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Bader Grant Recipient of the Month, Jesse Dufton. The amazing story continues…

We’re excited to be able to bring you the latest instalment of Jesse Dufton’s  expedition to the Stauning Alps in Arctic Greenland. Jesse, our current Bader Grant Recipient of the Month, who is registered blind/severely sight impaired, completed this gruelling challenge last year. We were delighted when he agreed to be our BGRotM and he has already sent in some amazing reports of the expedition and his part in it…

I always look forward to Jesse’s reports and, accompanied by Molly Thompson’s incredible photographs, they are always a treat. I hope you enjoy this as much as we did!

Through telling my story I hope I can go on to inspire others to challenge themselves and go on to achieve great things, showing disability has no barriers. Jesse Dufton

Jesse’s story continues below:


Our expedition was more than just surviving in the extreme arctic environment and exploring on skis, we had scientific research to conduct too! Just like the well-known polar expeditions of the past led by famous explorers such as Shackleton and Scott which all had strong scientific elements, our expedition also had a scientific objective.

We aimed to install a network of ten ablation stakes on the Roslin Glacier and to collect snow pit data from pits dug during the stake installations. This data is valuable for calculating the melt rate (ablation) of the surface of the glacier.

Placing the stakes would allow us to compare the rate at which the surface of the glacier is melting to the rate of melting in the 1970’s which was measured by a series of expeditions using similar methods.  It would also allow a longer term set of data to be established.  These data are valuable as they allow us to refine complex computer simulations of climate change and sea level rise to ensure that the simulations are as accurate as possible.

I care deeply about the effects that climate change is having on some of our planet’s most wonderful, yet fragile environments. I work in the clean energy sector and hope that my efforts to document our expedition and to provide useful data for climate modelling will enable us all to appreciate how important it is to act and save these regions from irreparable damage.

After a long day slogging uphill, dragging about 120kg of sledge behind me the only thing I wanted to do after having dinner, was to snuggle up in my sleeping bag, get warm and get some rest. But we had snow pits to dig and holes to drill, so it was back out into the cold for more hard work. Our first few attempts to place the first ablation stake near the bottom of the Roslin Glacier weren’t very successful, which was extremely annoying. When we dug down through the snow (nearly 2 metres of it!) on our first attempt, we hit rocks sitting on top of the glacier (rather than ice which we could drill into). The 5 of us took turns to dig with small snow shovels, the pit measured approximately 3m x 1.5m – that’s a fair amount of digging! We dug 2 further pits that night but hit rock both times again.

The next day after about an hour of skiing, we tried again. Digging was a good job for me, I just needed to be shown were to dig and where to throw the snow, turns out you’re not supposed to throw it at Molly…! We dug 1.8m down and this time hit ice rather than rock. Success! I was on the drilling team with 2 others – we took turns to drill as we needed to keep the drill moving to avoid it being frozen in place. The drill sections were a metre long, so every metre we needed to add another section and keep drilling until we’d gone down 6 metres. Meanwhile the other team members took the snow temperature and density measurements every 10cm down the depth of the pit. The drilling was pretty smooth – going down 6 metres was quicker than I thought. Our first stake was installed only 10 to go!

After slogging uphill the rest of the day, we set camp up and attempted to place another stake after dinner. Unfortunately when drilling this time, we hit a rock that must have been buried in the ice about 30cm below the surface. This blunted the drill bit and we gave up for the night…it was getting late and we were all knackered. The following day, when we stopped for lunch, we dug another pit and successfully placed the second stake. But now that the drill bit was blunt it was significantly harder to drill the hole! We found that the only way to make noticeable progress was for me to climb up the sides of the pit and press down on the top of the drill with all my weight. Someone else would then stand in the hole, between my legs and spin the drill. We did try to rotate who was pressing on the drill and who was spinning it but as I was the heaviest, it was most effective when I was pressing on the drill. I know my place!

By the middle of our 2nd week on the Roslin, we had reached the mouth of the Dalmore glacier – which looked strangely familiar to the rest of the team. The line of stakes that the teams in the 1970’s placed was at this point along the glacier. Our team had studied sketches, line drawings and photos from their expeditions hence the sense of familiarity. We spent the afternoon here, drilling 3 more holes across the width of the glacier. We installed all 3 ablation stakes in good time, working together well, we shared the digging, screwing and measuring. A total of 7 stakes now installed!

