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Bouldering Blind: Justin Salas, Adaptive Climber, Sends V11

Sending V11 is a feather in your cap. Doing it without being able to see the holds? That's just on another level.

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As a 13-year-old, Oklahoman Justin Salas was your normal, active kid. He liked soccer and riding his BMX bike. At 14, out of the blue, over a short period of time he lost most of his vision. Doctors diagnosed him with Optic Neuropathy of Unknown Origin—”basically a big fancy, title for ‘we don’t know,’” Salas says.

Salas in Wichita Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma. Photo: Andrew Edwards.

Blindness affected his life in many ways, yet not always as expected. He kept playing soccer and biking. He also tried rock climbing at a nearby gym for the first time, at a friend’s urging. And climbing—more than blindness—altered the course of his life:  “Everything changed,” he says. Though his family couldn’t afford the gym’s yearly membership at the time, that small taste of the sport had gotten under his skin.

Fast forward to March 20, 2018. Salas is now 25. He’s in Joe’s Valley, Utah, bouldering with some buddies. He decides to try a particular problem, Worm Turns, that he had tried unsuccessfully for a couple of days two years prior. “It’s a super long tufa that just sticks out of this roof. It seemed outrageous to me,” he says. This time he is able to send it in his first session.

Worm Turns, a problem established by the legendary Jason Kehl,  is V11. Salas’ ascent makes him the first blind, adaptive climber to send the grade.

Salas didn’t return to climbing after that first, cursory visit to the gym until February 2015, when he was 22. This time he could afford to buy a membership, and he went full throttle into a climbing-focused lifestyle. He remembers, “I was completely enveloped. I started going there five days a week, six hours a day.”

Climbing Air Wolf in Indian Creek, Utah. Photo: David Pierce.,

He would top-rope frequently, but spent most of his time bouldering.

But how does one climb—and at an elite level—without being able to see?

When Salas’ vision began deteriorating in his early teen years, the symptoms were concentrated in his central vision.

He explains to me, “You know when people talk about getting tunnel vision? They get so focused on a singular object? I have the opposite. I have hardly any central vision left. If I try to look at something through my central vision it’s almost completely not there.”

His peripheral vision, while also affected, is somewhat intact. It allows him to get around fairly well, as he can see what’s around him—just not what’s in front of him. “It’s a pretty reactionary-based kind of vision,” he says. “If someone were to throw something at me from the side, I can kind of see something coming and can react. But if it is thrown straight at me I can’t see it at all.

As he kept improving, Salas started competing in adaptive climbing competitions and experienced considerable success, often winning.

His friend Matt “calls” for him in competitions, essentially acting as a sight guide. Each of them wears an earpiece, and Matt gives Salas information necessary to navigate the route. He tells Sala where holds are directionally, as well as what the type of hold is, e.g. a jug or an undercut. “He can’t tell me beta,” Salas says, “but he can tell me where they are. He can tell me what the hold is like, but he can’t tell me how to grab it.”

As anyone who as ever tried climbing blindfolded can attest, not being able to see on the wall can be a disorienting experience. But interestingly, it’s less so for Salas; it’s all he has ever known. “I never climbed prior to vision loss,” he says. “I’ve only ever known what it was like climbing as someone who is visually impaired. It requires a lot of muscle memory, which is one of the reasons I love bouldering so much. I can touch all the grips from the ground and create this tactile memory.”

“Flashing for me isn’t the best,” he says, with a chuckle. “Unless I’m able to lock off on a hold for long enough for someone to tell me exactly where the holds are.”

Salas on Worm Turns (V11), his hardest boulder to date, in Joe’s Valley, Utah. Photo: William Bazargani.

Before climbing Worm Turns, Salas had sent his “fair share” of V8s and 9s. He hadn’t sent V10, but Worm Turns—despite being two grades bigger than his personal best—just appealed to him. Between the snaking tufa and his strength on pinches, Salas figured it would be a good fit for him, but he also liked the holds. “I’m really attracted to climbs by how the holds feel and body position,” he says. “So I got super psyched when I checked out Worm Turns.” The rest of the story is like any other that makes headlines: hard climber crushes hard rig.

Salas is rightly proud of his send, but he’s still got bigger goals on the horizon. He’ll revisit the missing V10 rung on his tick list and try to fill it with some projects he’s been working—problems in Joe’s Valley like Barely Legal and Fingerhut. And then he’ll simply move on to V12. His longer term goal is to send V15. He muses, “I guess the goal for me in this whole adventure, beyond climbing for myself, is to prove to the rest of the world that adaptive climbers are among the elite as well. The gardes aren’t the same as [Nalle Hukkataival’s V17] Burden of Dreams or [Daniel Woods’ V16] Creature from the Black Lagoon, but I’m still trying to make a statement, as well.”

And he hopes that statement resonates for other adaptive athletes. “I know there are a lot of people in the adaptive community that don’t like being viewed as adaptive—they like being seen as a climber first and then an adaptive athlete. But I think it’s important to be true to who you are, you know? What makes you different, your story. Authenticity is really important, and it’s important for people to be able to identify with something.”

Follow Justin Salas on Instagram to see what he’s up to!

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