“You have to press on and keep the fear genie in the bottle”
Jesse Dufton on climbing the Old Man of Hoy, the hidden significance of lichen and inspiring the next generation
The more you know about what is involved in climbing, the more people are surprised about what I’m doing. Members of the general public are like ‘Wow, he is climbing up a rock.’ But those who know more about what is involved are like, ‘Oh God…’
I am not the first blind climber to climb the Old Man of Hoy, but I am the first blind person to lead it. Climbers climb in pairs, one leader and one seconder. Leading is far more demanding than following and so climbers prize leading highly.
Trad, or traditional, climbing is where you turn up at a piece of rock that has no fixed gear in it. As you climb, you slot the pieces of protection into naturally occurring cracks in the rock. The reason I enjoy trad the most is that it has many facets to it. There are the physical aspects of it as well as the ropework. There is also the mental challenge. The enjoyable part comes when you manage to address all of those challenges simultaneously.
You can’t totally eliminate the fear but you need to learn to function while you are still scared. Climbers are always quite understated. You can be ‘mildly perturbed’ about the fact that it is 10 metres since your last piece of gear but if you totally let that dominate you then the outcome isn’t good. You have to press on and keep the fear genie in the bottle.
Whoever your climbing partner is, you trust them with your life – literally. Molly and I have been climbing for over 10 years together. We have done more than 1000 routes. As a consequence, when she is guiding me, she knows how I climb. She can almost read my mind. She will be looking up at me as I am on the wall, see me slightly twitch my right ankle and she will know that means that I need to move my right foot and she will just tell me where to put it.
There was a section on the Old Man of Hoy where Molly couldn’t see me. It is technically quite easy, but there is that worry about what happens if you go the wrong way. Because I have been doing this for so long, you develop a little bit of a sixth sense about which is the right way to go. If you come across lichen, then you are probably going off route because as climbers climb up they knock all the lichen off.
With the right attitude and with planning, you would be amazed at what you can still do with sight loss
Climbers usually call the most difficult section of a route a crux. The crux on the Old Man of Hoy was definitely the Coffin Pitch. It is really awkward. There are no classical holds. You stick your hands deep into this crack until they are jammed and tuck yourself into a little ball to get your foot really high on to the ledge. Once you have done that, it is the most difficult bit over. I had that feeling of enjoyment and relaxation from the start of the final pitch, the open book corner. It is the best rock quality at that point. I could enjoy the moment.
My dad took me up my first trad route when I was two and I led my first route outside when I was 11. Climbing is something that I have always done and it is a big part of my life. My parents always encouraged me. The fact that my eyes didn’t work properly was never really a thing for them. I’m grateful that they didn’t wrap me up in cotton wool.
I have rod cone dystrophy. When I was born, I had 20% of central vision and no peripheral vision. The best I ever did looking at the eye chart was guessing at letters on the third line. The analogy I use for my vision is to imagine you are looking down a drinking straw and there is six layers of cling film stretched over the end. Living with sight loss, I think day-to-day stuff is the hardest coupled with the loss of independence.
Part of the reason that I decided to make Climbing Blind is that if my story can help a younger version of me or the parents of a younger version of me, then it is worth it. With the right attitude and with planning, you would be amazed at what you can still do with sight loss.
Climbing is not for everyone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to play an instrument or some other challenge that might seem improbable at the outset. If you can work out what the challenges are going to be in advance and then work out problem solving methods to address those challenges, then that is half the battle.
Jesse Dufton, 34, is a rock climber and patent engineer. His journey to becoming the first blind person to lead climb the Old Man of Hoy is captured in Alastair Lee’s award-winning documentary Climbing Blind (available on BBC iPlayer).
Image credits: Alastair Lee/Posing Productions