INTERVIEW: Sonnie Trotter on the Totem Pole

Canadian climber Sonnie Trotter recently made the first free one-push ascent of the Ewbank Route on the Totem Pole on the South-East coast of Tasmania. Initially climbed as an aid route by John Ewbank and Allan Keller in 1968, the first free ascent was made by local climbers Doug McConnell and Dean Rollins following a nine-month effort in 2009 -  freeing the individual pitches on separate days and splitting up pitches two and three with a hanging belay.


A photo posted by @sonnietrotter on


Sonnie and partner Will Stanhope succeeded earlier this month in freeing the route in a single push - linking all four pitches together and magnifying the effect of fiddly gear, long runouts and heady exposure.

We asked Sonnie some questions about the route and his climbing of late. Will we be seeing him back in the UK following his trip to sunny Dumbarton in 2008 (UKC News Report)? 

How long were you in Australia for?

Our trip to Tasmania was only 2.5 weeks. Obviously it was too short for such an incredible climbing destination, but that's how long I'm willing to be away from my family at the moment. I have a 2 year old boy and I was home sick after the first week - ha ha!

When and why did freeing the Ewbank Route become an objective?

It's been 20 years since I saw my first photograph of the Totem Pole, and I was just floored by the aesthetics. It has been a dream since then to go and climb it. I always joked that I needed to go and do it before it fell over. As I began doing research about the area and the Totem Pole's classic Free Route, I noticed an article posted on about the Ewbank Route. It was the perfect objective for me to get really excited to return to Australia. Freeing the original aid line from bottom to top on one of the most iconic rock formations in the world was too inviting to pass up.



Describe your time on the climb - it's pretty adventurous even just to get to it?

It's not really so much an adventure to get to it, although if you're not used to being out in the elements I suppose it could be. Basically it's a 2.5 hour hike in. Which is fine if you're just going in for the day because it's a beautiful walk, but it's tougher with a heavy pack, in and out, and back again. I was blown away by the whole experience, when you finally scramble down to the see the Tote at eye level I swear it feels like it's swaying in the wind, like a tall tree. Rapping down everything echoes and every word you try to say either gets carried away with the heavy wind, or drowned out by the crashing waves. There is definitely a feeling of high energy when you're that close to the ocean on a rocky coast line. The climbing was brilliant. tricky arete moves, balancy, insecure, exposed. It's a full package deal. Doug McConnell and Dean Rollins did a terrific job of keeping the aid route intact, so the feeling of commitment and risk is alive and well.   

The route was freed in 2009 by Doug McConnell and Dean Rollins on separate days. What extra challenges did freeing the pitches in one push bring?

I'd say one added challenge was that you just didn't really get a great rest when linking the pitches together, it's decent, but not great. You have your shoes on for the entire 60 meters and you need to keep your toes strong and fresh for the technical cruxes, it's very footwork intensive. Your body is a bit tired and your mind as well because you have to link multiple run-outs back to back which can be a bit taxing mentally. Finally, you have 40 meters of rope below you when doing the final hard sequence. This extra rope might make for a softer fall, but the weight of it adds up as well.



What were your next objectives for this trip?

Nothing really specific. We were very excited to see some of the classic lines and classic areas like Ben Lomond and the Star Factory.  I was impressed with Mount Wellington as well, I loved the alpine feeling, and the detached pillars. I wish I had more time to climb more of the classic lines. Weather was always an issue on this trip. It quickly went from multiple days of rain to a full on heat wave, so conditions were never perfect. But we're happy we made the most of it.

Having focussed primarily on sport climbing previously, what has made you look for more adventurous trad climbs in more recent years?

I've been climbing both sport and trad for as long as I've been climbing (going on 20 years). I sport climbed primarily as a teenager because it was interesting and motivating to move up through the grades. But after I did my first 9a at 23, I got bored with sport climbing and with training. So I moved to more adventurous objectives. This of course did nothing for my fitness, ha ha.  I've been pushing my comfort zone on gear routes since about 2004.  My first hard gear climb was called 'Must'a Been High' in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. Last year I went to Spain with my wife and son and managed to climb my second 9a with Estado Critico. It was incredible to get back to my roots as a sport climber. I suppose today I love them both equally, it's really just what you have access to. I'm currently living in the Canadian Rockies, and we have tons of limestone sport climbing, so I'm leaning towards multi-pitch sport climbs these days because it's what I have in my backyard. But a trip to Tassie was just what I needed to re-connect with spicy gear climbs.



Do you still have some sport climbing goals?

Nothing specific. Although, I would love to try a 9a+ just to see what it feels like. But we don't have any here in Canada yet. Although I'm trying to convince Alex Megos to come and do some of our projects ;) So we'll see. Besides that, I love multi pitch sport and I have a few projects I'm trying to wrap up this summer.

Have you thought about coming back to the UK since your last trip to Scotland, where you climbed Rhapsody E11?

Yes, I think about it all the time. I absolutely love the UK. There's just so much charm to it. The climbing in Wales interests me the most I would say, and since I'm half Irish, I should really do a family trip there, I've seen some incredible pictures. 

Sonnie Trotter Repeats Rhapsody. (c) Hot Aches Productions

What's next for you?

This spring is a bit scattered, a trip to Squamish, Skaha, and Smith Rocks, all within a long day's drive from where I live in Canmore. Then, training again for my summer alpine big wall sport climbs. That's the biggest thing on my mind right now. After that, I'll feel lighter and free again, until something else catches my eye, and then I'm sure I'll be off hunting that down. But I don't know what that is at the moment, I have a lot of dreams and visions running around inside my head, it never stops. One thing I've come to realise is that no matter how long I climb for, and no matter how many climbs I do, there will always be a thousand more climbs I wish I had time to do. I just love it. It's actually a peaceful realisation, knowing that I'll never get around to doing them all. When I was younger, I thought maybe there was a chance.

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Sonnie is sponsored by: Black Diamond, Five Ten and Patagonia

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