In June of this year, Jesse Dufton - a Loughborough-based trad climber - led the East Face Original Route (E1 5b) on the Old Man of Hoy. Climbing this 450ft sea-stack on the Orkney Islands is a serious challenge for any climber, but what makes this a stunning achievement is the fact that Jesse is almost completely blind.
I was lucky enough to grab an interview with Jesse, alongside his wife and climbing partner Molly, during a training session at Awesome Walls in Sheffield. He kindly gave me far too much of his precious time, and we covered the practicalities of climbing blind, near-death experiences in the Arctic Circle, and his rise to the GB Paraclimbing team. He also gave some top tips for anyone looking after partially sighted people on the mountains.
Jesse, to start with: I’d like to know where it all began. When did you start climbing? Was your sight always affected?
I was climbing as a toddler apparently! There’s a photograph of me climbing Ordinary route at the Idwal Slabs aged about two. I didn’t have a lot of choice going climbing as a kid, my dad was a keen mountaineer. We lived up in the Lake District and he was part of the mountain rescue team. Later on we lived in Winchester – not exactly a great place to climb, but we’d get out when we could. I led my first route down in Cornwall, aged around 11.
Did you have much sight as a child?
I was born partially sighted. My condition is Cone-Rod dystrophy. I have a point mutation in my CRB-1 gene, which basically means one of the proteins that codes for the structure at the back of the eye is defective, and therefore the rods and cones are actually just crumbling away. Apparently when they name genes, they name them after something. CRB stands for ‘crumbs’ because that’s what the back of the eye turns into – isn’t that just a charming and reassuring fact!
As a child I had about 20% central vision, and basically no peripheral vision. As time goes on, more and more of my retina is deteriorating. I’m also developing cataracts and astigmatism. I guess I wasn’t dealt the best hand in the eye department! Over time it all just slowly deteriorates. You don’t notice the difference day-to-day, but when you go to familiar places you think – “I used to be able to walk around here on my own”, and “I used to see that thing” you know… that’s when you realise over the span of time, that the difference is significant.
Climbing is something that I’ve always done. It’s clearly challenging to have little sight, but I have adapted over time. When people ask me why I like going climbing there’s loads of reasons: Getting away from everyone else is a big one. And why trad leading? Well, that’s what I always did.
Did the amount of vision you had in your younger days make things a little easier?
Not really! I could never read a route, so when my eyesight was as good as it was (which, don’t forget is still terrible!), I could see the big obvious holds when they were around 3 metres away or so. But I could never stand at the bottom of a route, look up and plan my sequence. It was always hold–to–hold. I could see vaguely what I was going for. As most of the gear placements were right in front of my face, I’d be able to put in a nut or a cam, see it in place and feel it was seated.
Nowadays I can’t see my hands 2 feet in front of my face, which means when I’m placing gear I can’t see the crack I’m putting it into, or see it once It’s in place. My technique now is to feel the crack with my fingers, work out whether it’s parallel-sided or tapered, and from that work out the width of the crack relative to the size of my hand.
If I can get a thumb-down jam into the crack for example, I know that’s a 2.5 cam. If I get a fist jam it’s a size 4, etc. With nuts it’s largely the same process. I’ll poke my finger in, get my nuts off my harness, and try to place one that feels right. Obviously on a route, if you’ve placed 4 nuts previously your selection can be depleted, so there ends up being a little more trial and error involved.
And how about management of fear? Do you still get a sense of exposure on a big route like the Old Man of Hoy?
I think so. You’re still aware of where you are, but I think the main thing is you know how far you are from your gear. I always try to keep a mental counter as to how far it was since the last placement. That usually determines how sketched out I am!
You still know when you’re getting exposed. I’ve got a mental map of the route. The tiny little bits of information I can glean from my eyes feed into my mental model of what my surroundings are like. So if I’m standing up onto an arete or something, I still know where I am, even though I can’t technically see it with my eyes. Then you have the other senses; often in an exposed position you’re buffeted by gusts of wind, or the ambient noise is different because you’re ‘out there’ on an arete.
