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 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!”
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