The Apprentice: Ice Climbing with Sonnie Trotter and Barry Blanchard
When life gets hectic, climber Sonnie Trotter gets outside to keep his life in balance. Join Sonnie and Barry Blanchard as they take on a frozen waterfall.
The pump that began deep in my forearm soon creeps past my elbow, up into my biceps, and into the socket of my shoulder. I suddenly realize I should probably let go of my ice tool and allow some fresh blood to circulate into my hands and fingers. During the pause, I glance down beyond my boots at the ice pillar below to see where we came from, out toward the mouth of the canyon to appreciate where we are, and eventually up again toward my belayer, Barry Blanchard, to visualize where we’re heading. I switch hands to regain some feeling.
At first it tingles, then it burns, and finally it warms.
To my left is my good friend and neighbor, Andy Arts. He literally lives right next door. We have been close ever since I moved to Canmore, Alberta, and he’s one of my main climbing partners during the winter months.
“How you boys doing?” Barry hollers down to us with his usual grinning smile.
“Just enjoying the view,” Andy yells back up with another swing of his pick.
Barry is not just a good friend, he’s one of my all-time climbing heroes. I grew up reading about his mountain adventures and ice climbing exploits. Barry’s stories were often my great escape from the drudgery of high school and awkward teenage blues. He’s the climber I grew up wanting to become one day: tough as nails, funny as hell and committed to the core.
Although he’s nearly 20 years my senior, his experience seems like ten times that. I don’t think I know anyone who’s spent more days in the mountains than Barry. Today, he works full-time as a mountain guide and avalanche safety expert. It’s part of his job to make knowledgeable decisions around winter conditions and surrounding snow hazards.
I never feel safer than when I’m roped up with Barry. Of course, he’s joking and laughing the entire way up. He’s also processing the weather, terrain and descent for the way down. Both his humor and his professionalism come naturally to him, and it’s a brilliant combination.
Barry was raised one hour away from the Rocky Mountains, where we all live today. He could see their glowing white tops from his house as a kid. As a beginner, he climbed many of the rock routes nearby, then walls, then mountains, and was soon establishing his own climbs and taking his skills to the greatest ranges in the world. The stories he brought back made it into publications that climbers like me devoured time and time again. Over the years, we’ve developed a valuable friendship; I’ve helped him move and nearly lost his bed frame off my car, and he’s helped me become more knowledgeable in the alpine environment.
Every winter, we try to get out with Andy to climb some ice and we hope to find something new and exciting (for us anyway). It has become a tradition of sorts. Every time, I learn something important, which I try to lock down into the database. I am their apprentice, after all.
As Andy and I climb up to meet Barry, he looks at me and says, “You should have led that one,” and offers me the next pitch. I’m excited to take the lead, my first of its kind. I’ve led thousands of rock routes around the world over the years, established hundreds of first ascents, but this is something very special. My ice climbing mentors handing me the reins and letting me take them to the top for the first time was a rush. I cast off with a decent rack of ice screws and a smile on my face.
I swing my right tool deep into the ice with a confident “thud”. I walk my crampons up and repeat the action with my left hand. Every 10 feet or so I stop to place a screw for protection. I’m feeling the flow and rhythm of the climb, and I can hear the boys down at the belay both cheering me on and heckling me.
It is a perfect day to be out on a frozen waterfall.
Life gets busy. We can all get pretty caught up with paying bills, running errands, raising kids, meeting deadlines, hustling and grinding, but every day outside is a time to pause, a time to clear our minds and focus on the subtle things in life. I know it sounds cliché, but those little things are far more important than we think sometimes, at least they are for me. I get outside to keep my life in balance. I need to sweat and explore, and feel that pump in my arms that makes me feel alive.
There’s an unexplainable magic to being out on a cold, crisp winter’s day, watching the sunrise over the mountains with a warm cup of coffee and laughing with good friends. It’s challenging to stay ahead of the mid-winter elements, but that’s part of what makes it special and unique. And for an apprentice like me, I’m ever grateful for the lessons of winter, hard work and my good friend, Barry.