By Will Strathmann
Every climber who climbs trad has been there. You’re two thirds of the way up the route, getting pumped out as your forearms begin to burn, and you need to stop and place that next piece of protection. Your one foot is wedged into the the crack you’ve followed 40 feet up, the other is smeared sideways against the surface, creating as much hold as you can. One hand holds onto the rock to stabilize while the other moves to unclip the cam from your gear loop. This is one of my favorite photos from the Paradox Sports Skills Camp at Joshua Tree National Park last month because it captures a small glimpse into the challenges, pain, and emotion that any climber can face during a hard route.
As I sat weighted on my ascender and grigri I became an observer of VI climber Shawn Sturges working through his first mock trad lead. He used his hands as guides; for his next hold, for his next foot placement, measuring the crack with his fingers and feeling the texture of the rock before feeling each cam, selecting the one that feels right before placing it. A purely tactile experience.
Shawn began losing his vision at 15 and became fully blind at 18 from a condition called Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. About two years ago, he took up climbing.
After cruising up the first half of the route, options for good gear placement became more challenging as the crack changed diameter in odd ways. For the next few minutes I watched as Shawn felt the rock, felt a cam, then tried to place it only to realize it wasn’t going to hold. Frustration grew on his face; I can imagine the growing burn in his legs and arms had something to do with it, too. He felt again, found a cam in his remaining gear, tried to place it, and again, it didn’t feel right. As an observer only feet away, I thought about scooting over to see if I could help, but I didn’t. I was invited on this trip by Paradox to take photos. To capture those raw moments where your muscles burn, where you work through a problem you haven’t faced before as frustration builds in your mind. It took Shawn about the same amount of time to place that one piece of gear as it did to get up two thirds of the route, but eventually, after what must have felt like forever to him, he placed it. Moments after, “Yeah man!” and “Nice work Shawn!” echoed up from the group below. After only a few more moves he reached the top and those eye and cheek muscles on his face loosened into a smile and a forceful breath out.
I spoke with Shawn later on in the trip about his experiences with climbing over the years. He described in detail how climbing has allowed him to regain complete control over moments in his life whereas in other seemingly simple moments, such as crossing a street or even getting to the base of his climbs, he has to rely on the help of others. He said it just feels good to be up there, and while his face might not agree with that sentiment in that first picture, I can promise you that when he finally placed that cam, it not only felt good, it felt great.