Shawn Sturges didn’t discover his passion for climbing until after he lost his vision. Since then, Sturges has participated in several competitions, including representing the USA in Paris 2017 in the IFSC Paraclimbing World Championships. Aside from rock climbing, Sturges is also working on mountain and ice climbing skills and training to one day participate in the Paralympics.
We talked to Sturges about his passion for climbing and the road to get there.
THE CLYMB: Were you active as a kid or did your passion for sports and adventure start later?
SHAWN STURGES: As a kid growing up, I was extremely active in sports. The two main sports that I grew up playing were baseball and football, and these sports were a large part of my life until I lost my sight. This meant that as soon as I experienced my vision loss, I was completely lost without sports. Well, I was lost until I found rock climbing three years ago.
THE CLYMB: Can you tell us about losing your vision and how that impacted your life?
SS: I started losing my vision at the age of fifteen and complete vision loss followed when I graduated high school at eighteen. I quickly fell into a very dark time in my life where depression consumed me every day, and I basically shut out the world. I spent about a year in therapy which helped me come to terms with my loss, but even though I have learned to deal with my vision loss I don’t think I will ever truly accept it one hundred percent.
After I learned to deal with my blindness I went to college, where I earned a Bachelor’s degree from The University of Tampa in Business Management with a minor in Marketing, and I have a second degree in Music Management from the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, MN.
After I graduated, I thought that I wouldn’t have that hard of a time finding a career, but boy was I wrong. I am part of the 70% of visually impaired and blind individuals that are either unemployed or underemployed in the country. This is the part about my blindness that still bothers me to this day and how it has affected me the most because people tend to define me and my abilities by my blindness instead of who I am and what I can do despite my blindness. In the end, that is why at times I wish that I did not turn out blind — even though at other times I would not change a thing because my blindness has turned me into the person I am today.
CLYMB: Was the switch from “regular” sports to outdoor adventure sports a natural one after losing your vision? Or did you struggle to find a way to stay active until you discovered new passions?
SS: I would say for me the transition into outdoor sports was not that difficult once I found rock climbing. Prior to finding climbing, I tried various extreme sports which included a little wakeboarding, downhill skiing, and even skydiving several times. I loved these experiences because they made me feel alive again at a time when I felt diminished as a person without my sight. However, I never really felt like any of those sports provided me with the athletic outlet that I felt comfortable in, so none of these lasted a very long time in my life. Once I found climbing and my very first trip up a wall, I was hooked and truly found a sport that filled a void that baseball and football left all those years ago.
CLYMB: How did you get involved in rock climbing?
SS: I was attending a support group for young adults with vision loss, and one of the other participants was actually involved with a local adaptive climbing group in Chicago. This individual told me how welcoming the group was to newcomers to climbing and that they climbed every week at one of the local gyms in Chicago. I decided that I didn’t have anything to lose and I wanted to meet new people since I had just recently moved to Chicago and didn’t really know anyone.
I showed up to the adaptive climbing night at Brooklyn Boulders in Chicago, and once I touched the holds on the wall, I was hooked. Early on in climbing, I found it rather difficult to move up the wall, but when I realized was that climbing is rather tactile I was able to use other techniques to find success. When I climb in a gym, I use a spotter on the ground that relays the positions of each hold on the wall that I need to use in order to follow a specific route to the top. The tool that I use to accomplish this is a full duplex radio system which in essence allows an open channel of dialogue between me and my spotter to converse throughout my entire climb. However, I do not use a spotter while outside and instead use other techniques like flat hand scanning to feel the rock and what is the path of least resistance to the top.
CLYMB: Can you tell us about your multi-pitch climb and repel in Eldorado Canyon? What makes this climb so challenging? What was the experience like?
SS: The specific climb that I did in Eldorado Canyon is called The Bomb and it is on a formation called The Wind Tower. This was my very first multi-pitch route and my very first time using traditional (trad) climbing gear. I did not lead the climb since I was and still am inexperienced in that style of climbing, but I followed my climbing partner and removed all the gear that was placed in order to learn how to place gear. This is my goal, to become proficient in placing gear into the rock for protection since I hope to lead my very first climb in the near future.