The day we placed our last stake was tough. We were slower getting off in the morning and left camp at about 1100 – tent repairs were required. The wind was stopping and starting and we couldn’t work out our layers. It was obvious that the mountains funnelled the wind through this spot as there were windblown crests in the snow pack. These ridges kept on stopping the pulks dead, jerking on our hips and shoulders. I could feel and hear that the snow was a lot more crisp and bumpy. This made the going really tough and was slowly breaking team morale. The wind was picking up and we just wanted to keep slogging away, but we had to stop to dig the final pit and install our final stake. While digging the pit the wind was seriously strong. It was so cold! We built a snow wall behind the pulks to shelter from the wind while we grabbed a quick bite to eat. Despite this a few of us got really cold and very grumpy. This took the sheen off what was a huge achievement for us – placing the last stake! We didn’t want to stop and celebrate completing all our science objectives, we just wanted to get moving and try and get warm. Molly was pulling her pulk wearing her huge down jacket, struggling to fight through the wind and freezing temperatures. We ploughed on and somehow kept each other going for a further 4km to a point where we could safely camp.

On reflection that evening, it began to sink in what we’d managed to accomplish – our very own contribution to climate change research! Through all our hard work we’d managed to install a full set of 11 ablation stakes and initiate what we hope will be a long-term monitoring programme in the area. And more importantly a reason to return to re-measure the stakes!

Now it was just the small matter of crossing 2 high cols with our pulks, making the return journey down the Bjornbo Glacier and attempting some first ascents up previously unclimbed mountains, simple! Crossing the cols proved to be the biggest challenge of the expedition! To be continued in the last instalment…

Deeper Snow in the Upper Reaches of The Roslin (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Deeper Snow in the Upper Reaches of The Roslin (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Jesse drilling in the lower reaches of The Roslin (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Jesse drilling in the lower reaches of The Roslin (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Our first successful 6 metre deep hole! (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Our first successful 6 metre deep hole! (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Sheltering from the wind (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Sheltering from the wind (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Sleeping bags airing on top of the tents and Jesse packing up (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Sleeping bags airing on top of the tents and Jesse packing up (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Advanced technique with a blunt drill! (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Advanced technique with a blunt drill! (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Stunning scenery (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
Stunning scenery (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
The location of some of our stakes in relation to those placed in the 1970s (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)
The location of some of our stakes in relation to those placed in the 1970s (Photograph courtesy of Molly Thompson, 2017)

As you will see from the above, we still have another instalment to look forward to. Watch this space!

As always, our very grateful thanks to Jesse for sharing his wonderfully inspiring story and to Molly Thompson for the stunning photographs. If any of the images on this post or Jesse’s previous reports really appeals to you and you’d like a high res copy, please contact us and we’ll get in touch with Molly.

(To check out earlier instalments of Jesse’s extraordinary trip please visit the Grants News section…)

Meet Jesse Dufton – Bader Grant Recipient of the Month for Winter!

We’re delighted that Jesse Dufton has agreed to be our latest Bader Grant Recipient of the Month. Intrepid Jesse, who has very limited vision and is registered blind/severely sight impaired, returned earlier this year from a gruelling but hugely successful expedition to the Stauning Alps in Arctic Greenland.

Expedition leader, Molly Thompson, took some stunning photographs during the trip and you will be in for a treat with these and videos of the adventure accompanying Jesse’s posts during his time as BGotR. Perfect for the winter season. There’s snow on the ground here as I write and I thought it was deep until I saw Jesse’s photos…

Jesse’s introduction follows below and, having read that, you’ll be delighted to know that there’s more to come.


Jesse wrapped up
Jesse wrapped up and ready (Photograph courtesy Molly Thompson 2017)

Jesse is an experienced mountaineer and skier. He has almost 20 years of outdoor climbing experience both in summer and winter conditions. He has been skiing for 15 years with numerous trips worldwide, across all disciplines downhill, touring and cross country. He has accomplished all this in spite of being registered as blind/severely sight impaired due to a genetic eye condition which has affected him since birth. As if all this wasn’t enough, Jesse felt it was time to try something big and have a real adventure! He has recently added Arctic Exploration and first ascents to his CV.

How does he do it…?

“When people find out that I’m blind, and that I climb, they often ask “How do you do it?” Well the honest answer is that I don’t know! I have always had extremely poor sight and thus I don’t know any different.

I guess the best place to start is, what can I see…well as my eyes have been bad since birth I’m not really sure what everyone else can see, so it’s quite hard for me to describe. It’s an over-simplification but the best analogy I’ve managed to come up with is…Imagine you’re looking through a drinking straw, and that straw has got 3 layers of clingfilm over the end. To be honest, I’ve got no idea whether or not 3 layers would introduce the appropriate level of blur to the image, but you get the picture! I have a very small area of vision which is slightly less rubbish than the rest of it and as my eyesight degrades this spot gets smaller and lower quality. Currently I can just about read one letter at a time if the font size is large enough.

So, how do I climb? Well obviously it’s a lot harder. For those not familiar with climbing; climbers normally look at a route before they start, they are looking to spot the holds and work out how to link them together into a sequence in order to be able to climb the whole route. I don’t do that, I can’t see anything but the most obvious features (a massive crack for example). So I have to kind of follow my nose and feel my way as I go. I spend a lot of time hanging on for dear life and searching for the next hold so I need to be considerably stronger than a fully sighted person would need to be. When a climber does a route first time without any information about any critical tricks in the sequence of holds we call this “on sight”. This isn’t appropriate for me, my mate Mike has suggested “on fondle” I like this term, I find I use it a lot.

