All posts by jessedufton

Winter Training

I stepped on and grabbed the cross-trainer’s arms, something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. My brain fogged. Linkin Park blared from the nearby speaker, drowning out the beeps of the cross-trainer as my befuddled mind stuttered. Probably my oldest possession those speakers, one of the first things I bought for myself, they had etched many engrams into my teenage mind as I discovered metal, this tune among them. 

I snapped back as realisation dawned; it was the arms that felt wrong. The strange sensation was the layer of verglas that coated the metal plates beneath my palms, I sluffed it off as I began my warmup. Imagining the clouds billowing from my nostrils into the frigid winter air. Training this evening would be even colder than last night and that had been -2C. 

I stomped away to build an inner fire, billowing mist like a steam powered golem. 

My wandering mind flicking back to the news’ earlier talk of changing interest rates and the article I had been reading on Valery Zaluzhny, commander of Ukraine’s military. The topics meshing like gears in my mind, the teeth of financial assets and military strategy seamlessly melding in my subconscious. 

The thoughts rattled around as I completed my warmup and moved to the circuit board. The wooden holds feeling cold and slippery under my fingers as I worked my way around the first lap of the circuit. Gradually, as the laps built, the warmth of my fingers formed hot spots on the stubbornly frigid blocks. The familiar chords of “Numb” hitting my ears, it was a good allegory for the state of my toes that were still battling the icy chill. The cold sucking vampirically on the heat I’d managed to kindle thus far. 

Jesse on the circuit board..

Around and around, I went, feeling the pump gradually build. Like a hostile invasion of my forearms, pegged back but not totally repulsed by the restorative hand flicks that emptied the depleted blood from my swollen muscles. It was encouraging to feel how much I recovered with each flick and split second of rest that my arm enjoyed between leaving one hold and grasping the next. It hadn’t always been like this. Not so long ago my arms wouldn’t have recovered so readily, and I would have been unable to stave off the invading lactic acid.  

Then my subconscious delivered the link, investment. Firstly, in the conventional sense but also in the general’s decisions on when and where to apply his resources. And finally, to me, listening to music through those speakers as I trained. 

Every move I made was an investment. 

A down-payment on future dreams. 

I pay it gladly. 

Climbing in the Lofoten Islands

I listened to the eerie moan of the wind as it scythed down the valley, then the crump of impact and the strain of fabric as the tent buckled under the onslaught of the gale and its driven rain slamming into the flysheet. 

The savagery of the storm fit the other-worldly nature of Lofoten. Indeed, the nearby crag alluded to the imagery of Tolkien, with climb names like Gandalf, Smeagol and Gollum. It was easy to imagine that, as in middle earth’s misty mountains, it was the clash of giants that caused the maelstrom in which our tiny tent now buckled and flexed. Each successive blast threatening to shred our gossamer shield and leave us exposed to the lashing rain. 

A photo of Jesse climbing Gandalf in Lofoten. The Rock is very dark and he stands out in his orange t-shirt.
Gandalf Sector, Lofoten

I lay there, racked by the successive blasts of over-pressure, fatalistically committed to seeing whether our shelter would survive or be torn asunder. Molly and Alistair were not gripped by the same resignation and amid the 2am twilight of an arctic summer we rose, exploiting a brief lull, to strip our camp and move to a more sheltered pitch in the next valley. A small hollow ringed by trees it warded us from the worst of the gale, and I grabbed a fitful modicum of slumber as the heavens incessantly deluged. 

Leaving the tent in the morning I sloshed into the new lake that had risen to encompass us while we slept, and which was being gently supplemented by the drizzle which still fell, splattering my face. Assessing the water submerging my feet and lower shins which had begun to seep up through our tent’s groundsheet the appeal of a cafe proved irresistible.  

We soaked in the cosy vibe of the café while our soaked jackets gently steamed from where they hung. We weren’t alone, the small room was filled with climbers from all over Europe similarly sheltering. 

