Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

Climbing Blind | An Interview With Jesse Dufton

The UK’s top blind adventure climber on how the Old Man of Hoy is easier than making a cup of tea…

Featured Image Credit: Alastair Lee, Brit Rock Film Tour

After seven and a half hours of climbing without pause, Jesse Dufton pulls his wearied body onto the top of the Old Man of Hoy. Sitting on the sea stack’s 137-metre summit, he takes stock of what he’s done. It’s now 10.30 at night, but it’s high summer, so this far north, in Scotland’s Orkney archipelago, light is all around. A puffin nestles nearby; far below him the sea swirls and fizzes around the base of the giant rock.

“The stack has been climbed by blind people before, but what’s extraordinary about Jesse’s feat is that he is leading the climb”

It’s a visual montage stunning enough to give you goosebumps while you’re watching it on a screen, let alone in real life. Yet Jesse can’t see any of it. He has no vision of what’s in front of him, because he’s blind. He’ll need to wait until his climbing partner and sight guide Molly arrives at the summit. Then, she can narrate the view in the same calm, reliable manner she’s used to talk him through the climb thus far.

The Old Man of Hoy is not an easy summit. It’s exposed and windy, the sandstone face is prone to crumbling off in your hands, and it’s dotted with short-tempered seagulls, who like to vomit on climbers that get too close. The stack has been climbed by blind people before, but what’s extraordinary about Jesse’s feat is that he is leading the climb. That is, he is putting the gear into the rock with both his and Molly’s lives depending on it. A premise so compelling the renowned outdoor filmmaker Alistair Lee decided to make a documentary about it called Climbing Blind.

Credit: Alastair Lee, Brit Rock Film Tour

I saw the movie at the Kendal Mountain Festival last November. It was the hottest ticket in town, and everyone was talking about it in conversations that generally went: “Really want to see that film, but he’s obviously not leading the climb though, is he?” The movie itself even includes an interview with top British rock climber Leo Houlding saying it sounds like a “terrible idea”.

I called Jesse to talk about Climbing Blind and asked him how hard it is to lead climb when you can’t see. “It’s difficult for me to answer as I’ve been doing it since I was 11,” he told me. “My dad took me climbing from the word dot. I grew up with it and my eyesight wasn’t quite as bad back then as it is now.”

Credit: Alastair Lee, Brit Rock Film Tour

Now aged 34, Jesse has had a degenerative eye condition since birth. He was born legally blind with around 20 % of his central vision working, but no peripheral eyesight or ability to see in low light. His sight has steadily deteriorated since then, and he can now only identify the difference between light and dark.

Did people think it was risky for his dad to take him climbing when his vision was so limited? “The general public has a very poor perception of what risk is,” Jesse says. “Doing my first rock route and deciding to solo it, there was an element of risk involved but my dad was picking stuff I was more than capable of climbing. And when he was teaching me to lead I had his climbing partner alongside me showing me where to put the gear, all I was doing was learning the moves.”

“He can now only identify the difference between light and dark”

As a young climber Jesse could still just about see well enough to spot the cracks to place the gear in, because they were right in front of his face, but he could never plan his route from the bottom. He didn’t even know that was something people did. “I was in my 20s when I first realised that sighted climbers would look up at a crag and plan their whole sequence in advance. It hadn’t even occurred to me that might be possible,” he laughs.

Credit: Alastair Lee, Brit Rock Film Tour

But his sight guide Molly does plan a route sequence and tell him what’s ahead, though he decides what gear to use and when, be that a nut or hex or camb. Jesse works it out by feel, by working out what shape the crack is. And he’s quick to point out that sighted climbers often don’t select the correct piece of gear every time. “I pick the right piece first time around 60-70% of the time,” he says. “At least as good as most climbers and better than quite a few…”

“My brain is very good at building mental models”

I’ve often wondered what you see when you’re blind. Is it like when sighted people close our eyes and look into the seemingly endless black? Jesse tells me his mind constantly creates models of the world around him, and when he climbs he sees mental pictures of his route as he’s scaling it.

“My brain is very good at building mental models,” he says. “Of my house and work and places like that. If you’ve ever seen those 3D CAD drawings, it’s a bit like that. I build one of those in my head and know where everything is. And I do the same thing for a rock route, I can kind of imagine what things look like.”

Credit: Alastair Lee, Brit Rock Film Tour

These models are based on what Jesse used to see but also because our brains are very good at filling in the sensory gaps and constructing a reality. He says: “If I’m walking down the street I can’t see anything, I’m basically scraping my white stick down the kerb, and I might be able to capture a flash of light, like a white blob. Out of context I don’t know what that is but as I know I’m walking down a street I know it’s probably a white car, so my brain will fill in the gaps.”

“If I’m walking down the street I can’t see anything”

The fact Jesse can hazard a guess at a blur of light confuses some people and inevitably causes some wise crackers to conclude he must actually be faking the whole blind thing. “They’ll say: ‘Oh you can see!’ They can’t compute it,” but Jesse will patiently reply: “No I’m just very good at guessing.”

Credit: Alastair Lee, Brit Rock Film Tour

I once interviewed a blind cyclist called Daniel Kish, who used echolocation, favoured by bats, to navigate his way around. Jesse doesn’t do that, but he does use audio clues to help build his mental model too. He explains: “If you’re climbing inside a chimney the depth of sound is very different to if you’re out on an arête. Or in Greenland, it was quite strange there as it was totally silent and a very different soundscape to anything you’d get in civilisation.”