As I mentioned, I learnt to climb early, I led my first route aged 11. Then, my sight was ~20% of normal vision, but not as bad as it is now (~5% of normal) so I used to be able to see some of the obvious holds. As I learnt to climb, I guess I developed a very specific sense of balance. I know that I can’t let go of that hold because my weight will shift and then I’ll slip off my foothold, and be in trouble. So over time I’ve developed this specific balance and learned to use all the tactile feedback I can. Climbers always wear these little rock shoes with rubber soles that allow them maximum friction on the rock. As I can’t see what I’ve put my foot on I need to be able to feel it. These shoes are always tight, but I have them super-snug so that I can feel the tiny foot holds. One of the drawbacks of this is that I’ve now got some pretty serious callouses on my toes, to be honest they’re starting to look pretty deformed…

To many people’s amazement, despite my eyes I still lead trad routes. For non-climbers this means I go up first and put in protection as I go. This protection is special wedges that can be put into cracks in the rock and then you attach the rope to it so if you fall off it will (hopefully) stay in place and stop you hitting the ground. Obviously, it’s tricky to put the right size of protection in when you can’t see what you’re doing. I’ve got to use my sixth sense here and select the right size based on how wide I think the crack is from feeling it. For example I know that a crack that I can jam my hand into is the right size for 2.5 cam (a particular piece of equipment). I’d like to think that my gear placements are usually pretty solid, but it does leave some questions in your mind when you’ve just climbed 3metres past your last piece. You think, “I hope that last bit was good, I couldn’t really tell if it was seated right. If I fall off here and it comes out I’m probably going to hit the ground and that’s going to be a broken leg at best…probably best to hold on for dear life…”

Having the mental strength to have this conversation with yourself and control the fear as you start to get tired and feel your hands coming off those small holds you’re holding is a really important part of climbing. I guess that it’s something I need to be a bit stronger than most at.

When we go ice climbing a few things change. Ice climbing is more dangerous than rock climbing as ice isn’t as solid as rock and so has a tendency of snapping off when you pull on it. You’ve got these sharp points attached to your feet and two pointy axes to swing around too. Essentially you’ve got to swing the pick of your axe into the concave little divots in the ice and hack a little notch to pull upon. If you hit a convex section it usually just smashes into a million pieces which then go in your face. It’s hard for me to see the good bits of ice to aim for. I sometimes put the pick of my axe on the ice wall and have a little feel around for a good bit to aim at. I’m hanging off a bent arm while I’m doing this and so burning through my reserves of strength faster than a sighted person would have to. Fortunately when you get a good axe placement the axe’s handle vibrates in a special way and it makes a satisfying “thunk” noise – so at least spotting these placements is one thing I’m not at a disadvantage at.

When it comes to skiing again people are usually quite amazed that I can ski black runs and off piste without really being able to see much at all. Usually it’s best if I follow another skier so that I can see if they go over a sudden change of angle, I know it’s going to get steeper. I can’t see the lumps and bumps so have learned to absorb them when I do inevitably hit them. Molly still has trouble understanding how I don’t fall over when I hit some of the bumps I do, I guess all I can say is that I’ve had a bit of practice…

One thing I haven’t mentioned are all my mates, they help a lot! They’ll direct me to the holds from the ground and use a laser pointer to point out which holds I’m allowed to use if we’re at the indoor climbing wall. I think most of them don’t really know how I do it, other than using “Jesse strength!”

 

Exploration
Exploration (Photograph courtesy Molly Thompson 2017)
Bjornbo Glacier
Bjornbo Glacier (Photograph courtesy Molly Thompson 2017)
Ascending our first new peak
Ascending our first new peak (Photograph courtesy Molly Thompson 2017)
Amazing skiing (Photo courtesy Molly Thompson 2017)
Amazing skiing (Photograph courtesy Molly Thompson 2017)
Jesse leading the way (Photo courtesy Molly Thompson 2017)
Jesse leading the way (Photograph courtesy Molly Thompson 2017)

We’re very grateful to Jesse for this wonderful report and indebted to Molly Thompson for allowing us to use her beautiful photographs. These images and others that will follow are available in high-res format. Please contact us if you’d like a copy.

We have no doubt that Sir Douglas would have approved wholeheartedly of Jesse’s spirit of adventure and the courage and determination that is “Jesse strength”. The DBF was delighted to award Jesse a grant to go towards his participation in this extraordinary expedition and very proud to be associated with him.

More to follow shortly – watch this space!

You can read the post written on Jesse’s return and explaining the objectives of the expedition HERE