I thought back to the start of the trip. We had flown into Tromso and had a great day cragging at Brensholmen, before starting the long drive South to Lofoten, squeezing in some great climbing in the days before the elements turned against us. 

Once the rain had abated, we headed to Svolvaer to climb “The Goat” a huge buttress overlooking the town which is topped by two towers which, when viewed from the town make the formation resemble a goat with 2 horns. 

A photo of the goat, with Jesse abseiling off the Goat with Svolvaer town and the sea in the background.
Abseiling off between the 2 horns of the famous goat.

Usually, discrepancies between the guidebook and reality are unwelcome, but on this occasion the presence of a literal staircase, recently built by Sherpas, running up the steep hillside to the base of “The Goat” was a welcome surprise. Given how sapping travelling over broken ground can be when you can’t see the rocks, roots, drops, streams, and all other manner of man traps which lie in wait. I was happy to be able to slog up the staircase, expending a fraction of the effort that would otherwise have been required. We romped up Forsida, the most famous route up the Goat. Exquisite climbing on clean rock without a hint of polish, it was straightforward beautiful climbing following a series of cracks. Reaching the top, I declined to attempt the traditional leap between the goat’s horns, acrobatics have never been my strongest suit. 

The next morning the rain returned. For somewhere that rains a lot there is not much for the drenched and despondent climber to do while waiting for dry rock. Apart from the excellent Viking Museum that is. Museums are not often that appealing when you can’t see. Racks of small objects in glass cases with boards to read isn’t accessible if you’re blind. However, at Borg, in addition to an audio guide there was a replica Viking long house, with all manner of replica items that I was free to pick up, fondle and in the case of the drying fish and the caldron of steaming stew on the open fire to smell. I think I might have made a good Viking but was surprised how heavy and uncomfortable the helmet was. I think I’ll stick to my lightweight modern climbing helmet. On the other hand, I was amazed by how good some of the items were, especially a pair of fur mittens. Ok, I’d still prefer a nice modern pair of softshell gloves, but I could imagine those Viking mittens warding off the cold in some serious winter conditions. 

A photo of Jesse climbing a hand crack, wearing crack gloves.
The crack climbs in Lofoten are mega.

Sadly, the axe throwing was out of commission when we visited, but I did have a go at the archery. The guy running the range was amazed when Alistair told him that I couldn’t see and impressed that I managed to hit the target with a little direction.  

We were due a day of scattered showers, so Molly and I headed to Finnvika a small sport crag with a handful of routes starting from a large sloping slab above a boulder beach. Molly and I had snuck out between the showers to try Drommen om Michaela (Michaela’s Dream) a fingery little gem. It reminded me of an indoor route, the holds seemingly having been placed with the care and attention of a skilled setter. I think I must have performed my usual trick of breaking the beta and using a selection of crimps which are normally ignored. Despite it being a steep slab where an intricate foot sequence is critical, I padded to the top.  

Optimism gripped us and Molly set off up the next route. Drizzle set in as she clipped the chains, and this built to a stern squall which had the route drenched by the time it was my turn. We scuttled away in search of shelter only to find that the rain was not going to be the major source of our wetness problems, as the tide had now come in and we were cut-off. Forced into an ignominious wade through thigh high sea water to return bedraggled to the car. Molly blames me, I was supposed to be watching the tide… 

A photo of Jesse climbing up a smooth slab, next to the sea.
Sport climbing on the coast.

It is not often that climbers have more trepidation about the approach to a route than about the climb itself. However, for me there are certain routes where this is very much the case. Bare Blåbær is a prime example. Supposedly the “must do” route in Lofoten it follows a series of cracks up a huge slab in 7 pitches. Beautiful climbing on immaculate rock, the only problem for me at least is getting there. The guidebook suggests an hour’s walk, but I guess it’s not thinking of blind people. 

