For most of the four years she spent trapped in the Japanese Alps, Australian climber Lor Sabourin tried not to look at her beleaguered body as an object to conquer.
“I was really protective of my health,” Sabourin said. “I kept people at a distance from it.”
That approach enabled Sabourin to survive the mind-crushing experience of wading through thigh-deep snow and freezing temperatures, she said, and to forge a new identity.
Sabourin, 39, is among the most famous free-climbers in the world, having crossed 20,000 feet in Iceland’s Thingvellir glacier and climbed Mt. Hood in Oregon and Mt. McKinley in Alaska. But the highs — both her own and those of the climbers she saw — were outweighed by the sorrow of being trapped on Mt. Shikotsu for more than four weeks.
For Sabourin, it was a visceral, sensory experience, she said, and one she describes as having been akin to a small earthquake. The sheer size of the mountain and its glaciers — its sheer expanse of snow, stones and debris — conjured images of home: playing hide-and-seek, riding horses, throwing rocks in the backyard. “This idea that the environment is just another form of me was a big challenge for me,” she said.
To dive into her experience and try to prepare for it, Sabourin used “the language of vulnerability” — the way people would describe experiences with jokes, nods and glances. “I liked to put on my uniform and pretend that I was 11,” she said. “There was a script, and it was written in a way that was positive for myself.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Sabourin said, was her friend Michelle, who, in scenes reminiscent of the movie “The Hurt Locker,” placed Sabourin on a mound of snow with her back to the cliff edge. The guide poked her in the ribs to see whether she was all right.
“When I’m lost, there’s a pause, a momentary loss of gravity,” Sabourin said. “It felt so vulnerable.”
And that very vulnerability, she said, was central to the feeling of figuring her way back into her own identity.
“You feel unsafe, and that’s the moment where the sexual arousal arises,” Sabourin said. “There is an arousal of the big inside to go back to that moment when you’re away and you’re alone.”
Six weeks after Shikotsu, Sabourin is hiking four days a week, gaining 50 to 60 pounds, and she’s nearly ready to start her next expedition: scaling Europe’s highest peak, the 17,251-foot Potala, in Tibet.
“You’ve got to give it four years,” she said. “I’m in my early 40s. It’s going to take a long time to create the resilience that a person needs.”
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