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Once Upon a Climb: Sonnie Trotter's First Ascent of The Path

The Path toward enlightened cragging

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Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (OK, Alberta, Canada), a young man stumbled upon an unclimbed wall in a mountain forest. Dotted by 12 silver bolts, it looked like a fine bit of rock scaling, and so with great curiosity, the lad scrambled around and rappelled down.

The Thin Green Line

What he found was an aesthetic path of cracks, slots, edges, and bumps. He grinned ear to ear, for this was no ordinary climb—oh, no—this was a rare synthesis of natural protection and intricate movement. So the boy removed the shiny studs, knowing he could climb the face without them. After many days, this fellow free-climbed to the top on removable protection; his mother wept with joy, and his father poured himself a drink. Everywhere, enthusiasts cheered, cynics jeered, photographers gathered, and journalists scribbled. The climb was a gear-protected 5.14, a beast of a different color in a land where most 5.14s have bolts.

Some days later, this fellow met an enchanting young woman in the forest. She raised her brow and asked why the bolts had to come down. “Must they fall for you to prove your worth?” she queried.

“No,” he said. “But my heart told me this line is so magnificent it merited an unadulterated attempt.”

“But by removing its safety hangers, you’ve made it unattainable,” she retorted.” I think, because it is so beautiful, it should be safe and accessible for all.”

“Au contraire, mademoiselle,”said the lad.”It is safe and accessible to anyone who puts in the effort. Are you suggesting that every climb be developed for every person to be presented on a silver platter?”

The question lingered in the crisp Alberta air:Should every climb be developed for every person to be presented on a silver platter?

Replied the lass, “Well, yes, I think a silver platter sounds very nice don’t you?””

If You Build It, They Will Come

The year was 2007, and the young lad was me: I’d de-bolted a climb I later named The Path (5.14a/b R). I thought it offered a terrific natural test, and I wanted to rise to the challenge without pulling the climb down to the convenience of a drill. In a subtle way, The Path was also an attempt to limit further crowding at Lake Louise to reduce impact on the forest and the stone.

Lake Louise has been a top Canadian cragging venue since the late 1970s. Many routes were originally established on natural gear, though by the late 1990s, most popular climbs had been retrobolted. Today international crowds flock to this amazing quartzite sport destination not just for its quality rock but also for the jagged peaks that tower above and the glacier-fed emerald lake. Typically, more people equals more eco-abuse. So I again raise the question, Should every climb be developed for every person? Let’s examine this.

What if The Path had an artery of closely spaced bolts, so any gym rat could have a shot—without dedication or consequence, or even wonder or mystery? Would more people try it? (Yes.) And how would that affect the approach, cliff-base erosion, noise pollution, rock texture, and route’s allure? Would The Path maintain its majesty or become just another greased-up 5.14?

Let’s go deeper: to reach the Wicked Gravity Wall, home to The Path and many other five-star climbs, you walk 30 minutes. Now, if all climbs were for all people, shouldn’t we build a parking lot at the wall, so even those with feeble hearts could approach? Let’s also pave the crag base for those with floppy ankles. And perhaps Starbucks would welcome the business opportunity, too. How would all that affect our natural experience?

Maybe these examples go too far you could easily argue that the Lake’s an established area, so what’s another bolted climb? But ideals matter. These examples demonstrate how development can escalate. Being green is a thin line. So who draws it?

We do: you and me—climbers.

Establishing new rock climbs in any style has always been one of our greatest pleasures, even an addiction, but who hasn’t been overjoyed to discover a new cliff or boulder or line? These tiny moments keep us feeling alive. But bliss has its repercussions, and what some call advancement, others call annihilation. Here’s what development has looked like:

Should every clean be developed for every person to be presented on a silver platter?

We find a proto-crag, load up one or two people, burn fuel for 20 minutes, two hours, whatever, and trim tree branches, hack trails, and drill holes. We write guidebooks, and then we bring our dogs and our friends, and we lay down rope tarps. We piss, we shit, and we trample, and our plastic wrappers blow away. We heap so much abuse on these special places we supposedly love. We’re all to blame I’m simply stating how it is. Without action, our impact will worsen.

These days, a new gym seems to open every 10 minutes across North America. Which means more people, more impact, and more urbanites with Dasani water bottles and Bosch Power Drills. It’s a fact: climbing is growing. But with growth must come responsibility, including environmental education. I, too, love a good gym and I do want others to experience the joy of their first bloody flapper, but there’s a dark side, and its name is progress. Which brings me to my next point: Edward Abbey.

Edward Abbey (1927-1989)

Abbey worked as a ranger during the 1960s at Utah’s Arches National Park. He wrote the timeless book Desert Solitaire, which detailed his love for Arches’ expansiveness and the agony of watching Industrial Tourism f— it all up. What once had been an idyll became a paved highway through the park so the lassitudinous could see this sacred space without leaving their mechanized wheelchairs. It sickened Abbey. Sure, he wanted people to enjoy the area, but why not let them walk a few miles? Or ride bicycles? Was that so hard? (Apparently, yes, because revenue plummets if people are too inert to show up.)

Mr. Abbey also raised the question of quantity vs. quality why in our society does more traffic equate to greater perceived value? He asked us what accessibility means: Is there any spot on earth that men have not proved accessible by the simplest means—feet and legs and heart?

Some people oppose this mindset, but I can relate to it, and I’m hoping you can, too. We need to maintain an area’s essence. Take K2, the world’s second highest mountain. It’s beautiful, it’s lethal, and it’s demanding. But because it’s difficult, should we fix lines to the summit so everyone can climb it with little perceived risk? Perhaps this mentality stacked the deck against the 11 people who died on K2 in one day in 2008 (see Climbing No. 270). Just because we can fix every rope, pave every road, chop down every shrub, and bolt every blank face, doesn’t mean we should. We all have to tightrope-walk the thin green line.


After 14 years climbing, I’m beginning to feel our notions of accessibility and development are strictly based on convenience. Of course, climbing should be fun, but that doesn’t mean it should always be easy. It seems like the crags closest the road get hurt the most, especially the sport areas.

More climbers are on the way, and we all need to be stewards. Our sport and our crags will only be as healthy as we want them to be. Happily, I’ve seen amazing changes: outhouses installed at trailheads; more people volunteering for trail days and voicing their concerns; and more of us packing out others trash and sticking to designated trails. I’ve also seen more climbers bringing refillable water bottles, using reusable containers, buying recycled clothing and hybrid cars, and carpooling. It gives a glimmer of hope.

As for my story, removing the bolts on The Path was not reactive but proactive, a way to demonstrate that the easiest way to do something isn’t necessarily the best. The extra effort required to climb the face makes success that much sweeter. But don’t take it from me; take it from the great Edward Abbey. “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view,” he wrote. “May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”

Sonnie Trotter, a frequent contributor to Climbing, is one of North America’’s leading rock climbers.