It took about 2 hours on the way in for me. What makes it hard is that calling it a path would be generous. A hell-scape of boulders, trees and most importantly Jesse-snaring holes would be more accurate. My slowness meant that there were already several teams in-situ on the route when we arrived at the crag. So, after making some new Finnish friends we got down to the very British pursuit of queuing. Turns out that this wasn’t the only stereotype we would be ticking. As Alistair followed me up the third pitch gleeful at having rescued a wedged monster cam, I heard an excited “ooow” as he peered down into a deep cleft to spot a trove of lost gear. Ever resourceful, and true to his Yorkshire roots, he proceeded to “fish” with his nut-key hanging from a sling. Within a matter of minutes, he’d caught a big blue hex and a nut. Reluctantly leaving the trickier and more wedged bootie for future anglers. His retrieval efforts meant our new Finnish friends were now passing us on the abseil line out to the side and to my bewilderment began to sing jingle bells as I set off up the next pitch. Turns out that for the continentals, the jangle of hexes or in this case torque nuts are the sign of a stereotypical Brit climber. Hence me being serenaded. What my choir sadly missed was the utility of this jangle to me. Once we’d completed the route it was time to re-cross the hell-scape but this time we attached my torque nuts to the outside of Molly’s bag, so I had a near-constant noise to follow through the maze-like minefield of pitfalls. Fair warning to all hex users out there, if you jangle them, I may follow you….  

A photo of Jesse high on pitch 3 on Bare Blabaer, with some big spikey mountains in the background.
Bare Blåbær was worth the epic walk in.

On the topic of following, it is a basic mountain lesson for most, don’t just blindly follow the other people… The next day we went to try the Skiløperen, which sits on an outcrop of one of the major mountains that many tourists hike to the top of. We started the walk in and about 5mins after leaving the car, branched off the main path to head up the track leading to the crag. The large group of tourists behind us clearly were just following as they branched off too and came up behind us. Their confusion evident as the path arrived at the base of the crag and promptly stopped. We couldn’t understand the exact content of their conversation, but the consternation was clear. As I racked up at the base of the route there was a near constant train of tourists arriving at the dead-end path, I’d been an unwitting pied piper. Surprisingly, none of them attempted to follow me up the route. They were missing out, as the Skiløperen was my favourite climb of the trip, an amazing line. It follows a steep crack, with the crux being a section of obligatory jamming, before it steepens further as you reach a succession of huge flakes providing jug after monster jug as I sailed upwards bathed in very welcome sun above the huddle of lost tourists below. 

A photo of Jesse climbing an awesome looking crack climb, high on the cliff, with the sea in the background.
Skiloperen was an immense climb.

After Skiløperen, we went around the corner to the next buttress, sadly losing the sun, and tried Cuckoo Crack. A forgettable first pitch brings you to a sloping ledge in a large gully with a rising diagonal crack running up the lefthand exposed wall. 

The sun had moved around, and we were now in shade and a fresh breeze as we waited for the party ahead to clear the pitch, yet more Finnish climbers I noted as I thought wistfully of the warm sun and huddled into my primaloft. 

Presently, the route was clear, and I climbed quickly to the probable crux, a tricky rising hand traverse on undercuts in the crack with poor footholds. Passing it quickly and consciously trying to climb fast as I knew Alistair and Molly were both cold. I realised how long the pitch was, it just kept going steady and sustained. I emptied my harness of gear, to the point where I had to get creative as I’d run out of quickdraws and almost everything in fact, even the krab I keep my emergency prussik loops on had been used. A great route and had it been in the sun it would have been hard to pick a favourite between it and Skiløperen, but for me the sunny Skiløperen takes the prize. 

