Interview With Blind Rock Climber Shawn Sturges

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.

Eldo­ra­do Canyon in Colorado

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.

Ice climb­ing in the Upper Peninsula

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.