great big World out there.

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R&I – You eventually switched your focus to traditional climbing. What did this style of climbing do for you that sport climbing didn’t? What have you gained from becoming a trad climber as well?

ST – One thing that’s always been very important to me is to climb on very interesting and aesthetic lines.  My spirit is always lifted when I feel myself being drawn to a beautiful route. I don’t just see a rock anymore – I see a sculpture.  It’s not enough for something to be hard, it has to be inspiring as well.  I found through trad climbing I had opened a door for myself to climb more of those types of lines.  And there was also this adventurous component which I felt had been missing when I only sport climbed.  I like history, and I felt with trad climbing I could have the same adventure as the first ascentionist did, because it’s basically left as pure as the day it was first climbed, unaltered by the human decision making process, you have to discover the route for yourself.  When I realized I could climb at my physical limit on gear, it was like finding climbing all over again.  I was a hungry for more.

R&I – You eventually climbed one of the hardest cracks in the world. Looking back, what was the most valuable lesson you gained from the process of climbing the Cobra Crack?

ST – Cobra Crack taught me to fall in love with process.  I never really expected myself to do the route, so I just enjoyed climbing on it for climbing’s sake.  Some of my favorite climbing days ever were just hiking up to put in a couple of hours of work on it.  It was easy to do because it’s such a peaceful place back there and the climb is one of the most alluring lines I’ve ever seen.  One day it all clicked pretty easily and I knew I was going to send it soon.  Climbing for me has become more of a practice than a sport.  I just want to go out and do some nice moves and if I feel inspired, I go for it.

R&I – I believe you’ve mentioned before that your motivation to climb is not always there. Can you explain? Does this ever worry you because you are a pro? What do you do in your downtime and have you learned any important lessons from these other downtime activities?

ST – I have always enjoyed my downtime.  Rest days, or waking up slowly and soaking up the morning is one of the most precious times of day for me.  It doesn’t mean I’m not motivated to go climbing, but I’m not so compulsive where I need to get outside the minute I wake up every time.  Of course with that being said, some routes require that and as I get older, it is getting easier to motivate for alpine starts to make sure I get my fix.  I am being drawn to bigger routes lately, and that usually demands a longer day and an earlier start.  But it also means I take more rest days because of the exhausting nature of it all.  Rest day’s mean time with family, 3 hour coffee sessions with friends, and having no fixed agenda.

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R&I – You just became a father. What is the most important thing you have already learned from being a father? What is your biggest goal as a father?

ST – The most important thing I have learned about being a father is that climbing isn’t nearly as important as I used to think it was.  I still need climbing, but I am seeing the World in a much broader way now than I used to.  The second most important thing I have learned is that if you want to get anything accomplished, you have to make plans.  As a father I just want to spend as much time as I can with my boy, I want to provide him with a boundless amount of encouragement and I’d like him to spend as much time playing in nature as possible.  I think we are closer to our true self when we are outside.

R&I – Where do you see yourself in 15 years? Still climbing?

ST – I see myself climbing for as long as my body will allow me to.  In fact there are even some major classic routes that I’ve been saving for when I’m older, perhaps to climb with my wife or if my son Tatum enjoys climbing too, I’d be honored to go out and do some of those routes for the first time together.  I just love the way climbing feels and the places it takes me, so at this point I can’t image living without it.

R&I – As a climber, what do you feel is your greatest achievement and why?

ST – My greatest achievement as a climber is the amount of days I’ve spent outside climbing over the last 17 years.  I’m really proud of that fact because it really does take sacrifice and dedication to get out.  The World doesn’t always make it easy to go out and play and I’ve managed to climb between 150 and 250 days per year, every year since I started traveling and climbing rocks.  Whether I could afford it or not, I have always done exactly what I wanted to do, climbing really doesn’t take much money if you’re prepared to live on the cheap, and I have lived a very rich and fulfilling life because of that.

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R&I – From an outsider’s perspective, your life seems charmed. Have you ever had any hardships? If so, what and how did you overcome/deal with them?

ST – I remember being 19 years old and going to the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show for the first time to try and get sponsorship.  I was living in the back of my pick-up truck, and it was January.  I drove up from warm sunny Nevada to Salt Lake City and didn’t know a single person and had zero money for a hotel.  So as usual I crawled into the back of my coffin like cab and slid into my cheap hand-me-down Walmart sleeping bag and fell asleep.  At about 2am, I remember waking up and my eyelids were almost frozen shut from the cold, I was shivering pretty violently and I remember thinking that if I fell back asleep, I would likely freeze to death.  So I jumped into the drivers seat and turned the engine on.  I’m not proud of it, but I fell asleep that night with the car running in the middle of a McDonalds parking lot.  A few hours later I got up and went to the show for my first meeting with Black Diamond.  Sure it sucked a little bit, but there was no other way for me to make it happen.

R&I – Who or what has given you the most inspiration as a climber and person in your life and why/how?

ST – Probably my greatest inspiration to climb has probably come from photography at large.  Seeing images in magazines of people climbing all around the World at the most beautiful areas and greatest mountain ranges have likely had a greater affect on me than just any one person.  Although, if I had to pick someone who inspired the life I live today, I would say for sure the award goes to my mom and dad.  My dad has always been very active, he’s always running multiple times per week and lifting weights, and together they have always supported my hyperactivity and put me into different sports and gymnastic classes from a very young age.  I believe this allowed me to feel confident in my body and when I first found climbing, I enjoyed it right away because of the natural way we move from one hold to the next, it was both challenging and playful and that was how I grew up on the farm.  Life is a trip and it’s been a good ride so far.