But the mental counter of your distance from the last piece of gear is definitely the main thing for me. you don’t necessarily have the security of knowing your last bit of gear was good – you can’t see it to visually check it. If it’s small gear in a narrow crack, you don’t know if it flares out behind.
That’s where mental toughness comes in: to know that the gear is good. And it generally is – lots of sighted climbers have seconded up and checked my gear and said it was as good as your average climber.
Would you agree with that, Molly? Do you rate his gear?
Obviously Jesse often climbs up on lead, and sets up the belay at the top. So I have to trust him that the belays are good, otherwise we could both be off. But I haven’t ever climbed up and thought “oh my god what is this?!” they’ve always been good.
I think the funniest one was when we did Brant Direct in the pass, I’d led up and spent quite a while constructing this belay with three intricate pieces of gear, all nicely equalised and tied off to a 240 sling. Proper textbook stuff. Then Molly came up and pointed out the mass of abseil tat around 1 metre away I could have just quickly clipped!
Do you think there is something that sighted climbers could potentially gain from trying blind-fold climbing’?
I think Adam Ondra mentally trains for a lot of his stuff by visualising a route with a blindfold on. He tries to train his body to be prepared for those moves and what they are going to feel like. I think there must be benefits for sighted climbers to try to ‘feel’ more.
I sometimes hear people telling sighted climbers to ‘look’ for the footholds. I never do that. I just put my foot on the rock and feel through my toes what’s underneath my foot. I’ve done it so much now I just know whether it’ll stick. Sometimes Molly will get up and say “You stood on that? That’s awful! There’s a huge ledge over here!”
It was interesting to watch you both training with radios today. How does it work?
Obviously Jesse can’t see anything at all. He has no idea where the handholds and footholds are. Outside it’s a bit different, he can feel around more. But inside you climb by colours. There are loads of holds on the wall but you can only use specific ones.
We use a ‘clock face’ system. If a hold is straight above you say ‘12’, or out to the right would be ‘3’ etc. That helps with direction. For distance we tend to use A and B for feet, and C and D for hands.
It can be quite confusing for me. I have to stand at the bottom and work out the sequence first, and then communicate it quickly back to Jesse. It does seem to work quite well, but we try to optimise it all the time with trial and error – there are no textbooks on this stuff.
In 2017 you were part of a scientific expedition to the Stauning Alps in Greenland, which included some first ascents of unnamed peaks. How did the trip come about?
It’s a really stupid reason! Work sent me down to London for a 3 month course (I work in intellectual property). It meant that I couldn’t use any of my annual leave that year. So I rolled it over into the next year and had the prospect of a bumper holiday. So I thought OK - where would we really like to go? We need to go somewhere pretty cool, and I don’t want to go on massive walk-ins over boulder fields because that’s pretty shit when you’re blind!
So we decided to go somewhere we could ski in. I find that much easier. The snow’s flat, so I figured I could just ski to the base of the routes. And why Greenland? Well one of my mates is a glaciologist, and he wanted to place a network of ablation stakes, which he assures me are scientifically useful – I’ll take his word on that!
We did five weeks in total, four weeks on skis. A 100km Loop up the Roslin glacier, over 2 cols and then onto the Bjornbo glacier. On the Bjornbo we got 2 first ascents which we named Sue’s spire and Boughfell (the only known Arctic first-ascent by a non-sighted climber)
We were fully self-sufficient, carrying pulks with around 100kg of equipment and food with us. The four other members of the trip were all friends that I had known and climbed with since university in Bath. And the fifth, well, she was the boyfriend of one of them when we started planning, and then she wasn’t when we actually went (which wasn’t at all awkward!)
We had a rifle for polar bears for the trip, and I think Ollie was concerned about Jen blowing him away if things turned turned too sour! In the end they were actually very civil with each other…
Clearly being in a wilderness environment without sight must have thrown up some challenges. How do you think it affected the group dynamic?
