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Interview: Trad Crusher Lor Sabourin on Patagonia’s Latest Film, “They/Them.”

Climbing caught up with Sabourin to talk about hard trad, their training, and the challenges they have faced in and out of the climbing community.

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They/Them, which premiered on October 6, is a top-notch climbing film and an intimate piece of portraiture. The film follows Lor Sabourin, the first known non-binary climber to send 5.14 on gear, in their season-long siege of Cousin of Death, a sustained five-pitch 5.13+ gear line in Sedona, Arizona. In between amazing footage of Sabourin working on and ultimately redpointing the route, Sabourin talks about life as a trans climber, their role as a highly visible member of the trans climbing community, their outreach work with queer teens, and their ongoing recovery from an eating and exercise disorder.

Sabourin grew up in Detroit and started climbing in the gym in the early 2000s. “I was just a super stoked little gym rat,” they told Climbing. “Imagine that sidekick kid that basically lives at the gym and just wants to absorb all the things—that was my upbringing in climbing.” They spent a lot of time at the Red River Gorge and the New River Gorge as a teenager, learning to trad climb and ultimately sending several 5.13+ sport routes. Then, after four years in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where they climbed a lot of ice and graduated from Northern Michigan University, Sabourin relocated to the desert Southwest and “just got super stoked on crack climbing.”

When Sabourin and I spoke over Zoom, they were in Moab, where they planned to spend much of the fall. “It’s my type-one fun climbing area. I just love being here,” they said. After putting a lot of hard work into the film, “I carved out some time to do something that just felt really nourishing for my own climbing.”

They/Them was filmed by Blake McCord and Justin Clifton and released by Patagonia Films. You can watch the film here.

Lor Sabourin on The Cousin of Death, Northern Arizona (Photo: Blake McCord c/o Patagonia)

What was it about the sport of climbing that was initially attractive to you? Was it apparent right away that climbing was something you were going to shape your life around?

I think from the beginning, I was really attracted to the challenge of climbing. I was never a very gifted climber. I struggled to climb my first 5.7 and my first 5.8, and I struggled a lot with fear from an early age. So it wasn’t like “Oh my God, Lor is this amazing climber.” But I was getting that satisfaction that we all get when we try something that feels impossible and then all of a sudden it becomes possible—those moments where you work through a challenge and realize that all the effort you put in is allowing you to achieve what you set out to achieve. So I was really attracted to the learning process from the beginning. Also, the climbing community in Detroit is super accepting and welcoming. You see climbers of all levels climbing with all kinds of different people. So I was really welcomed into the community from a young age. I think that was a huge part of why I stuck around.

How has that attraction evolved over the course of your career?

One of the big shifts is where my motivation comes from. In the beginning, when I was like 12, I loved climbing something, sending it, lowering down, and then running to tell one of my friends what I had done. I liked celebrating that with them and feeling loved and accepted by them. Now when I go and pick out a project and send it, my motivation is more directly tied to the learning experience. I’m more internally motivated. But I think that’s just a matter of maturing. As you get older you learn that the real value is in all the things you experienced along the way.

In the film you talk about how you’ve structured your life around food, around training, around goals: what kind of role does all this structure play in your life?

When you’re in recovery from an eating and exercise disorder, the structured component of it is what keeps you sane. Recovering from an eating disorder, in my case, is largely about learning how to get rid of the structure that I wanted, which was very much oriented around minimum food input and maximum energy output, and instead focus on taking care of my body and having fewer rules. I’ve worked a lot with an anti-diet nutritionist, trying to find a way to eat that isn’t so structured, but which still gives me all the things I need in my body. I’m still eating a lot of healthy foods, but I don’t do it in this super scientific way anymore, I don’t count it, I don’t track it. Being able to have more freedom around food has been really healing for me. But as for anyone that’s in ED recovery, it’s a daily practice. There’s always going to be things that scares you, there’s always going to be a desire to control, and you just have to work with that day by day.

It’s the same with exercise. I train quite a bit. I like training almost as much as I like rock climbing. I really enjoy the process. But since I’ve been in recovery, I have just stopped making my own training plans. I always either work with a friend or with a coach, which helps me make sure my training is based around what’s going to get me stronger at climbing, not around doing the maximum amount of activity that I can do.

There’s this moment in They/Them when you talk about some online hate that got stirred up by a Rock and Ice article about your send of East Coast Fist Bump (5.14a, trad). Could you talk a little bit about that experience and how you’ve processed it?

So much of that experience was shaped by the fact that, as a trans person, I felt from a really young age that if people knew about my identity, they would hurt me in some way. To hear that message as a kid, then spend a ton of years unlearning it, then to have people witness your identity and say these terrible things online—that can feel like a confirmation of something you’ve spent years trying to leave behind. And at the same time, though, I know that those are just people on the internet and they’re looking for attention.

 I don’t have a ton to say to internet trolls other than that I hope they get the love and belonging that they need in other ways. The more important group to speak to are the people that read that hate online—who received it and were hurt by it. To them I’d say you should find some way to ground yourself in the people that love you. Personally, I had to remember that those are people in their basement, making hateful messages, and they’re not with me right now; they can’t hurt me right now; and I should refocus on the people around me that keep me safe.

In the film you mention that it can feel strange to serve as a visible representation of a wider community—in your case the non-binary climbing community—and I was wondering if that has changed your own engagement with the sport.

When you know people are watching what you do, there’s a temptation to change what you do. But I try not to be super concerned with trying to represent everyone in the trans community. It’s just not realistic. The best thing I can do for a community that tends to get grouped together as one thing is to promote the idea that everyone in that community has their own identity and we can’t make assumptions about people until we know them.

But I have also realized that it’s important to take care of myself. If I’m visible, then I want the visible representation of someone who’s doing their best to live a life that is fulfilling. I work with a lot of trans youth, and those kids don’t often see representations of people like them who are healthy in middle age and in older adulthood. So I guess I’ve been a little bit more reflective about how I’m taking care of myself and how I advocate for myself, because I know it gives other people the framework to do the same thing.

What do you know now that you wish you could have told your 15-year-old self? Do you have any advice for younger queer or non-binary climbers you wish you could pass on?

I would tell myself that I didn’t need to have things all squared away. I’d tell myself that things wouldn’t get easier but that I was going to get stronger and was going to end up with the resources I needed to deal with scary things when they came up. 

I would also urge my younger self—and other trans and non-binary people—to be really patient with figuring out identity questions. We’re not given the tools to talk about these things at a young age, so it makes total sense that it feels ridiculously confusing and that it takes a ton of work and that it’s sometimes really frustrating. The process takes a lot of patience, a lot of humor, and a lot of compassion. And it takes humor and patience and compassion from the people that are in the lives of trans people; there are going to be times when a trans person tells you something about their identity, but then what they told you changes because they’re still figuring it out. I think the more we can create a lightness around identity, the less scary it will feel to explore. If they go easy on it, it can actually be really fun.