Climbing Blind; how does it work?!

I previously published this before going to Greenland, hopefully people find it useful to gain some insight into how I climb.

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 learnt to climb young so I’ve always done that too.

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 shit 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.

Jesse leading in the Wye Valley
Jesse leading in the Wye Valley

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 (~4% of normal) so I could 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…

Jesse leading on grit..

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.

Jesse climbing a frozen waterfall in Gol, Norway
Jesse lead ice climbing a frozen waterfall in Gol, Norway

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 tendancy 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…

Aerobic training in the Alps.

One thing I haven’t mentioned are all my mates, they help a lot! They’ll direct me to use holds if they can see them 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!” I guess they’ve all got they’re favourite story about climbing with me, I think quite a lot of these probably involve swearing and lots of it…

“What has always amazed me is Jesse’s ability to power up almost any climb despite not knowing what’s after the next move, yet has the subtle skills to coach people up a climb which is well outside their comfort zone. One of the best examples of this is when Jesse and I climbed a route called Goliath’s Groove, a classic 20 metre or so climb up a large groove on Stanage Edge, Peak District. Jesse lead the route in typical take-no-prisoners fashion and set up anchors at the top ready for me to have a go climbing it, with him belaying from the top. I found the route far from easy and at one point couldn’t work out how to climb the next bit of the groove. “Jesse, how do you climb the groove after the platform?” I called out. “I can’t work out how to layback the next part.” A few seconds later I found myself being literally hauled up the crag by a metre or so, until I found an easier section where I could start making progress again. “Thanks Jesse, this bit is easier!!” This is just one of many examples where Jesse has helped me get up something I shouldn’t be able to!!” Simon

“I’ve climbed with Jesse loads, on hundreds of routes…and most are memorable! It’s not unheard of for Jesse’s foot to slip off if he hasn’t quite got his foot correctly on the ‘good bit’. I’m always braced ready, tied down to the ground if possible (he’s not a small chap) to catch him on the rope. But no, he must have been holding onto a massive jug to save that one… But more often than not there’s not a massive jug, but a crappy little sloper thing. How does he hang on?? One time, while seconding a sport route in Spain, he came off near the top and I wasn’t tied down. He was falling down and I was being dragged up…we meet quite dramatically in the middle of the crag, to the amusement of all the locals! I had to lower myself down to the ground first, before then lowering Jesse down. Lesson learnt!” Molly

“I always remember laughing pretty hard when you were wailing on the top of some ledge in the Peak District. But obviously that’s schadenfreude pure and simple! The other one that springs to my mind is when we both got a bit excited heading up the Aguilles Rouges – you absolutely spanked my arse. Think we both felt pretty shit at the end of that day. The following day I was in a very sorry state, I remember feeling grateful that you offered me some of your water. Thanks for being a good climbing buddy! Thinking about it – I’ve no idea how the f**k you got up all of those scree slopes at a pace a lot faster than the average joe would manage.” Rob

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