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How a man started rock climbing after losing his sight — and what it taught him


Rock climbing is riveting to watch. It's human versus gravity. Now imagine scaling a sheer cliff face without sight. Justin Salas does that. He's a six-time paraclimbing national champion and world champion. Wyoming Public Radio's Hannah Habermann tells us how he learned the sport after he lost his vision.

HANNAH HABERMANN, BYLINE: Justin Salas, who's 30 and lives in Salt Lake City, became legally blind about 16 years ago. He lost his sight to optic neuropathy, a degenerative condition caused by damage to the optic nerve. He now sees with what he refers to as donut vision.

JUSTIN SALAS: So I just have peripheral...


SALAS: ...No central, so I can get around and look like I'm not visually impaired. But if you could imagine, when you try and look at something, it disappears.

HABERMANN: Salas took up rock climbing about eight years after he lost his sight.

TY VINEYARD: If you take two steps over on that same crack system...


VINEYARD: ...And then go off of your 11, match hand would be a pretty good move.

HABERMANN: That's Ty Vineyard, who's acting as Salas' caller on this climb up a vertical wall of gray-brown textured limestone. Vineyard's job is to stay on the ground, describe the holds above Salas and suggest his next move, and to catch him on the climbing rope if he falls.

VINEYARD: And then right by your right - your left shin, excuse me - kind of that crimp you were standing on earlier.

HABERMANN: The two are demonstrating how visually impaired climbers work with a partner in a clinic at the 30th Annual International Climbers' Festival in Lander, Wyo. Salas moves up the vertical cliff with grace, pulling on grooved pockets in the rock and delicately balancing on small edges. He's teaching a workshop called Fundamentals of Visualization to a mix of people with and without visual impairments.

SALAS: I'm sure it is helpful to be able to see the wall and see where the holds are, but you learn it in, like, a more intimate way.

HABERMANN: When he's climbing, Salas visualizes a black 3D space in his mind. Then he places a map made of neon squares onto the space based on the information he receives from his caller.

SALAS: So I imagine, like, building this, like, neon route, mental map in my mind of the route.


SALAS: Yeah, grids, basically. Exactly. And then I try and retain that. So by the time I'm going to get on the wall, I have a pretty good understanding of what I'm going to be doing.

HABERMANN: After climbing for only three years, Salas became the first adaptive climber to achieve the grade of V11, which, to translate, is very, very hard. He's climbed and competed all over the world and says his connection with his competition caller has been fine-tuned over years of getting to know each other. Still, Salas says it's all a balancing act.

SALAS: If someone's relaying information to you, it's all great. But you also have to, like, split your mind and, like, flow in climbing...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Like, process it.

SALAS: ...But also process the information they're giving you.

HABERMANN: Salas says living with vision loss has been a continual learning process. He says the climbing community has been a huge support and that the sport has taught him a lot.

SALAS: When you're dealing with a visual impairment, just, like, living life and being brave is the most important way to go about it. And then you just, like, compensate as you learn.

HABERMANN: Salas' upcoming goals include trying what's known informally as the Grand Teton Triathlon, a combination of road biking, open-water swimming and then a 16-mile hike and climb up the Grand Teton.

For NPR News, I'm Hannah Habermann.


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Hannah Habermann