On 5 June, blind GB Paraclimbing Team member, Jesse Dufton, led every pitch of the classic East Face Route (E1 5b) on the Old Man of Hoy, placing all his own gear. Here's how he did it and a bit more about the Loughborough-based climber. This isn't Jesse's first sea stack. It's not his biggest achievement, either...
This story begins in 2008, when Jesse and his partner Molly climbed the Old Man of Stoer together during a trip to Reiff. They hadn't planned on tackling a sea stack, but after Molly spotted a photo of it in the guidebook they couldn't resist.
When Jesse became aware of the Old Man of Hoy as Stoer's "taller, harder brother" he put it straight on his ticklist. Jesse told us: "The Old Man of Hoy just sounded epic and a real adventure to get to. Climbing sea stacks is a grand day out full of excitement."
"Molly guided me, step by precarious step, while I crimped the grass for all I was worth!"
And so it was that on June 5, Jesse approached the treacherous descent to the Old Man of Hoy using a pair of very sturdy poles. The route down the headland is a scramble on slippery grass ledges with some big drops. "Molly guided me, step by precarious step, while I crimped the grass for all I was worth!" laughs Jesse. "Throw in some inelegant bum-shuffling and you have one all-terrain blindman. The approach wasn't great, but I've done worse; at least there wasn't a waterfall running down this one!"
All photos: Alastair Lee/Brit Rock Film Tour
How do you lead a trad route when you can't see?
Jesse was born with a degenerative, genetic condition. Initially he had 20% of normal vision and no peripheral vision, but this didn't hold him back. His dad first took him climbing when he was 2, and by age 11 he'd led his first route outside. At the time his vision allowed him to see a little of what he was doing.
The Loughborough-resident's sight deteriorated over the years, and he now only has light perception: "Essentially I can tell the difference between light and dark but that's it and I can only do that in a tiny field of view. Imagine you are looking down a drinking straw and it has five or six layers of clingfilm stretched over the end. If I hold my hand in front of my face I can't see it. I can't see the holds when I climb or the gear as I place it."
Jesse now places his 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."
Using a system they've honed over many years, the pair wear a 2-way radio when climbing outside. When Jesse is leading, if Molly can see that Jesse is struggling to find a hold, or to find a piece of gear on his rack, she chips in with some directions.
"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"
Placing gear when you can't see may sound surprising, but Jesse explains: "I can't visually check the gear and so I sometimes place multiple pieces for redundancy if possible. That said, the gear I place is almost always bomber. Molly gives me feedback on it once she's climbed the pitch."
So what was the best bit of climbing the Old Man of Hoy?
"The satisfaction of getting past the crux clean put a big smile on my face. It wasn't easy, but I think I climbed it really well. no gibbering epics, no pulling on gear. The climbing on the last pitch is outstanding. Not difficult, just really nice. You climb 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 the worst bit?
"Not having enough time to properly enjoy the top. We had started really late (3pm) because we were waiting for the wind to drop sufficiently to fly the drone, because Alastair Lee is making a film about the climb. Consequently, even though we made good time on the climb, 7 hours for 6 pitches including all the camera faff, we didn't top out until 22:10 so we needed to get a move on and hence didn't get to savour the moment as much as I would have liked."
More about Jesse and Molly
Jesse and Molly first met when they both joined the Bath University Mountaineering Club in 2004. They were both heavily involved, going away climbing almost every weekend and on longer trips during the holidays. They also both did stints as Climbing secretary for the club: "We've been together for the last 12 years and nothing much changes, still lots of climbing together," says Jesse.
The pair now live in Loughborough and train most evenings at The Climbing Station, Awesome Walls Sheffield or in their garage. They climb outside at weekends when it's dry, most often in the Peak but generally all over the UK and many place abroad, too.
Jesse climbing with his Dad, age 2
The first blind person to claim first Ascents in the Arctic?
In 2017, Jesse, Molly and three friends organised a month-long mountaineering expedition to the Stauning Alps in Greenland, which was supported by the BMC, among others (see article link below).
Jesse explains: "We completed a 100km loop up the Roslin Glacier, over two cols and down the Bjornbo Glacier. We were totally self-sufficent throughout, and camping in temperaturs below -28C. We placed a network of ablation stakes and also managed to bag two previously unclimbed peaks.
"People are often surprised when I tell them that I find getting around on skis easier than on foot"
"I'm pretty certain that I'm the only blind person to claim first ascents in the Arctic! People are often surprised when I tell them that I find getting around on skis easier than on foot. When the ground is strewen with boulders it's a nightmare not being able to see. At least when everything is covered in snow the surface is smooth and I can ski to the base of the route more easily than I could cross a boulder field on foot.
The camp set up in Greenland
Expeditions are seriously hard work, I pulled 120kg behind me for a month, just surviving in the extreme environment is hard enough and then you add the challenge of the climbing, too. I ate 5,500 calories a day and still lost 6.5kgs of weight! I don't think I've ever been as tired, but I would still jump at the chance to go again. I would love to go to the Antarctic or to Arctic Canada."
Later that year, Jesse was climbing at the local wall when a member of the GB Paraclimbing squad noticed that he was blind, as Molly was directing him to holds: "I'd never heard of paraclimbing before." The Paraclimbing competition series involves four events spread out over the UK. The next competition was in four days time in Edinburgh. Jesse signed up, competed and got on the podium. He was picked for the team early in 2018: "That's when the hard training began."
"It freaks some people out when I lead with a blindfold on!"
"In the competitions I am in the B1 category, which is for those with light perception and totally black blind. I have to wear a blindfold to ensure a level playing field. I don't mind this, it doesn't make a difference, I can't see the holds anyway. When I train indoors I always have the blindfold on so that training and competitions aren't any different. It freaks some people out when I lead with a blindfold on!"
Jesse's next immediate focus is the Paraclimbing World Championships, which are in Briancon in mid-July: "I want to improve on my 7th place in Innsbruck last year. My climbing has improved dramatically since then so I am confident of doing so. Once that is done I want to have a go at some E2's. We have picked out a couple on grit which we think would suit me.
"Then we'll probably go away climbing in the autumn. We are currently looking at South Africa or Argentina. I'm still trying to work out what my next iconic route should be, finding one which is right for me is tricky. Perhaps a trip to Indian Creek in Utah or Ghost River for some ice climbing in Canada. We'll see!"
A report of Molly and Jesse's expedition to Greenland.
GB Climbing is supported by the BMC, Mountaineering Scotland, Clif Bar, and Duco.
SCROLL 🐦 Live GB Climbing Twitter updates @GB_Climbing
HIGHLIGHTS: 2019 La Sportiva British Bouldering Championships