I’m a sucker for an immature route name, so when I found that there was a route called Butt Crack at the crag my inner teenager took hold, and I was drawn in like a moth to a flame. One of the many problems when you’re blind is that you can’t see the horror show you are letting yourself in for. I set off in blissful ignorance and it was only once I was committed that I found the damp streak oozing out below the route’s “buttocks”. Tiptoeing gingerly around the worst of the seepage I wiggled up into the butt crack proper. It’s a flaring cleft that I needed to chimney up. Problem is it’s too tight for me to fit into nicely. With no in-cut holds or ledges to stand on I needed to smear with my feet, on one cheek, my back against the other. As I writhed in search of upwards escape the cleft narrows and I became more stretched out, it was hard to keep my heels down to engage the smeary footholds. I feared one might slip and I would be ejected rapidly from this rock-bottom like a particularly dynamic piece of poo, but I channelled my inner Klingon, and refused to be dislodged. I figured out how to extricate my legs and scamper, relieved, to the top. Not the most elegant of routes, but it was fun! 

A photo of Jesse squeezing out the bum crack.
Butt Crack was a very entertaining experience.

During our time in Lofoten we had become acolytes of the YR weather oracle, with the holy tenants of the rain-radar never far from our minds. We had been granted a dry morning on our last day so time to squeeze in a short route between packing up our camping kit and starting the long drive back up North to Tromso. With my ankles now mostly a bloody mess of cuts and scabs from the numerous traps that ensnared me on the walk ins, I voted for the easiest of approaches, straight along the beach from our campsite. Like the approach the route was good for me. Named Apa (the Ape or the Gorilla) it’s a rising diagonal fist crack up a short bulging wall. Swinging merrily from the fist jams before pulling over the final lip I resisted the urge to beat my chest in triumph and settled for a satisfied grin fitting for the end of a great trip. Despite the rain we had climbed for 10 days of our 2-week trip on some of the best quality rock I’ve ever encountered, not a hint of polish. Already my mind is turning to when Molly and I could return… 

California Comps and Cracks

October 2021

Boarding the plane seemed unbelievable to me. There had been so many opportunities for the trip to get cancelled that I couldn’t quite believe that it hadn’t. Given the fact UK citizens were still banned from entering the US, I’d needed a special Presidential Waiver to be allowed to attend the Los Angeles Paraclimbing World Cup, the last in a series of 3 World Cups organised by the IFSC, but the only one that was possible to attend due to COVID travel bans on the GB team. I imagined President Biden sitting down to sign my paperwork personally, but the reality was much more mundane, a quick and uneventful passage through US border control.

A photo of Molly and Jesse smiling on the beach in LA.
Molly and I arrived in Los Angeles and headed for the beach.

The competition took place over two days at the Sender One climbing gym. Fortunately, we’d realised in time that due to an inexplicable logic failure there are 2 climbing walls called Sender One in the same city and we’d originally booked to stay near the wrong one… Why not call the second gym Sender Two!?!? Anyway, our initial mistake rectified, we arrived at the correct gym in plenty of time for the competition and hoping to back-up my performance from the World Championships in Moscow only 2 weeks before.

The qualification round didn’t go that well if I’m honest. I don’t think I was really in the right frame of mind and on the first route I dropped it reaching for the final hold. I had reached past the finishing jug, didn’t feel it and so reached higher. Thinking that I hadn’t reached far enough and not realising that I was in fact way past the finishing jug. I stretched too far and peeled off, doh. The second qualification route was going well until the smallest lapse in my concentration meant my foot slipped, I hadn’t expected it and failed to control the ensuing barn door. As I waited for the results, I was quite disheartened, some silly and ultimately avoidable mistakes had meant I’d not given a performance I was happy with. But to my surprise it was enough and I’d be progressing to the final.

Final’s routes are always contested “on-sight”, the ironic juxtaposition of this label with my disability still brings me a wry smile. The result is competitors are held in isolation before it is your time to climb. Plenty of athletes loath “iso” as they are stuck in there for hours with nothing to do other than stress about the upcoming route. Fortunately for me it’s customary for my category (B1) to be up first so I don’t spend that long in iso. I only have just enough time to complete my warm-up before I am called and I’m lucky enough to have something to keep me entertained, Molly and her sardonic wit.

