The blind climber scaling new heights

The blind climber scaling new heights
Taking on rock faces takes skill, trust and perfect communication for Jesse Dufton, the world’s leading blind climber.

Truly effective communication transcends mere words. It’s how you choose to communicate, with whom you communicate, and the trust that underpins it all. Married climbing partners, Jesse and Molly Dufton have this down to a fine art, enabling them to conquer iconic climbing routes as they communicate through a radio mic. Their communication is extra important because Jesse cannot see – he can only distinguish between light and dark in an extremely restricted field of view. Born with the genetic condition, rod-cone dystrophy, Jesse had only 20% sight, and his vision has deteriorated over time, making communication with Molly even more important in a sport where trust between partners is already vital. Together they have climbed difficult ascents, while Jesse has built a reputation for being one of the world’s leading blind climbers – both indoors and outdoors. He has been recognised by Guinness World Records for being the first blind person to lead climb the Orkney’s famous Old Man of Hoy – where he was also the subject of a BBC documentary Climbing Blind. We spoke to him about how he and Molly work so well together.

We’re here to talk about The Power of Words, but before we get onto that, how would you describe yourself?

A climber – that’s the easy bit! Primarily a trad climber. Because I can’t see, I’m very static, slow and controlled. Endurance is one of my strengths – it has to be because I’m on the routes for so much longer than everyone else. I’ve got a pretty good head. That’s important for trad climbing. You find yourself in some pretty scary and sometimes dangerous situations, and the ability to focus on the task at hand is really critical.

Often people ask me whether I would describe myself as a climber or a paraclimber. I’m both, but I prefer to just call myself a climber.

How would you describe Molly?

Well, awesome, obviously! She's very shy and very modest. I find it hilarious when people ask her about her climbing, “Oh, do you climb too?” I’m there giggling like, “she's a far better climber than me”. She'll never admit it, but she is.

It feels like your relationship powers your climbing.

It’s a huge part of our climbing. There are several things that make Molly amazing as a sight guide. She’s a good climber. She looks at the route, reads it, then adjusts the plan to tailor it to me. I’m six foot one: she’s five foot six. I climb very differently from her – I can’t dyno, but I can hang on forever. She must adjust the plan of how she would climb it to enable it for me.

Then she’s got to communicate in the minimum possible time. I can hang on for a long time, but it’s not infinite. Then there’s the nonverbal – the reading of each other’s emotional states. She can tell when I’m getting stressed and close to falling off. And, conversely, I can tell through her instructions when she’s stressed and worried about me falling off, or the danger. She tries to mask it as much as she can, but you can never hide things completely from someone who knows you well.

“Communication is critical for me, as I don’t rehearse routes before I climb them.”

Jesse Dufton

Tell me about your communication system.

It is very cut back. We strip out everything we can because time is so important.

Indoors, it’s obvious where the holds are most of the time. We use a code to direct me to the next hold based on a clock face. For example, ‘ten’ and then you’ll give a distance. Outside, Molly must look at the rock, work out where the holds are, then direct me to where they are in relation to my body.

Some blind climbers want to know what hold is coming next. That’s unnecessary information for me. Within milliseconds of touching it, I’ll have worked out how to hold it. The only thing I want to know is if I need to hold it in a different way to what I might expect.

Communication is critical for me, as I don’t rehearse routes before I climb them. This is the way that I choose to climb. I could make it easier by rehearsing, but I choose not to because it would be destroying the game. I want to be judged on the same level as an able-bodied climber. I don’t want unnecessary adjustments to be put in place for me. I want the minimum level of help.

Is there anything that you don’t want to hear from Molly when you’re climbing?

Anything that’s unnecessary. The funniest is when I’m on routes that are some of the hardest I’ve ever done, and when she can’t see me she’s started telling me about the wildlife. Like on The Old Man of Hoy (East Face Route, E1 5b), it was a seal. On Internationale (E3, Isle of Skye), which is my hardest route, she spotted a pod of dolphins. She’s telling me about this while I’m hanging on for dear life. I was like, “not now, Molly”. She’s got a wicked sense of humour.

Has there been a moment when you felt your communication come together in a powerful way?

There’s a route in Pembroke called Kinvig. It’s E1 [Extreme], quite obscure. It’s not one of the harder things I’ve climbed but, for me, it was really hard because of the style of the climbing – it’s all in where you place your feet. Finding footholds is one of the hardest things when you can’t see. And, to complement that, the gear (protection you place as you climb) is rubbish. I didn’t have confidence that it would hold a fall. Molly is there below, looking up, doing her very best to spot where the holds are.

That was a really good example of two things. One, it showed Molly’s ability to communicate with me under stress, and her ability to be a rock-reading genius and direct me to things that must be tiny from the ground. And two, my ability to really give everything, because I thought that I was going to drop every single move on that route. While it's graded E1, often the grade that a route gets given doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn't tell the experience that you had on that route.

How long did it take to build the trust in your climbing partnership?

I don’t think there’s a clear line between no trust and trust. It gradually builds up over years. Molly and I started climbing together in about 2008. At that point, I could still see a little, so there was a gradual transition between climbing as two climbing partners, into Molly beginning to guide me.

The big things are the traumatic experiences that you go through and come out the other side. I was a more experienced Alpine climber than Molly, and I took her to do her first Alpine route. Unfortunately, a climber from another party fell and died, and we had to call in the rescue helicopter and try to get down to the body. We had another experience when we were in Greenland – an anchor failure – and it would have been very easy for some of our friends to die then, but we didn't panic.

Sometimes people change under stress. It’s only when you have been through some of those situations, and you know they don’t react badly, that you find out what their personality is like on the inside and you can really trust them.

I heard that you don't tend to prep before you climb. Is that true?

The most ‘pure’ type of ascent is what they call ‘onsight’, where you don’t have any information about the route beforehand. You turn up at the crag, you look at it. Then you climb it, first go, no falls. Outside, I climb mostly onsight – and I am fully aware of the irony of that description. So, in that sense, I do no prep.

I cut down the amount that we talk about the route on the ground. When climbing outside, the main thing is getting the first gear in (using climbing equipment to secure the rope in case of a fall). Where’s that going to go? What size gear am I going to need? We won’t walk through all the moves because Molly can’t tell from the ground which holds are useful. A lot more of the decision-making process outdoors on what holds to use and what gear to place is down to me.

On indoor routes, we only focus on things that will be hard to describe on the fly. If you do a rose move (a specialised crossing technique), that’s quite hard with the communication system that we have. Or maybe you’ll be moving the same hand twice – that doesn’t fit into our system either. You try and get those nailed on the ground before you set off.

Is there something that you feel like is a misconception in paraclimbing?

All the paraclimbing competitions use a top rope. I would hate to think that there is an assumption that paraclimbers can’t lead climb. The vast majority of my climbing is on lead, and I’d prefer it if the competitions were on lead too rather than top rope.

What are you most proud of in your climbing career?

It’s the times when I’ve pushed myself, both physically and mentally. Kinvig (mentioned above) was a good example of mental fortitude as much as anything else.

Forked Lightning Crack (E2, Yorkshire) was really significant because that was the first route that I had ever done with no sight that was harder than anything I could have climbed when I could see a little bit. That was a big threshold for me.

This piece appeared in Huck #80. Get your copy here.

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