Shawn Sturges Credit: Kathrine Schleicher

Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Shawn Sturges, 31, blind climber.

When I was about 15, I wanted to get contacts. The doctor noticed that I had diminished vision in my left eye, but I had never noticed it because my right eye was compensating. I went to a neuro-ophthalmologist, and he couldn’t figure it out, and then over the next couple years, I started losing the sight in my right eye really quickly. It wasn’t until a doctor did a genetic test on my parents that they found out I had Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy. People with Leber’s usually have peripheral sight, but I’m atypical. I’m completely blind.

After I lost my sight, I shut out the world. I was angry at the people around me, because they had their vision and I didn’t. I was very angry at my mother, since it was a genetic trait she passed on. I shut myself in my room and didn’t want to be around people. After about a year of being alone and hating the world, I got therapy and got the services I needed and learned how to get around using a long white cane. I learned a text-to-speech program so I could use the Internet and Microsoft Office. I went to a rehab center to learn daily living skills. Now I travel around the city by myself. I take buses and trains everywhere.

I get accused a lot of faking blindness, because my navigation skills are so good and I walk at a pretty decent pace. Just about a month ago, I was walking to my apartment, and this woman wasn’t paying attention, and my cane bumped her, and she started screaming at me and accusing me of not being blind. But I’ll take the shitty things people say to me, because I’m not gonna be cooped up in my house.

After I lost my sight, I did various things to try to help navigate the world of blindness and help me with the depression I faced. I did martial arts, I did a little bit of wakeboarding, I tried skydiving a couple times. But I never really found any sport that could help me be as creative and athletic as I was before I lost my sight. So when I was introduced to climbing, I instantly fell in love with it. I climb two to four days a week, and my brother Toby at Genesis X Fitness is my personal trainer.

Climbing became a moving meditation thing for me. You have to be really focused. For that brief moment, nothing else in the world exists. No matter what I face during the day—if people were rude to me or if I was trying to cross busy intersections and cars weren’t paying attention—climbing is a way that I can escape those everyday stresses. I’m gonna be doing it the rest of my life.

When I climb indoors, the person who belays me uses a radio system to give me direction, tell me where my next handholds are. They might say, “Your next hold is at one o’clock, right hand.” Outdoors is a lot easier, because anything I can find and hold on to, I’m using. I did my first multipitch climb in Eldorado Canyon [in Colorado] a few weeks ago, and that was like 200 feet off the ground. It wasn’t scary. It felt freeing. Feeling the sun, hearing the birds squawking. Hearing the river running down below. That was the highest vertically I’ve ever been. If it didn’t bother me being 200 feet up, I don’t think it’ll bother me being 400, 500, 600. I think if you can see, being that high up is a lot more intimidating.   v