A photo of Jesse about half way up the finals route, pulling off a stiff cross over move.
The extremely steep finals route at the LA World Cup.

Finals routes are often on the steepest section of the wall, and this one was no exception, ploughing straight through the 50-degree overhang. Overhanging terrain like this isn’t my strong suit, coming from a trad climbing background with lots of time on grit it’s not a style I’ve spent that much time on, proportionally. The wait for the route setters to give me a good jamming section goes on…

Despite my trepidations, I got to grips with the finals route really well. I found a good knee-bar my competitors missed and milked a restful position from 2 good footholds. I charged through the next section before coming unstuck on a move I couldn’t work out how to latch statically. It turned out I’d taken the bronze medal, and had only been a few moves from Silver, a repeat of the result from the Moscow World Championships weeks before. While clearly, I would have liked to have won taking another World medal is a great result and a fair reflection of my current indoor climbing ability. It’s especially gratifying to do so well in a style I don’t regard as my strongest.

A photo of Jesse holding his bronze medal.
My World Cup Bronze medal!

After the competition concluded it was time to sample some Californian rock. We spent a day with the Boston contingent of the US team, cragging North of LA in the Malibu Creek area. It was great to be on real rock in the warm sun. Max, one of the US sight-guides a.k.a. “callers”, was intrigued to find out how Molly guides me for leading trad outside and came over to listen to her as I led up one of the routes. Unfortunately, I was in cruise mode and as we were still trying to understand American grades, Molly had pointed me at something she thought would be fairly straightforward. I made short work of it and I don’t think Molly said a word for the entire route, other than ‘follow the crack’ sorry Max, it wasn’t intentional! Waving goodbye to the Boston crew with promises to head to the Red River Gorge with them sometime, we headed out to Joshua Tree.

A photo of Jesse sat on top of the crag and Justen climbing up just below him on second.
The blind leading the blind at Malibu Creek.

Joshua Tree is an amazing place with a landscape totally unlike anything found in the UK. Molly was blown away by the stunning desert vistas with the hot sun, bathing the huge granite blobs and boulder gardens, interspersed with the eponymous Joshua Trees themselves. Even without the visuals, I could tell that it is a very special place indeed. Finding a pitch nestled in the Hidden Valley campground we were ensconced in the heart of the park, with all its climbing history from the time of Jerry Moffat et al.

Getting stuck into some of the classics mere meters from our tent, I began adjusting to the feel of the Joshua Tree granite. The virgin sections of rock are incredibly rough and sharp and can draw blood with the subtlest graze, but the passage of innumerable climbers on the famous easier routes has mellowed the rock’s innate ferocity. The same cannot be said of the flora, all of which is festooned with barbs and spines as sharp as razors many of which made their presence felt, a searing stab of unexpected pain as I stumbled into them.

Braving the unfriendly plant life is worth it though, as the climbs are stunning. With complex featured cracks, whose widths vary subtly and sport a myriad of complex features, it was interesting for me to explore them by touch as I climbed. A puzzle to seek out the optimum placements for hands, feet and gear. Sometimes as I climbed, the features in the rock cast my mind back to how it formed, imagining the newly minted granite cooling and splintering to give the cracks and the plate-like flakes that break up the walls and bulges, each with that distinctive rough surface that must often be smeared upon. The complexity of the features forcing my subconscious to adjust my movement patterns in an effort to decode the route’s distinctive enigma.

A photo of the Joshua Tree landscape. Big boulders and funky spikey trees.
Joshua Tree National Park, California

As the day wore on, I sensed myself getting to grips with the style and felt the heat of the sun sinking towards the horizon, imagining the orange light, running over the rocks in the final moments before the on-rushing twilight and the precipitous drop in temperature that accompanies it.

