The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He’s a professional photographer and a sponsored rock climber. He’s also blind.

Justin Salas, who is blind, rock climbing. (Daniel Loveland)

Justin Salas clings to the face of a boulder, his bodyweight supported by his fingertips and one foot perched precariously on a meager crevice in the stone. He reaches up and glides his right hand over the surface of the rock, searching for the next hold he remembers is there.

“Handhold one o’clock, Justin! One o’clock!” his friends call out from the safety mat 20 feet below him. They are giving him information — beta, as it’s called in climbing — for his next move.

For Salas, memory and beta are everything. The 22-year-old rock climber is legally blind.

Salas was 14 when he lost his vision. His eyesight had always been subpar — he was wearing glasses by the time he was 5 — but it wasn’t until his freshman year of high school that his vision began deteriorating rapidly. It happened without warning. Glasses no longer helped. Colors bled into a fuzzy gray. Even the moon was blurry. Tests revealed his optic nerves were dying, though the cause remained a mystery.

His parents took him to the Dean McGee Eye Institute in Oklahoma City, one of the best eye clinics in the country. The specialists at Dean McGee told the family Salas’s condition was psychological. They suggested he return home, relax and de-stress. “I told them, ‘I’m stressed because I’m blind,’ ” Salas said, still incredulous nine years later.

The family spent the next year visiting specialists, and Salas was undergoing multiple scans and blood tests. Still no answers. Eventually, doctors gave him the nebulous diagnosis of “optic neuropathy of unknown origin.” There is no cure. Less than a year after his symptoms began, Salas was legally blind.

Stripped of the ability to do the activities he most loved, Salas pulled away from the world. Some days he didn’t speak at all. He spent most of his time sitting on his bed or in front of his oversized computer screen in the family’s dining room in Tulsa. If he leaned in very, very close and pixelated the images, he could decipher the hazy outlines of familiar shapes and letters.

This nonspeaking teenager wrote an incredibly profound letter explaining autism

One of Salas’s closest friends, Beau Johnson, moved back to Tulsa during this time.

“So, why can’t you ride your bike?” he asked Salas one day. “You can see some, right? You have peripheral vision.”

The invitation was profound.

The two began riding the streets of Tulsa on their stunt bikes. Johnson became Salas’s “seeing-eye person,” as the family dubbed him, yelling when a tree or an approaching car blocked their path, giving Salas just enough time to swerve. He even mastered a “540 Cab” stunt, which involves a backward landing and a 360-degree midair spin.

Not long after he returned to riding, a friend invited him to a local climbing gym. “You don’t have to see to climb,” he told Salas. “You only have to feel.”

In particular, Salas liked bouldering, which is done without ropes. Some boulders top out at over 50 feet. Falls — and there are many — are cushioned only by mats placed strategically below. Spotters stand sentry around the mats to keep the falling climber from hitting his head or falling off the mat on impact.

“The process is feeling all the holds and having someone tell me where the holds are,” Salas said. “Then I feel every shape of the hold, which direction it goes. I start memorizing and putting pieces together and memorizing how my body feels when I’m in certain positions so I know, whenever I go back to do it again, how it feels. And then I do the route over and over again, even if it takes falling dozens and dozens of times.”

Around the time he began climbing, Salas started experimenting with another hobby that pierced the barriers of vision loss: photography.

To frame his shots, he used every sense but sight — the sound of his subjects’ voices, the warmth and angle of the sun on his body, his memory from when his eyes actually worked.

Photography gave Salas new eyes. Even though he couldn’t see what he was shooting in person, his 27-inch cinema display computer screen allowed him to pixelate the images to the point that he could decipher the contrast of light and dark. As Salas explained, photography gave him a way “to see through my vision loss.”

Salas has since scaled high-level boulders and landed several sponsorships, including the chalk company Friction Labs. He also started his own freelance photography business, specializing in adventure shots, brand photography and landscapes. His photos suggest an intimacy with the sport and a knack for perspective. They do not suggest he is blind.

While Salas doesn’t hide his blindness, he doesn’t bring it up, either.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him tell one person he’s blind,” said Cody Hayes, a friend and climbing partner. “He doesn’t come across blind. He does things like — when you’re talking to him, he’ll look you directly in the eye on purpose so you won’t know he’s blind.”

Salas uses the dark outline of a body that he can sometimes distinguish, along with the sound of a person’s voice, to guess where someone’s eyes are.

Another climbing mate, Chris Shultes, said Salas is “just another one of the guys.”

Salas and Shultes are preparing for a two-month bouldering trip in November. They’ll spend one month in Joe’s Valley, Utah, and one month in Bishop, Calif. Salas will face his toughest climbs to date, including several V11 boulders, which are considered extreme challenges even for advanced climbers.

He’ll also bring his camera.

On Salas’s left arm is a tattoo, a full sleeve, depicting the lamppost from C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” He got it a year ago. Salas said the light has great significance in his own life and faith.

“It symbolizes just how dark the world can be, but there’s still light and hope.” He paused. “And then I have the most classic tattoo a blind person can have.” He pointed to his left forearm.

In black, calligraphic letters, the tattoo reads, “Walk by faith not by sight.”

Amy L. Marxkors is the author of “The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner” and “Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story.” An avid runner, she writes a weekly column for Fleet Feet Sports. You can follow her on Twitter @AmyMarxkors.