What I loved about the entire multi-pitch climb experience and with this one, in particular, being my first, is the feeling of the wind and the sounds of nature all around me. Although I could not see how high I was, I could just feel the openness and how exposed I felt as I climbed higher. I must say I was not scared at all until we were at the top and setting up to repel. This was my very first-time rappelling under my own control. I was extremely nervous because in climbing most accidents tend to happen during rappelling. The entire rappelling experience was terrifying, to say the least, but my climbing partner was there to walk me through the process every step of the way.
Overall, that climb has given me the multi-pitch itch, and since then I have climbed several others across the country. The other two experiences that I loved were my time on Devils Tower and a climb in Vedauwoo, which are both climbing areas located in Wyoming. I have many plans to keep tackling multi-pitch climbs around the U.S., and hopefully one day I will be able to travel around the world climbing as high as I can on rock.
CLYMB: Can you tell us about your dream of participating in the 2024 Paralympics?
SS: Since I started climbing, I have participated in both the U.S. Adaptive National competition, and two years ago I went to Paris to compete in the 2016 IFSC World Paraclimbing competition. What I love about competitive climbing is that it takes me back to the days when I played baseball and football. Although climbing is an individual sport of sorts, there is still this team mentality when it comes to international competitions. Adaptive climbing is on its way to making an appearance in the 2024 Paralympics, especially after the first appearance of climbing as an Olympic sport, which will be in the 2020 Olympics. The main goal that I have in competition climbing is to improve my skills enough to make the U.S. team to compete in the first ever climbing event in the Paralympics. I would love to place in that future competition, but what I would love more is to know that I was part of an Olympic team competing for my country.
The road to any competition is not an easy one at all. Athletes spend a tremendous amount of time building their skills in the sport they love. I spend three days in the climbing gym working on skills and pushing myself in areas that I struggle in so that I can compete with my peers. When I am not in the climbing gym, I am pushing myself in strength training and conditioning. However, as a visually impaired climber, it is not all done on my own. I spend a lot of time with my climbing partner, who is also my spotter, in order to work on our communication on the wall. This relationship and our communication are always a work in progress; I have to have trust in what my partner calls for me since he is my eyes.
In order to not only find success in all competitions leading up to the 2024 Paralympics but in the games themselves, everything has to fall in line. I will be working on all of these skills for many years to come in hopes that I will make my dream of making a Paralympic team a reality, especially since that is the first time that climbing will potentially be part of the Paralympics.
CLYMB: Of all the adventures you’ve been a part of, which one has been the most challenging and why?
SS: I have been to several competitions and a tremendous amount of outdoor climbing trips since I started climbing over three years ago. The most challenging time was at the 2016 IFSC World Paraclimbing Championship because everything that could go wrong went wrong. In that competition, we had two qualifier routes that we were to climb which in turn would determine if we would make finals. The first route I had to climb without the aid of my spotter that I trained with back in Chicago because he got held up in customs, so he was not able to make it to my first route. I ended up using the spotter of another visually impaired climber that I never worked with and I was stressed out and we never got on the same page during that climb. This is why for a visually impaired climber it is so crucial that the climber has a specific spotter that they trained with for the competition.
The second route did not go that well either because I fell at the very beginning of the route. I did have my spotter for the second route, but I was extremely nervous and placing so much stress on myself to make up the points that I missed on the first climb that I just fell apart all around. What I learned from this experience is that I have to learn to let things go and once things are done don’t dwell on them because they will make you lose focus on the task at hand. I learned that the spotter relationship to me is just as important to my success as my own climbing ability, so in order to find future success, I would have to work just as hard developing that relationship as well as continuing to build my climbing skills. Although that was the most difficult point in my climbing, it also taught me so much. Everything that we do in life is a learning experience and after the fact, that is exactly what I saw that competition as and now I know what I need to do in order to find success at future competitions.
CLYMB: Any “adventure of a lifetime” planned or that you’re hoping to go on one day?
SS: I have many adventures in climbing that I plan on accomplishing one day. This winter I am going on several more ice climbing trips to New Hampshire and Colorado in order to further develop these particular skills. The main reason I need to develop these skills is because I would love to go ice climbing in Alaska, but don’t have any particular climbs picked out yet. The other area in climbing that I plan on tackling within the next year is big wall climbing. I want to climb the big walls in Yosemite because that is considered the mecca of climbing, especially for big walls in the world. The first big wall in Yosemite that I have picked out is Washington Column, which is around 1,200 feet tall.