Justin Salas is a visually impaired athlete who found his home in rock climbing.
He’s relatively new on the scene, but is making waves in his first three years as a climber. He’s won a 2017 USA adaptive national championship, and as of 2018, Jusin is the first adaptive climber to send a V11 (8a).
1) Tell us a bit about yourself: where are you from, how long have you been climbing?
My name is Justin Salas, my crew calls me J. I am a blind/visually impaired rock climber from Tulsa Oklahoma. I've been blind for a little over 10 years after losing my sight to an eye disease not yet diagnosed. The docs have given me a temporary name for it, calling the disease an “Optic neuropathy of unknown origin.” I’m 25 years old and I’ve been climbing for 3 years now. I am the 2017 adaptive national champion as well as earning a couple silver medals, including one from the Para-climbing world cup in Edinburgh Scotland. I’ve only been competing for a year now but It’s been a hell of a ride, and I'm psyched to continue competing. Aside from my competitive life, I have just become the first adaptive rock climber to send the bouldering grade of v11 or 8a. I spend as much time as I can climbing outdoors, it's where my true passion for climbing lies, and I get to express myself through the best sport on earth.
2) How and when did you get into climbing?
My good friend Nic started working at the local climbing gym around the same time I started to lose my sight. He invited me to go with him and give climbing a try, but I was pretty hesitant, as you could imagine. He said, "you don't need to be able to see to climb." Me being a skeptic, I was doubtful, but being one of my best friends I trusted him and went.
That was the day everything changed.
Before I lost my vision I was an extremely active kid, I rode bmx, played soccer, and paintball. I just loved being outside and trying to perfect anything I did. See, I've always been a stubborn person so even after I lost my vision I tried to continue doing all the same things I once did. I excelled at most things surprisingly, perhaps I'm just a perfectionist, or maybe it's just my refusal to sit by and let this disability get the best of me. Of course, there were roadblocks at every step of the way; from running into the back of parked cars on my bike, to getting hit in the face while playing soccer everything I did was a very visual thing. But here came rock climbing, of all things. Something I once thought impossible for me turned into the one thing I found suited me more perfectly than any other sport I had tried or done. Occasionally those roadblocks try to creep back in but I simply climb around them. Climbing is no longer just my sport, I am a climber through and through, I've sacrificed a lot for the thing I'm most passionate about.
3) What were some of the early hurdles with climbing, indoors and outside?
I think the biggest issue is also the most obvious: trying to figure out how to make climbing work for someone who can't see the grips or sequence of movement. This broke down into developing a better muscle memory. Think of the brain like a muscle needing to be worked out like any other part of the body, to perform at the intensity you require it to. This process came pretty naturally to me since I've been using my memory pretty uniquely since I lost my sight. Needing to memorize everything about my surroundings anywhere I go so if I'm shown where something is I won't need to ask again, or counting all stairs so I don't trip when I encounter the stair set again. Even things like memorizing voices, the difference in footstep patterns to identify people I know, etc. Basically, it all comes back to a form of memory. So translating this to climbing was the most beneficial thing I could have done, and in turn, the hyper-awareness I use for climbing has helped in other parts of my life as well.
4) Do you mostly lead, Top rope, or boulder?
I enjoy all aspects of climbing, from Ice climbing to bouldering. However, bouldering is where my true joy lies currently.
5) What are your climbing goals, for this season, and the future?
2018 will hopefully be another big year for me. I'd like to do well at Nationals again, try my best at the world championships, and continue to bring exposure to the adaptive world and myself.
However, my main focus in climbing is definitely outside. I'd like to climb 5.14 and above, as well as v13 and above and pave the way for the next generation of adaptive climbers. I'm certainly not in this for "the grade" but the media seems to be, so It's a nice way of making a statement as an elite climber.
6) What are your favourite places to climb?
Well, as I'm in Tulsa some of the best zones in Arkansas are less than 4 hours away, so we've basically adopted that area as our home crag. Aside from that, Joe's Valley is the first thing that comes to mind. I've spent up to a month at a time living in my tent and climbing there. I've been to a fair amount of zones now throughout the world and up to this point it still holds the title as my favorite place to climb. Who knows though? There are still many places I haven't been yet. This certainly could change.
7) With the tactile experience being so strong for you, do you have a favourite type of rock?
Definitely sandstone. Nothing else can create the shapes, textures, and holds like sandstone can. It's also some of the most temperamental rock out there so it takes more care to climb on than other types of rock. I also really like the Gneiss found in Rocky mountain national park, as well as the Granite that Rumney has.
8) Do you prefer slab, overhang, or vert walls? Which caters more to your climbing style?
Overhanging routes definitely spark my interest the most, and usually hold some of the best movements in climbing. But I do like all of it. It just depends on what mood i'm in, or what I'm required to do.
9) What, to you, is your personal greatest achievement in climbing?
I've done a lot, and I'm only just beginning. However, accolades and personal achievements aside, If I can help give inspiration or psyche to one person through my story I feel like I've done something right.
10) What advice do you have for other adaptive climbers?
It may sound simple but it's so true. To my friends and fellow climbers: If you believe you can do something, go and do it. Because it's the only way you can get it. Make it happen.