The blind climber Jesse Dufton, 34, has broken into the British climbing grade of E2, leading two E2 5c (5.10d) routes, onsight no less.
Born with just 20 percent of his central vision and no peripheral vision, Dufton learned to climb with his dad at around two years old and led his first route when he was 11. Losing his sight was gradual; day to day, he didn’t notice a difference, but when visiting a place after a year had gone by he noticed a drastic change. As he climbed, he noticed differences: not being able to see a hold, or needing more instructions from his belayer.
“I lost more and more of my sight, and we’d start to use a laser pointer when we were climbing indoors to shine on holds. I could see the laser pointer but that was about it,” Dufton told Rock and Ice.
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He was last able to see the light from the laser pointer five years ago. These days, he cannot see his hand if he holds it a foot in front of his face and can only utilize verbal instructions from his wife and belayer Molly.
Forked Lightning Crack (E2 5c/5.10d) and Auricle (E2 5c/5.10d) were his first climbs of the grade, and both onsights—or “non-sights,” as Dufton calls them.
This comes just over a year after he led Old Man of Hoy, the sea stack off the coast of Scotland, and a few months after the documentary “Climbing Blind” was released. The film covers his ascent—the first blind ascent of Old Man of Hoy, and has won numerous awards.
Forked Lightning Crack in Heptonstall Quarry, UK, was a mental threshold for Dufton. Having not led an E2 before, he felt pressure to onsight it.
“And because I knew it was probably quite a good route for me as well, there’s the mental pressure of not wanting to mess it up,” Dufton said.
Because he can’t see, Dufton prefers climbs that follow obvious features where “you can’t get lost” like cracks, aretes or corners, he told Rock and Ice. Cracks are especially safe because he can “stuff them full of cams.” Routes that are highly sequential and dependent on using small, elusive feet—like the pockety limestone of Spain—are not as good.
Gritstone and quartzite, on the other hand, are better for clearer feet.
“Anything where it’s fairly binary, this is a foothold or there’s no foothold here. Those are the things that are good for me,” said Dufton.
While he partakes in the other disciplines, trad climbing is Dufton’s favorite. He places gear entirely by feel. Molly radio signals him from the ground if she sees a possible location for gear. Dufton then goes to investigate.
“Once I’ve touched it I can build like a 3D model of it in my mind, and from that you can work out whether or not it will or won’t take gear,” Dufton said.
Dufton has some quick rules of thumb for determining the size of the gear, like how big the crack is relative to his hand. After slotting in the cam he feels it to ensure all four lobes are engaged. Racking up in the same way every time is even more important for Dufton, but like any climber, in moments of panic gear can shift on his harness.
“I think I probably get the right size about the same as a sighted climber,” said Dufton.
Looking ahead, Dufton wants to tick more E2s. The famous Centotaph Corner (5.10b) and Cemetery Gates (5.9+) in Dinas Cromlech are on his mind. Eventually he wants to come to the U.S. and get on Indian Creek splitters.
“It’s quite hard cause I’ve just hit a milestone,” he said. “So I need to spend a bit of time consolidating at that level and then thinking about what the next objective is.”