Last year, blind climber Jesse Dufton led every pitch of the classic East Face Route (E1 5b) on the Old Man of Hoy, placing all his own gear. Renowned adventure filmmaker Alastair Lee made a cracking film, supported by Montane and BMC TV, based around the ascent, which has been scooping up awards and is, amazingly for a climbing film, going to be shown on British telly. To top off the good news story, Jesse has just won a BMC Volunteer Award.
On June 5 2019, Jesse approached the treacherous descent to the Old Man of Hoy using a pair of very sturdy walking poles. His wife Molly guided him step by precarious step as he scrambled down the slippery grass ledges. "I crimped the grass for all I was worth!" laughed Jesse, when I asked how it went.
Al Lee was there to capture the dramatics. "When you're a filmmaker," he told me, deadpan, "Time and experience tells you when to turn the camera on." Then he grinned: "Or sometimes it’s obvious - a blind man doing a super sketchy walk to the base of the Old Man of Hoy: film the whole bloody thing!"
"No gibbering epics, no pulling on gear," Jesse reflected. "It wasn't easy, but I think I climbed it really well. The satisfaction of getting past the crux clean put a big smile on my face. And the last pitch is outstanding. Not difficult, just really nice. An open corner with a cleft that splits the stack running down the middle. As I climbed I could just about tell that the light of the setting sun was shining through the cleft - it was awesome."
And it's incredible that Climbing Blind is about to air on BBC 4. A few years ago, Al Lee complained to me that, while it would be no surprise to see a program about climbing on French or Italian TV, British TV companies prefer their adventure sensationalised. Tim Emmett and Leo Houlding racing an Audi to the top of Verdon Gorge. Bear Grylls eating giant larva.
In fact, to quote Al from a previous interview: [Lancashire accent] "Sometimes people say: 'Hey, have you thought about sending your films to Channel 4?' I say: 'Well, THANK GOD you’re here!' I sell my films to TV companies all over the world, but not the UK. Here, we get Bear Grylls. They’ve got to stick ‘daredevil’ on it. I think it shows a lack of understanding of the British audience, which is more sophisticated than that."
Well, that has now changed. BBC4 said yes. Al commented on Instagram: "Here is the BIG news that I can finally share! Climbing Blind will feature on BBC4, Weds 20th May - 9pm! Woo-hoo and they haven't even changed it! Big up yourselves Jesse and Molly it has been my absolute pleasure to bring your incredible story to the world."
Jesse leading the Old Man. All photos: Al Lee
What does Jesse think? "It is really refreshing to see a ‘proper’ climbing film get traction in the mainstream media," he agreed. "I also really dislike the sensationalist, inauthentic spin that often taints outdoor-related content on British TV. Although, to be fair, it's difficult to make a climbing film which holds the viewer. I think Free Solo and Climbing Blind have done well because they have narrative in spades as well as the jaw-dropping visuals. Al has told the story in a hugely engaging and genuine way, full of integrity."
"More sentimentally-minded people in the media often focus on my relationship with Molly," mused Jesse. "This is certainly important but it’s Climbing Blind not Blind Date!" So I won't dwell on it, but in brief, the pair met at Bath uni, where they were both obsessively involved in the climbing club. Jesse's sight was deteriorating by that point: due to a rare genetic disease he was born with 20% central vision. By 20, he could no longer read, and by the time he was 30 his vision was reduced to just light perception.
This didn't hold back Jesse's climbing, and he continued to lead, placing gear by feel: "When I find a crack, I have a good grope about and work out if it might be suitable for gear. If I can find a constriction for a nut, or a section that would take a cam, I work out what size I need based on the size of the crack relative to my fingers or hand. If I can get a thumb-down jam in the crack I know it's the right size for a 2.5 cam, for example."
Jesse and Molly now wear two-way radios when climbing outside. When Jesse is leading, if Molly can see that he is struggling to find a hold, or to find a piece of gear on his rack, she chips in with some directions. Now married, they live in Loughborough and regularly climb at the local wall, outside in the Peak and all over the world. A few years ago, the pair claimed first ascents in Greenland and Jesse is also a successful team GB Paraclimber.
Jesse and Molly on the summit of the Old Man
Jesse thinks that climbing's history as a niche sport has so far held it back from getting mainstream attention, and that this is set to change: "Historically climbing was difficult to get into unless you knew someone who was prepared to give you an apprenticeship," he explained. "However, as bouldering walls lower the barrier to entry, climbing's Olympic debut approaches and the sport gains more attention I would like to think that we'll be seeing more climbing on the TV."
"Climbing Blind connects with this zeitgeist to a certain extent, but I also think the story engages with people who have no interest in climbing. It doesn't fall into the trap of focusing on the disability; it highlights the achievements and ethos and there is plenty of humour, too. I am thrilled that it will be reaching a broader audience and I hope that it will motivate people to chase down challenges of their own."
Congrats to Jesse, who has also just won this year's BMC Rehan Siddiqui Volunteer Award.
The documentary, Climbing Blind airs on BBC 4 on Wednesday, May 20 at 9pm. The film was supported by the BMC and Montane.
More reading and info
WATCH Jesse Dufton and Molly Thompason Facebook Q&A:
Stars of 'Climbing Blind' answered your questions about their first 'non-sight' of the Old Man of Hoy, competition climbing and more!
WATCH The Bothy Project on BMC TV:
Four artists head to the remote Scottish bothy of Shenavall in an evocative call to the wilderness.
WATCH Blue Hue on BMC TV:
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HIGHLIGHTS: 2019 La Sportiva British Bouldering Championships