The difficulties of being non-sighted weren’t actually too bad. We took the judgement call that we wouldn’t rope up when skiing along the glaciers. It meant that I could just follow in the tracks of the person going in front of me. I could hear the noise of the poles and I knew when I’d come out of the ski tracks as it suddenly became a lot harder. So I could just follow a leader without having to be told everything all the time. That was quite a big advantage for team cohesion.
I think that parity of effort is really important. I might not have necessarily been doing everything in the team but as long as I’m working at least as hard as everyone else it feels OK. I’m a reasonably big guy, so I just took more weight in my pulk, and that was my way of balancing out the effort. We’d get to camp and I’d be shattered, but that means that the other guys had that little bit more energy so they could help with tasks such as cooking dinner. Putting me in charge of one of those stoves wouldn’t be the best idea!
I understand there was a pretty sketchy moment coming down one of the cols, involving a failed anchor?
There was definitely a moment where I thought: Shit, I might have just lost 3 of my mates here…
One of the cols we needed to descend had a massive cornice on it. We had three ropes totalling 270m if you tied them all together, so we made a snow bollard at the top and abseiled over the cornice.
Which was scary in itself – it was like a hanging abseil, with the pulk weight hanging as well. We were out there on our own in a remote place.
It’s 108 miles to Constable Point, which is a little air strip – a hanger and 2 sheds. That’s the nearest civilisation. It’s not like in the alps where there’s a chopper that’ll reach you in 15 minutes.
We had abseiled the first bit, pulled up our ropes and set up an anchor. We didn’t have enough rope to go all the way down to the bottom, so we made an anchor consisting of a snow bollard, a deadman and a buried ski, all equalised. We had 4 pulks tied into that. Me and Molly were sat on the ledge with Alistair – who was clipped into the belay. Ollie was lowering Jen with the 5th Pulk. After she’d gone about 10 metres, things suddenly started to move.
Next thing we knew, all of that part of the snow slope just went, and our anchor with it. Jen, Ollie and the heavy pulks are tumbling and plummeting down together. The metal tracer bars were snapping off and flying around. Alistair was tied into the belay system next to me, so he gets yanked straight off the ledge as well. Molly and I weren’t connected to anything, so were left sitting on the snow ledge we’d kicked out, witnessing this horror show.
There were skis flying around, plus Ollie had his crampons on and was tumbling with the heavy gear. The fall was about 270m! The first bit of the col was really steep but then the snowslope levelled out and there were no rocks to hit. They eventually came to a stop at the bottom.
So then we were stuck on this ledge together. We shouted down for signs of life. Jen stood up and started waving so we knew she was alright. We saw the others move as well. We knew they were alive, but no one seemed to be able to shout up. Probably from the sheer adrenaline of what just happened.
We had no crampons, ice axe or rope, so we just had to carefully kick steps into the snow and descend to them. We made it down OK to find the only injury was Ollie’s bruised middle finger. And the kit was mostly alright. The skis were intact. We were incredibly lucky.
The worst bit was finding out our tub of couscous had exploded! Nightmare…
A lot of the tracers for the pulks had also come away. So as we were descending I was picking up bits of debris. After a little breather we got out our trusty repair kit and set about jubilee-clipping it back together. We managed to fix them up pretty well.
We also redistributed everything, so the one pulk that survived with intact tracers ended up with all the heavy equipment in it – which I then dragged the rest of the way! We were about 3 weeks in by that point and had less food so it wasn’t quite as heavy. Thankfully we were on our way back and it was all downhill.
That’s when I injured my toe. *Jesse takes off his shoe to reveal a mass of keratinised tissue about the size of a golf ball on the outside of his foot*
Wow, that’s a bit beyond a blister!
My feet were basically frozen and I hadn’t realised I hadn’t done my boot up quite tight enough, so my foot just rubbed. I got a blister, which then burst in my boot, and then bits of dirty sock got in, and it just turned grim. I hold my hand up – this is why you should take medics on trips! It was a bit swollen, and a bit sore. But I didn’t think anything of it particularly, and I should have done. We had antibiotics with us and I should have just started dosing myself up then and there. But I didn’t.
