On Nov 29, 2020, Lor Sabourin made a no-falls free ascent of the trad-climbing testpiece, Cousin of Death–a five pitch, 5.13+ in northern Arizona (Apache, Hopi, Pueblo and Hohokam territory). Three of the route’s five pitches are 5.13b or harder. Lor’s climb was the first integral ascent of the route (the individual pitches were all freed last year by local climber, Joel Unema, who established the route with Blake McCord a few years ago). It was also Lor’s hardest-graded trad climb to date at the time of this interview, though that personal best didn’t last long. On January 31, shortly after Brittany Goris made the first female free ascent of East Coast Fist Bump (5.14a, trad), at The Waterfall crag outside of Sedona, Arizona, Sabourin also sent that single-pitch route. More on those sends in a Newswire to come.
Chris Kalman caught up with Lor via email to learn more about the impressive climb.
Tell me about Cousin of Death. How do the pitches break down, and what were the biggest cruxes for you mentally and physically?
The first pitch (5.13+) is awesome. The first 70 or so feet [involve] tricky stemming. The positions involved a lot of wild movements. One of the cruxes, for instance, was throwing out far left for a sloping Gaston, hand-foot matching on the other wall, and then pressing from…[a] horizontal [position] back to upright. These were probably the hardest individual moves on the route. Then it’s insecure, but much easier (maybe 5.12ish) finger crack climbing to the top of the pitch. That pitch felt a little intimidating mentally, as the bolts were a bit run out. Sending this pitch first go was pretty critical for an in-a-day push.
Pitch two, which clocks in…around 5.13b, involves multiple roofs. The second roof was really tricky. The inside of the crack and the wall below were slick (from patina and bat poop/pee), so the gear was really specific. Joel and other climbers have had gear that looked super solid pull [out] on them [when they fell], so this pitch felt really heads up. It wasn’t possible to rehearse the moves on toprope because it was hard to place adequate directionals under the roof, and even once you did, it was hard to clean them on toprope. So this pitch took the most lead [attempts] and became a bit of a mental crux for me as the season was coming to a close.
The third pitch, which is 5.12, was really fun, splitter big fingers to a bolted boulder problem. This pitch was noteworthy because there were about 10,000 bats in the crack, and they made a lot of noise while I was climbing it! I climbed it a couple times in belay gloves because I was afraid of getting bitten, but I think they were pretty far back there.
The second crux of the route, pitch four, is also 5.13+, characterized by power endurance face/finger crack climbing. There were very few moves on the pitch that were easier than 5.13- and the crux came at the very top. Then, there’s a marginal shake on two crimps before launching into this sweet traverse with micro-crimps above a tiny roof and feet below. I basically just had to paste my feet on the wall there, which was so scary because it was the final hard move of the climb. I fell there–and at the move below that–a few times [on previous ground-up attempts]. It was pretty heartbreaking.
The final pitch is just varied 5.10 crack climbing (fingers to offwidth) on decent rock, followed by a runout 5.7 slab to the top.
Break down the timeline for me. When did you start working the route? When did you send?
I first heard about the route a few years ago when Joel and Blake were working on it. I went out once to belay Blake on the fourth pitch and remember being so struck by the movement and the setting.
I started working on the route at the beginning of September 2020. I spent about 20 days on the route between September and the end of November. I typically made it out about twice a week, depending on the weather. After sending all the pitches individually, I had some friends come into town who were psyched to push the route from the ground. I gave it three lead attempts from the ground. My first day, I fell at pretty much every crux. My second day, I sent pitches 1-3 and then fell at the last crux of the fourth pitch twice in a row. Then I sent the third day.
Harrison Teuber, who supported me on the day that I sent, freed the route in a push two days later! I got to support him on that push, which was really fun.
Is this your hardest route to date? How does it compare to other hard routes you’ve done? Hardest “long” route?
I would consider this my hardest route to date. Definitely my hardest long route. Joel (who has climbed multiple 5.14 sport and trad routes) and I talked, and we both thought this felt on the “hard side” of 5.13+. I’ve climbed 5.13d on sport before and done some hard 5.13s on gear (including All Systems Go, and Crack of the Eighties), but this was the biggest thing that I’ve put together. I was pretty nervous about being able to do both my hardest pitches on gear so far, and then linking those pitches into something bigger.
As a transgender climber, do you sometimes feel like there is extra pressure–whether external or internal–to perform at a high level?
I have definitely struggled with that in the past, for two reasons. Sometimes I’ve felt like there’s a certain amount of acceptance I can get for climbing hard, that I might not otherwise receive as a trans climber. That’s actually a false sense of security, and it feels really contingent upon your performance rather than the actual relationships I have with people in my community. Another reason that there’s been some extra pressure is the feeling that my actions speak for my entire community. As a trans person, I don’t often have the luxury of being seen as separate from my community. When I’ve performed well, I’ve felt that I’ve represented my community well.
I’ve worked on those things a lot, though. This season, I wanted to be intentional about how I approached projecting the CoD. I wanted it to feel like something that I was doing for myself. I also wanted to make sure that I wasn’t out there trying to just “get something done.” I wanted to learn and have fun throughout the whole process. Showing up to the project this way made it a very rewarding experience. I think, in the end, taking care of myself is a better way to show up for the community than sending a route.
Is there anything else about your experience with this route that you’d like to share?
It was really interesting for me to choose a project like this at this particular time. Big projects take a lot of time and energy, so it felt like a chance to carve out time for something that I really cared about and find a way to take care of myself this fall. It was really special to get to climb on such a phenomenal route that was put up by people that I really care about. Joel and Blake were both so supportive and psyched for me throughout the season.
I also want to say, I’m definitely not the only enbie [non-binary] climber out there doing rad things. My friend Rin Gentry is a badass sport climber and boulderer. Sean Taft-Morales is a guide and teaches SPI courses out east. [Both those climbers and Sabourin were recently featured in an article by Climbing.] It’s also important to mention that there have likely always been trans and non-binary climbers out crushing, but it might not have felt safe for them to be out in the climbing community.
What’s up next? Got any big objectives planned for 2021?
I’m really excited to climb at The Waterfall and wrap up some projects in Sedona. I’m also excited to boulder more because that’s a big weakness for me, and it’s probably the next step for me to be able to climb harder routes. There may be some other things I’m psyched on, but a lot of it depends on what’s happening with the pandemic.