There is no running water in the park, and the contrast between the park’s rugged and remote feel with the consumerist modernity of LA only hours earlier, rattled around my mind as we decanted water from the bladders we’d brought with us and prepared dinner. Molly marvelling at the star-spangled sky and near full moon which illuminated the jumbled boulders as we ate, and I soaked in the soundscape of unfamiliar insects and the whistle of the gentle breeze between the rocks. Later, as I lay in my sleeping bag I was roused by the yipping and howling of a coyote pack, as they saluted the waxing moon that lit their domain, this rare bastion of western wilderness. Sinking back into my cocoon I hid from the cold night air and marvelled at this place’s distinctive soul.

Rising early, I chose a route, currently shaded that would be in the sun later and therefore too hot to climb. I hastened to get stuck into this 5.8 warm-up route before the sun blew away the early morning cool. The route started with an awkward chimney that was the antithesis of the competition climbing I had been doing such a short time ago. After negotiating the first 15m I got into “The Flake” which gives the route its name and made short work of it. The flake runs out before the top and I had thought I’d done the crux. I was wrong.

A photo of Jesse nearing the top of a huge boulder on a route called, the flake. It is so massive, Jesse looks like a tiny ant.
Nearing the top of The Flake.

Molly had spotted from the ground that there are 2 bolts to protect the final slab. I found the first of these without issue, clipped it, and stood up onto the start of the slab. There were no holds. But, rather than being totally uniform the rock’s surface was covered in small sloping depressions and protrusions. Much as if someone had taken a sheet of tissue paper, scrunched it up into a ball, then without tearing, unfurled it and wrapped it over an egg. The result was no positive holds, just sections that had a shallower angle as I attempted to find a way on top of this oversized egg. Footwork was going to be crucial, but as I can’t see where the depressions and lumps are in order to position my feet, this was going to be insanely hard. I thought back to childhood trips to Fontainebleau, remembering the often savagely polished slabs that had honed my footwork and taught me to trust the feeling through my toes for what will, and will not, stick. Gingerly I felt around with my hands as best as balance would allow. Identified several sections of the rock that were less steep and began working out how to move my feet between them. Slowly, tentatively, I padded upwards. Up and up I went, always searching for the second bolt that I knew was there but neither Molly or I could see. I still hadn’t found it. Another move. I’m scared now, these moves are hard if you can’t see, and I know I am way above my last clip on the first bolt now. The next move will be harder still. I’ve found a smear to move to, but it’s a really high foothold, it would be better if I could use an intermediate, so it wasn’t such a stretch. There probably is an intermediate, but I can’t find it. I’m not sure I can make the move without falling and I’m high above my last clip, I do not want to slip, I could easily break something if I do. Indecision grips me as the battle between motivation and self-preservation plays out in my mind. This is silly, starting to spiral out of control. I begin to down climb. Reversing the tenuous slab moves from the memory of where my feet had been before. Swearing to myself and not loving this experience, I brush past the second bolt on the way down. Found it! I’d inadvertently climbed past it and despite my searching hadn’t found it to clip. No wonder I had felt run-out and exposed. Relief as the snap of the quickdraw going in and getting clipped hits my ears. No excuses now, time to start going back up. Up I pad to my high-point and the high step. The move is no easier, I still can’t find an intermediate, but at least I probably won’t break my ankles if I mess this up. The sun is up now, it’s hot already, there is no shade up here near the top of this accursed egg. My hands are seeping sweat profusely, try to chalk, to no avail. “Commit”, my inner monologue screams. I go, attempting the move. My soaking hands slide down the rock, I imagine them leaving slug-trails of sweat behind, 2 streaks at least a foot long down the rock. “This is it”, “I’m taking the ride” I think. But, to my amazement my left foot sticks on the high foothold. I imagine the contact area between the rubber of my shoe and the rock, it must be tiny. Thank f**k for sticky rubber, it’s the only thing keeping me on right now. “Stand up” screams the monologue, with a tirade of internal invective it’s clear my body wants outta here. I stand up, blessedly the angle begins to ease, and I reach the top of the egg. Phew, it’s over. Well kind of, because of course I can’t find the bolted anchor. I know there is one up here somewhere, it’s marked on the topo. But despite prolific searching by scrabbling around at the top I can’t find it. I don’t want to go too far and fall off of the far side of this sodding egg. I built a trad anchor and made myself safe. I’m sat belaying less than 2m from the bolts…arrrg it would be so much simpler if I could see them. While I was climbing, I didn’t particularly enjoy this route, but with hindsight there are some huge positives for me. I hadn’t soiled my favourite pair of climbing trousers! And I’d been mentally tough enough to go back up to the crux once I had a modicum of protection.

