Climber Justin Salas balances precariously on a vertical rock face, only just managing to wedge his fingers into the tiny cracks that crisscross the stone. It’s impressive, but once you’ve learned of what he has had to overcome in order to follow his passion, your mind will be blown.
Salas is a 22-year-old adventure nut based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and he’s been building quite a name for himself within the climbing community. In fact, he has recently become something of an internet sensation.
What’s more, Salas has also mastered the art of photography, and he is the proprietor a successful photography business. On their own, these are not particularly unique achievements, but imagine pulling them off without the use of your eyes.
Yes, Salas is blind. Indeed, he was fitted with his first pair of glasses at the age of five, but it wasn’t until his first year at high school that things took a dramatic turn for the worse. That’s because this was when his vision was turning blurry and colors were beginning to merge together.
So Salas’ parents brought him to the Dean McGee Eye Institute in Oklahoma City to be assessed. But specialists were perplexed by the teenager’s condition. In fact, as far as they could see, his sight problems were psychological. Their prescription? Just go home and relax.
Over the following years, Salas and his parents went back and forth to the hospital, and things were only getting worse. Finally, at the age of just 14, Salas was declared legally blind; his optic nerve had simply died, and doctors had no idea why.
Not surprisingly, the diagnosis hit Salas hard, and he shied away from the outside world. In fact, the young teen hardly spoke at all, and he spent hours at home with only a large computer screen for company. He could, after all, just about make out the blurry shape of images if he stared close enough.
But as is often the way with such trials, it was just when Salas was at his lowest point that he found a savior. Because it just so happened that his best buddy Beau Johnson had returned home to Tulsa. And one day he asked Salas a question that was to change his life. He said, “So, why can’t you ride your bike? You can see some, right? You have peripheral vision.”
Salas took the bait, and the pair started stunt biking together. Johnson would guide Salas, pointing out dangers and helping him to avoid any obstacles. Eventually, Salas was even accomplished enough to do mid-air 360-degree spins.
And after he’d mastered the bike, there was no stopping him. Because Salas was soon encouraged by another of his mates to give climbing a try at a nearby climbing center. He soon fell in love with the sport, and in particular with bouldering.
“The process is feeling all the holds and having someone tell me where the holds are,” Salas said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Then I feel every shape of the hold, which direction it goes. I start memorizing and putting pieces together.”
Plus, it was while Salas began to explore climbing that he discovered photography. But without sight, he had to use all of his other senses to try to identify and frame his subjects.
Luckily, when he uploaded the images to his computer with a 27-inch screen, he was able to make out light and dark in his pictures. He told The Washington Post that the art form actually enabled him “to see through my vision loss.”
And Salas’ passion for photography has even started making him money. In fact, he set himself up as a freelance photographer, and he has shown himself to be particularly talented at capturing the outdoor lifestyle he loves so much.
But climbing is still a major part of his life. In fact, Salas has secured endorsement deals with a number of climbing accessory companies, and he has even toured the states in pursuit of the perfect climb. But he couldn’t do any of it without the help of his friends.
As well as placing mats below the boulders to break any unexpected falls, his buddies shout out directions to him from the ground. Within the sport, this practice is known as beta.
And despite his disability, Salas certainly doesn’t ask for any special treatment on the rocks. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard him tell one person he’s blind,” fellow climber Cody Hayes told The Washington Post. “He does things like — when you’re talking to him, he’ll look you directly in the eye on purpose so you won’t know he’s blind.”
Interestingly, taking up most of Salas’ left arm is a full-sleeve tattoo rendering of the lamppost from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. “It symbolizes just how dark the world can be, but there’s still light and hope,” he told The Washington Post.
Moreover, Salas has some amazing plans in the pipeline. For example, in November 2016 he and a buddy are setting out on a two-month long bouldering adventure in Utah and California where Salas is set to face some of the toughest climbs he’s ever attempted.
But Salas isn’t fazed. After all, at the bottom of one of Salas’s blog posts there’s an inspiring statement that really captures what he’s all about. It reads, “My name is Justin Salas and I am not a blind climber; I am a climber who just happens to be blind.”