This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 208 (March 2013).
I was living out of a storage locker for 80 bucks a month during one of the best Octobers on record in Squamish. It was 2006. I was young, single and unemployed. I had
all the time in the world. And I climbed every single day.
Unlike today, with its bustling scene, not many climbers were living full-time in Squamish that season. Finding a partner was challenging. So I took to
the stone with a different type of practice—not to climb hard, but to climb ropeless. I slowly began soloing the best 5.10s and easy 5.11s of
Each day out, I grew more comfortable being ropeless, higher and higher up. Soon I was onsight soloing three- and four-pitch 5.10s. It was incredibly liberating,
and I felt solid. I never did a move I couldn’t reverse, or hesitated to climb back down if I wasn’t sure. I was the master of my own domain, and for
me, that sense of control was the best part. I often went up to the crux, then back down to the ground, rested, then went back up to try again. It
was never rushed. Up, down, then up again. Some climbs took me four tries over a couple of hours. I had all day. Slowly I picked through all the classics.
It was one of the most rewarding and vitalizing months of climbing in my life.
It’s a finger-size laser-cut fissure ripping out of the ground, soaring like a lightning bolt, splitting the world in two perfect halves. It’s one
of those lines that must be climbed.
Located at the base of the Grand Wall on the Stawamus Chief, Exasperator (5.10c)
is known by most climbers around the world. You just feel uplifted when you first see this aesthetic finger-size laser-cut fissure ripping out of the
ground, soaring like a lightning bolt, splitting the world in two perfect halves. It’s one of those lines that must be climbed.
I had soloed the first half (5.10a) of this two-pitch route many times, but as the inevitable end of the season approached, I decided I better tick the
crux second pitch before the November rains began. The first pitch is a 75-foot splitter, which leads to a midway anchor. From here you are granted
access to 65 feet of the best 5.10c finger jamming in the world.
A brisk wind swept through the deserted parking lot as I rummaged around for my shoes, chalkbag and lucky trucker hat. I locked the doors to my van, and
turned to look up at the walls of the massive Stawamus Chief. It was as empty as the parking lot. As a bum, I figured the best days to free solo were
when everyone else was at work, from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. On a Wednesday afternoon, I started up Exasperator. Everything felt perfect,
the friction impeccable, the air light and crisp, and the leaves yellow and red. It was the kind of day we live for as climbers.
As I started jamming up, my fingertips dropped perfectly into each lock; my footwork was sound. I was floating in a whimsical bubble. Calm and relaxed.
Before I knew it, I was only a few feet from the final anchor when I stopped to chalk up and take in a long, peaceful breath. All of a sudden, my utopian
bubble burst when I heard the unmistakable sound of something bulleting toward me.
The rock was about the size of a cell phone, and it impacted the wall right at eye level, no less than an arm’s length to my right, and ricocheted, grazing
my leg. I felt the wind as the rock whipped past me and saw smoke coming from the bright white scar where it had struck the dark granite. Over 100
feet up, I suddenly felt like I was choking on my heart.
Instantly, I changed from invincible to vulnerable. I began descending quickly, not even making a decision, but climbing down automatically. As I moved
lower, I looked up to see if I could locate where the rock had fallen from, and whether or not I could expect any more, not that it would matter; there
was nowhere to hide. My mind played through the various scenarios. If that rock hit my hand, shoulder, or the top of my head, I’d have been a goner.
It occurred to me at that moment that I didn’t have as much control as I thought I did, that there are always unpredictable factors. Luckily, it had
been nothing more than a near miss. Except for a sudden fear of falling objects, and a strong reality check, I was perfectly fine.
I took nearly a year off from free soloing after that. I also never climbed Exasperator again without a rope or helmet. To say that the best 5.10
I’ve ever climbed nearly killed me would seem overly dramatic. So instead I’ll just say that when that rock brushed my leg, I learned everything and
nothing about climbing safely.
Squamish, British Columbia, features some of the best roadside granite cragging in North America. With a multitude of routes from one to 15 pitches long,
not to mention fantastic bouldering and sport climbing, Squamish has it all. The Chief is the giant dome that you can’t miss, and is home to such amazing
climbs as the Grand Wall (5.11a AO). Exasperator is located on the base of the Grand Wall area, just right of the Peasant’s Route dihedral.
Spring can be perfect but rainy, summers can be hot, and fall is perfect, when it’s not raining.
Exasperator can be climbed in two pitches, or one very long 45-meter pitch. First pitch is 5.10a; and the 5.10c crux of the second pitch comes
right after the anchor. If you link the pitches, you can lower on a single 60-meter rope by stopping at the midway anchor, pulling your rope and rappelling
again to the ground.
Double rack of nuts, and many small cams to tight hands. Draws and slings.
About the Climber
Sonnie Trotter, 33, is one of North America’s most beloved climbers, with an infectious stoke. Trotter began climbing at 16, became the first Canadian
to climb 5.14c, and was soon establishing 5.14d’s. He has been a major force on the Squamish scene, with his first ascent of Cobra Crack (5.14),
and his and Matt Segal’s 12-hour all-free link-up of The Shadow (5.13b), Grand Wall (5.13b) and the Black Dyke (5.13b) on
the Chief. He lives in Canmore, Alberta, with his wife, Lydia Zamorano, and frequently blogs about his adventures on www.sonnietrotter.com.