“If you’re climbing inside a chimney the depth of sound is very different to if you’re out on an arête”

I ask Jesse if he ever gets scared while climbing? He tells me people often imagine he doesn’t as he can’t see the ground below him or visually assess how tricky a particular section of a route is. But he says it doesn’t work like that, as you still have things that make you scared. You can hear when the wind is swirling, and you know when you’re not on an indoor wall and what will happen if you fall, and how long it was since you placed your last piece of gear and whether or not that was any good. “You still have that mental battle to contend with,” he says. “I don’t think there is anything about climbing blind that makes it easier basically. You still have to control that fear.”

Is he someone who can handle fear? “I think so. I get satisfaction from overcoming a challenge, and the fear is part of that. If I get really scared and don’t deal with it well, that’s not as satisfying as if I can keep the fear in the bottle. Then you’re pleased with the way that you’ve dealt with adversity.”

Credit: Alastair Lee, Brit Rock Film Tour

Does he have any tips for those of us prone to worry? “Focusing on the task at hand works for me and having a stern internal word with myself.” He also points out that being blind throws up a million challenges every day that you just have to get used to. “I guess I have become desensitised from difficulty,” he laughs.

“I get satisfaction from overcoming a challenge, and the fear is part of that”

One of the most unlikely takeaways from Climbing Blind is just how easy Jesse finds highly technical climbing compared to many other aspects of his daily life, such as crossing roads. As he says in the film: “It’s not the most dangerous thing I do.”

Walking from the car to his house he goes headfirst into a tree, and he struggles to make a cup of tea, describing it as a harder task than summiting the Old Man of Hoy. In the extended version of the film, he tells me there is a scene where he’s trying to butter toast, which he finds a massive challenge. “It’s so trivial for people who can see. But it is one of the hardest things to do well as you have no tactile feedback, so no concept of when to use your knife to scrape the butter or how much you have got on the end… basically I just make a complete mess,” he laughs.

Credit: Alastair Lee, Brit Rock Film Tour

There’s also a scene where he’s trying to find jam in the fridge and pulls out a jar of mustard. He asks the director Alastair Lee if it’s jam and he says it is. Such scenes are included in an amusing but affectionate way, making the film so much more than a regular climbing movie. “Al takes the piss out of me as much as he does everyone else,” Jesse says. “It’s very much an equal opportunities relationship.”

“Al takes the piss out of me as much as he does everyone else. It’s very much an equal opportunities relationship”

Jesse tells me it works a similar way with his sight guide Molly, who he first met at university in Bath. Since the film was made, she’s now become his wife. “Molly finds it very entertaining when I do something unexpected due to my eyes. She enjoys the slapstick humour of it, and I don’t mind at all. I take the piss out of all my mates, and if you dish it out, you have to take it back.”

The bond between Jesse and Molly is a highlight of the film, and years of climbing together have clearly resulted in a highly efficient approach. At one point he tries to climb with another sight guide, and things don’t run smoothly at all. Why does he think it works so well with the two of them?

Credit: Alastair Lee, Brit Rock Film Tour

“She has to concentrate quite hard to guide me, which helps. I often ask her if she gets scared for me when I’m climbing, but she says no as she’s so absorbed in the task of guiding me. It’s a real skill. You have to be a good climber to see the sequence of moves but also a good communicator, to be able to communicate to me what I need to do really quickly.”

Does he feel responsible for her? “You’re always responsible for your climbing partner, but I do have a heightened sense of responsibility, as I have to build the anchor at the top of each pitch and both our lives depend on that.”

Climbing was set to make its debut in the Tokyo Olympics this summer, but has now been rescheduled to 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. As one of the country’s best paraclimbers, does Jesse hope to see climbing in the Paralympics one day? “It will be, but it won’t be soon, as there aren’t enough countries that can field teams. I think the earliest it could be is 2032. I’d be 47 or something, but the guy who won my category in the World Championships this year was 52 so it’s not beyond the realms. But it’s not something I have my sights on.”

“I’d love to go to the Old Man of Hoy and see it in all its glory”

At the moment there is no medical way Jesse could see again, but if the science evolved to make that a possibility in the future how would he feel? “I’d be blown away! Some people say they wouldn’t want their disability to be cured, they feel like it’s an integral part of them, but I don’t share that viewpoint. I just think there are loads of things I can’t do now and if my eyes were fixed I’d go and do them.”

How does he think it would affect his climbing? “I’d become a better climber with a snap of my fingers, but the interesting thing for me is I can’t really imagine how much better. And it might be hard for me to adjust as well, I wouldn’t be used to this torrent of information coming through my eyes.”

Jesse tells me he would visit the places he’s already climbed to see the views properly. “I’d love to go to the Old Man of Hoy and see it in all its glory. The mental map is never as good as standing at the top and seeing the whole panorama.” And, of course, Molly would be right there beside him.

Credit: Alastair Lee, Brit Rock Film Tour
Credit: Alastair Lee, Brit Rock Film Tour

Jesse is sponsored by Montane, DMM Climbing, Boreal, Beta Climbing Designs. Read more about him here, on the official Jesse Dufton website.

Climbing Blind is available on Vimeo from May 22nd.

For more on the Kendal Mountain Festival, head here.

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