Did you have any telemedicine capability?
We had a satphone… I guess it’s just experience I think. You look back on it and you just think: why the hell did I do that? The whole of my foot swelled up. When we got back to the pick up point, one of the guys there was a paramedic. He took one look at it and was like “f*%$*ng hell! If you were a little old lady that would have killed you!”
The redness and swelling was tracking up towards my knee by this point. I got some antibiotics from a rather shocked looking GP back in the UK. It took a few months to recover though.
I understand you proposed to Molly on the same trip? Did your near-death experience have anything to do with that?!
How long after was it, Molly? Near death experience, then one, maybe two days!
We were skiing down the Bjornburg, and basically the whole of the peaks on the left hand side are unclimbed. So (obviously not me) but the other guys were like “that one looks good, let’s try that!” so we went up and got the first of the first-ascents, but the summit was so spikey that we only fitted one at a time. Not really what I had in mind for a romantic gesture!
Luckily on top of the second peak there was a big snow dome. I thought that would be as good a place as any! Amazingly, Ollie – totally unprompted – had gone off to another summit on the neighbouring peak and managed to get a great photo of the moment.
Having only recently moved into paraclimbing competition you seem to have had storming success, recently making the GB paraclimbing team. Can you tell us a little about that journey?
I didn’t really know about paraclimbing before, to be honest. We got back from Greenland and I had to have about 3 months off…
Because you couldn’t get your foot in your climbing shoe!
That’s true! Even when it was healed over it was so painful. But when I was back at the climbing wall I was chatting to one of the girls who was in the para-development squad at the time. She noticed I was blind and told me about the para comps. That was on a Thursday and the first comp was on the following Saturday. So I went along, had a go, and got on the podium.
So then I thought: “OK… I guess I’m alright at this!”. Up until then I had always compared myself to sighted climbers. I knew I could lead VS/HVS, and that’s OK. But I wasn’t going to be worrying Ondra any time soon.
Then I did OK in a few other comps and next thing I knew I was selected for Team GB in early 2018. That was when I realised: “Oh shit, I better go and do some training!”
The support is brilliant. We’re here in Sheffield this weekend alongside Cliffhanger festival, to do some training with the team. There are two great coaches; Robin O’Leary and Belinda Fuller, and also Emma Wood, who’s based here in Sheffield and does a lot of work on the psychology and ‘headgame’ side of things. And Molly obviously is kind enough to sight-guide me.
In the last year I’ve started to do some serious training. I had a comp in Imst, Austria last weekend and I managed to get silver, which I was really pleased about. Last year at the world champs, there was quite a big gulf between me and the guys on the podium. I’ve closed that now. I’m in touching distance. I’m not quite in a position to be confident of winning – anything can happen. But maybe next year, once I’ve done a few more comps.
And finally: If you could give a little advice for a medic on an expedition looking after a partially sighted person, what would it be?
Firstly, don’t say ‘over there’!.. Or do it ‘like this’. That’s really not helpful! Everybody is different but I don’t mind if people just grab me and put my hand on stuff. I find it much easier than ‘just in front of you, to the right’, etc.
Find a way of conveying terrain information without the medic needing to constantly say something. If someone has snow-blindness for instance, give them something physical to act as ‘reigns’ - whether that be holding trekking poles or a rucksack. Spare trekking poles for the blind person to walk with is also really useful. It’s harder to fall over with 4 legs.
And lastly, try to be mindful about minimising the overall amount of communication. When we’re doing a walk-in and you get, say a drainage ditch, Molly will just say ‘step’. It doesn’t really matter if it’s up or down, it’s just saying “you need to pay attention for this next step” – a small notification of increased caution. Otherwise when you’re on quite a long objective all the excessive guiding can add up and take its toll. The guide gets tired and the person being guided can get tired of listening. It all takes a lot of concentration.
Jesse and Molly, thank you so much for talking to STDZ!.
*All images are reproduced with permission from jessedufton.com
The British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) are organising a Science Day in the Peak District on the 13th November 2019. Why not come along? Details can be found here.