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Justin Salas's Mental Map

Since we met Justin, he's sent V11, been to two international climbing competitions, taken first place at World's in Innsbruck, and has set some seroius goals for the future. We checked in with him on all the things.

Justin Salas on "La Baleine" 7A/V6, Photo by Matt Frederick, Edits by Justin Salas

What kinds of emotions did you feel when you lost your vision?

For a little while, I had to mourn the loss of my sight. I had to mourn the loss of something I was accustomed to having. I stopped doing the things I loved, like BMX biking and outdoor activities because I didn’t know what was next. After a brief “woe is me,” phase I went to a school for the blind and began learning how to navigate. After I got back my buddy Beau randomly showed up at my house. He rode up on his bike and I didn’t recognize him because his voice had changed. He asked me what had happened, and why I’d been away.
I explained everything. He listened and then said, ‘Wanna go ride?’
I said, ‘How am I gonna do that?’
He said, ‘How hard can it be? Just follow me, and I’ll tell you where everything is and when and where to start.’
I went inside and told my parents, ‘I’m gonna go ride!’ and my mom told me not to die. Riding BMX again opened the door to not be afraid to try and navigate the world in a more bold way—and that was something I thought I’d given up. Ultimately, getting back into BMX was one of the things that got me into climbing. Because I had challenged myself in riding without vision, there has never been a moment in rock climbing where I’ve thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’

Justin Salas on "Nezzundorma" 7A/V6 Photo by Matt Frederick, edited by Justin Salas

Can I ask what you see through your eyes?

My central vision is almost completely gone. I can’t focus on anything, so it’s like the reverse of tunnel vision. What I see is similar to if you were to yank the RGB cord out of an old TV. It’s like gray fuzziness, blurring over the television. I call it ‘ entropy or controlled chaos in the center of my eyes.’

Do you notice other senses being sharper?

When you lose a sense another one gets heightened, and touch is hyperactive for me. I find it difficult to bear down on sharp holds...so much so that it’s hard to ignore the pain. I can’t just deal with it. I struggle with that a little bit. I do what I can to deaden the nerve endings in my fingertips.

That’s dedication. Also, ouch. What about hearing?

(Laughs) My hearing could be better. I love bass music.

You’ve only been seriously climbing for about three years and you’ve already sent V11. What skillset do you rely on most?

I rely on position over everything. I’m more gifted as being strong, and physical training is easy for me, but being a more intuitive climber is my main focus. I hate the sound of my climbing shoes hitting the wall, or when my hands make excess noise. I try to climb completely silently.

Justin Salas on "Le Mandarin" (8A/V11) Photo by Matt Frederick, Edits by Justin Salas

Can you talk me through how you approach a boulder problem?

I create a mental map by asking friends and climbing partners to tell me about the moves. I count my breaths and rehearse the sequence. If I break the mental map, then it’s all kinds of useless. My brain will get more tired than my body because I’m trying so hard to focus.

Do you create a similar mental map during competitions?  

Yeah, I have a Sight Guide in competitions. He gets five or ten minutes to watch a route and closely watches the crux section. Then he does his best to articulate the sequence and I get a  mental map of what I’m supposed to do. The transitions are the hardest.  

Let’s get a brief rundown of your international climbing history.

My first international competition was September 2017 in Edinburgh. Mo Beck said, ‘Hey, you should come to Scotland because it’ll be fun!’ I laughed and said that’d be sick, but there’s no way.
Then CNN and emailed me and said they were doing a story and they heard I might be going.  So that turned into a frantic GoFundMe, my first time overseas, and a lot of other firsts. I took second in that competition which I feel I could have won but at the time I had cheap headsets I bought on Amazon and I couldn’t talk back and forth with my Sight Guide. After that comp, I did not stop training. I knew I wanted to win the following year. My personality is one of OCD. I will hyper-focus on everything that goes into training; eating, drinking, acting—total regimentation. When I got to Innsbruck in 2018, we spent a lot of time chillin' with some of the U.S teammates, and there were experienced competitors. It was cool to see their approach to competition.
I asked Ben Hanna, ‘How do you feel?”
He said ‘It’s so important to feel like yourself because if you don’t, you won't climb as well as you can.’
Previously, I’d been so stressed about what winning could mean for my career, how insane the environment was, and all the people who had donated. But once I was in isolation, I wasn’t nervous. It felt like no emotion at all; I had already dealt with everything. I kept thinking, ‘just feel like yourself. This is the best route you could ever climb on, with the best setters in the world, so enjoy it.’ I felt really relaxed, not uptight.
I came off the route, and I wasn’t happy with where I came off, but they lowered me and I could hear the roar of the crowd. My Paraclimbing Coach, Emmett, ran up to me, and said congrats you are the World Champion, and I said, ‘bullsh*t.’ I started to tear up for a moment.

That gives me the chills. Congratulations, dude. What’s next in the realm of comps, and what’s next for goals outdoors?

I prefer outside way more than comp climbing, but I still love it. Competitions are part of the process; the stress is part of what molds you. You spend all this time training and wondering: Is it worth it? Will it even pay off? Then you come off the wall and hear, “You’re the World Champ,” and you realize, “Wow, it’s worth it.”
Competition aside I just want to climb some gnarly sh*t. I have a dream list of boulders, I want to go to Rocklands, I want to be the first adaptive climber to do everything from V13 to V14. I want to do the hardest sport routes. I want to push my limits to become a better climber. One day I want to climb for Red Bull. I don’t know, right now there are lots of different irons in the fire. We’ll see.


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