Blind rock climber believes he might not be as good if he had his sight

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In his own words, Jesse Dufton, 34, explains the role that climbing has played in his life, from family connection to meeting the love of his life, and overcoming all the odds along the way.

I was born with a genetic condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and, over the years, my eyesight gradually deteriorated.

The best way to describe it is like looking through a straw then cling film being layered over the end.

At school I couldn’t read the blackboard and I had to use a big magnifying glass for books.

By the time I got to university in Bath to study Chemistry it had got to the point where I couldn’t really see images at all, only the difference between light and dark.

And a few years later, once I was in the first year of my PHD, I was almost 100% blind.

When I was young I used to get very angry if I encountered something I found difficult or couldn’t do because of my eyes.

But over time I learned that wasn’t a helpful response. There’s no point getting wound up by the fact I can’t see, because it won’t change it.

I’m an only child. My mum was a teacher and marriage guidance counsellor and my dad ran a charity, and they’ve always encouraged and supported me in everything.

And technology is a blessing. For example, text to speech is kind of a saviour. For my job, I’m a principle patent engineer, looking at patent portfolios for tech companies. My computer and my phone read text out to me. And I’ve got an app on my tablet which will read out things like The New Scientist.

But, of course, my great passion is climbing and there aren’t digital aids and solutions for that.

I started climbing when I was young, my dad took me up my first rock route when I was two. All my early climbing was outdoor traditional climbing, and bouldering in Fontainbleau, France.

My dad had been in the Mountain Rescue and was part of a mountaineering club, so we would go for weekends away climbing throughout the UK.

He taught me everything I know and I led my first route outside when I was 11. At this time I had about 20% blurry central vision and no peripheral vision. I could just about see well enough to place rock gear, but not well enough to pick out the routes from the ground.

People are usually amazed when they discover that not only do I climb, but I also lead climbs.

‘Trad’ climbing is when you start at the bottom, and as you climb up, you put the bits of gear into the cracks and you loop the ropes through them as safety mechanisms, and you hope you won’t fall off!

This is different to ‘sport’ climbing where someone has been up beforehand to drill metal bolts into the rock that you can clip the rope through, rather than having to find a crack yourself.

At university I joined the Mountaineering Club and was able to climb much more frequently. We had regular trips to indoor walls and weekends away outdoors. I developed a great circle of climbing friends and went on multiple trips to Europe. On these I started Alpine climbing and ice climbing too.

But when my sight dropped to a level where I could no longer read, it started to be difficult to place gear as I couldn’t see whether it was properly seated. I also stopped being able to pick out the holds at indoor walls.

There was a time when I thought I might have to give up leading as my eyesight got worse. But I never thought I would stop climbing, I just learnt to adapt with the support of my friends.

People often ask me, ‘Why rock climbing, it doesn’t seem like a good activity for a blind person?’

But when I think about the danger, crossing the road is far more dangerous, and also it’s something where I’m not in control.

It’s quite possible that I wouldn’t be as good a climber if I weren’t blind – if I didn’t have these challenges. It wouldn’t focus me. That determination is built through my disability.

I met my wife Molly at a climbing club during freshers’ week. Though we didn’t climb together very much because we were both very experienced so were normally partnered up with those who hadn’t done as much as we had. We were just friends at first, but eventually romance blossomed.

I actually proposed to her in 2017 on a climbing trip to Greenland. It was my most ambitious trip yet, camping in temperatures below -20°C and claiming the first ascents of two previously unclimbed mountains, which I believe is a first for a blind climber!

Neither Molly nor I are jewellery people, so I didn’t have an engagement ring. Also, when you go on expeditions, all your kit is scrutinised by every member of the party, so it would probably have been found and spoiled the surprise. And I might have lost it.

In the end I went down on one knee with an injured finger ring from our First Aid kit. She said yes, but then I stumbled and somehow dropped the ring. So it’s still there in Greenland!

The thing that hurts most as I’ve lost my sight is not being able to see Molly’s face any more. That’s what I’m missing. There’s a photo from when we went to the Alps, of her with a pair of sunglasses on, that’s my mental image of her.

Molly was my climbing partner last year when I finally fulfilled my ambition to tackle the Old Man Of Hoy, a famous 137m/450ft sea stack in the Orkney Isles. This was the most adventurous rock route I’ve done, it was truly epic.

It’s an iconic route and it’s not easy. That’s why you do it. You do it because it’s hard. You do it for the challenge, you want the satisfaction, and you don’t get that unless there’s a chance of failure.

The climb itself was only half the story. It started with wild camping then an hour’s walk to the headland, followed by a tricky descent on treacherous grass slopes and then a scramble across to the base.

A late start waiting for the wind to drop led to us not reaching the top until 10.10pm. That was followed by three massive abseils back down, then repeating the tricky and slippery scramble to get back up the cliff relying all the way on step-by-precarious-step instructions from Molly.

And lastly the hour-long walk back to the tents, reaching my sleeping bag at 2.45am with the sun threatening to rise again. It was such an amazing day, unreal.

When I reach the top of a climb, I don’t get to appreciate the view, but the feeling of accomplishment is incredible. There are many different challenges to climbing.

There’s the strength element: am I physically strong enough to pull up off this small hole? And then the technique and skill elements: have I minimised the risk? If you get it wrong you can’t pull the ropes through.

And, of course, there’s also the mental side where you’re constantly thinking things like, ‘It’s 10 metres since I placed my last piece of gear, so if I fall off here I’m probably going to the hospital. Let’s try not to freak out’.

You have to do all these at the same time. It is the ultimate test of your brain and your body. And I love it.

Doing that climb was a testament to the outlook I’ve always had – which is that I’m not disabled, I’m blind and able.

I’m lucky because at our house in Loughborough we have a garage with climbing training kit in it, so even in lockdown, I can still get some practice. But I can’t wait to get back out for my next climbing adventure.

– To see Jesse in action, watch Climbing Blind on Wednesday, May 20 at 9pm on BBC Four then on BBC iPlayer

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