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How Justin Salas Projects V11 as a Blind Boulderer

Salas has lived with blindness since age 14. After climbing for three years, he became the first paraclimber to tick V11. His tips are useful for seeing and blind climbers alike.

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Projecting is tough. And as a blind climber, that’s especially true. But I love climbing hard; that feeling of unlocking a crux sequence, mantling an airy top out, and flowing through steep terrain is as special to me as it is to anyone else. But because I’m blind, I approach projecting a bit differently than most. The methods below have enabled me to fall in love with climbing and climb up to V11, and I believe they are important lessons for seeing climbers, too. 

Get familiar

My first step of projecting is getting a lay of the land. And because I can’t see the hand and foot holds available to me at a glance, I run my hands over the entire boulder to find the holds that will work for me. This part can take awhile. If I don’t have a person with me to point out holds or share beta with, this can become a very long process.

Then comes the memorizing. Once I have an idea of what I’m about to climb, I’ll give it a flash burn. Unfortunately, unless I am super accurate in my rock reading abilities, this typically doesn’t go well. Not that I’m a bad flash climber— well, who am I foolin’?—I’m not good at flashing climbs. Still, I try like hell to stay on the wall while I execute what I learned from feeling the rock earlier. Flashing is a skill that is very important as a climber, and even though it’s something I’m bad at (for obvious reasons), I believe it’s important to train the things you’re not good at. 

(Photo: Daniel Poulain)

After I inevitably blow my flash, I begin working each move in isolation and then linking pieces of the boulder together. This part is similar to the way anyone else might tackle a project, but it is exponentially important to me because I have to absorb every single detail; if I don’t learn the right body positions in this stage, I’ll never be able to make the moves flow. 

These physical feelings are what I use to dial in my body position and add mental checkpoints. Every detail matters in the game of climbing at your limit and with a visual impairment, no stone can go unturned. As we all know, even the most desperate of sequences can become repeatable once we locate that tiny foothold or a subtle thumb catch. Depending on how technical the climb is it can take up to two long working sessions to fully memorize a line.    

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast

This is something I tell myself when executing all the beta I have swirling around my head. I climb best when my mind is calm and steady. Just like chess has certain time parameters depending on the cadence of the game being played, I slip into different tempos based on how precise the climbing is and how effectively my mind can keep up with my body’s rapid pace. This is extremely important when the climbing is close to my mental and physical limit. An appropriate pace, even if it is objectively slow, lets me snatch each hold with extreme precision, and therefore allows for more energy to be saved, which means I can do more hard moves in a row. 

(Photo: Daniel Poulain)

I should note that I can often do hard moves in whichever way I want; as someone who is physically very strong I don’t get shut down by single moves too often. But, as one advances through the grade ladder, it behooves you to learn how to throttle the machine up and down to become a more efficient climber. Just because you can do a move with beta that fits your strengths, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most efficient way. Take your time and do each hand or foot move perfectly; climb slowly and you will still save energy thanks to your precise movement.

When I project, I have a mental roadmap with key landmarks along the way. The mental picture consists, partially, of what vision I have left, but mostly it’s a tactile feeling. This feeling is so accurate that I can recall the perfect way to stand on a foothold based on the feedback I’m getting through my shoe. These two blend together creating a largely accurate image that can only be dialed in by climbing on the project and testing theory by trying moves and throwing out the methods that don’t work or are too inefficient.

Finishing well 

I started to dwell on this concept while comparing climbing to my old love: soccer. In soccer, it takes a lot of work to advance the ball up the field, past the defense, and into the opponent’s goal box. After all of this teamwork, success comes down to your offense finishing strong: a powerful and well-placed strike past the goalkeeper. This strategy is the same in climbing. Like a choreographed push towards the summit, alpinists and boulderers must make a plan, focus, and then execute it. It takes skill and determination to get all the way to the redpoint crux—so I try not to blow it just before the end. How do I avoid this? If I am too focused on the finish line I tend to get distracted from the job at hand. What job is that you ask? Climbing with precision! If you’re thinking about other things, daydreaming about latching that finishing jug, how will you ever actually reach it? An absent mind will keep you from entering the magical “flow state” and invariably leads to punting at the last moment.

I hope this gives you a better understanding of how I go about sinking my teeth into a project. Many of these concepts are widely adopted by high level climbers, but I’ve learned to adapt them to help me achieve my goals while climbing with a visual impairment. 

Justin Salas is a climber of six and a half years and has lived with blindness since he was 14. Salas became the first paraclimber in history to achieve the grade of V11/8A after climbing for only three years. He is also a four-time Paraclimbing national champion. Aside from these accolades, Salas is proud to have worked with Oso climbing gyms, in Dallas, to make it one of the most accessible and inclusive gyms in the country.