A photo of Jesse climbing a thin crack called the Bird of Fire.
Bird of Fire, an absolutely classic crack line.

Rising again I collected our radios that had been charging overnight. As there is no electricity in the park we used a solar panel to charge a power bank during the day and then recharged our radios from the power bank overnight. The sun’s rays had already sneaked into the valley and I connected up the solar panel before we headed out. It was already obvious that the day was going to be hot, and we hid in one of the many canyon-like clefts to escape the sun’s fiery glare. We soon realised our mistake as the cold wind coursed between the high rock walls, it was strange to feel so cold on such a hot day. We toughed it out for several routes before relocating to The Isles in the Sky, an impressive clean wall sitting high on a jumbled outcrop that rises high above the desert floor. The climbing starts from a platform about 20m up the outcrop. The objective was Bird of Fire, an amazing 5.10a which follows a thin crack through the centre of the imposing wall. A bouldery start let to a section with a series of patina flakes, a feature I’ve not come across that often. The incredibly thin plates of rock whose continued attachment to the main face seemed implausible, reminded me of pastry, until I tapped one and it rang with a hollow bong akin to a bell toll. I moved swiftly on and got stuck into the upper crack, which steepens as you ascend. I pulled over the top pumped and panting. The exertion told as I set up my belay, I attempted to place the largest cam I had left, a size 4 dragon, too small. As I attempted to return it to the back of my harness my fatigued fingers fumbled and I heard the plink, plink, plink of the dragon dropping down deep within the crack, bugger. I found alternate gear and brought Molly up, before directing her to fish for my lost cam by using a nut key on the end of a sling as an impromptu hook to catch my errant dragon. With spirits high and energy low we trudged back to the car, passing the imposing block of Rubicon as the sun set and the moon rose, one for another day.

A photo of Jesse high on a route called illusion dweller. He is reach high above his head, trying to find a way through a steep roof.
Illusion Dweller, my main goal of the trip. I climbed it on-sight!

Having acclimatised to the desert’s atmosphere and climbing style it was time to get on a route that had been recommended to me, Illusion Dweller (5.10b). Heading to it first thing to catch the shade and morning cool Molly described the route to me, a soaring crack whose width fluctuates between fingers and hands as it trends rightwards on a diagonal slant before the crack turns vertical at a small niche, and then passes straight up through a final overhanging bulge. Sorting ropes and kit in the small gravelly bay at the base of the route I was excited and keen to get going so as not to be caught by the rapidly rising sun that was already sending rays shimmering through the palm leaves just out from the crag’s base. Leaving the ground and getting established in the crack, I appreciated the sensation of the cool rock as I slotted in jams and cams. Moving higher the crack slants more to the right, making it awkward as both hands and feet must use the crack, there is nothing else. I jammed my hand high and skirted my feet up, leaning my body leftwards in a layback type move. Unnervingly the rock bulges on the left and I felt it pressing against my left shoulder, threatening to push me out of balance and to unwind my layback in spectacular fashion. Carefully, I inched higher weaving my shoulder past the bulge as if trying to sneak past a sleeping giant in a Tolkien-esque folk tale. The giant slumbered on as I edged higher and the crack narrowed. “Don’t stop”, “Keep going” the internal monologue insisted, “get the gear and move on, don’t get bogged down”. I obeyed and pressed on into the final niche. One last puzzle to unlock before the anchor. I pulled up and explored, before returning to rest. Mapping out the features of the crack above with questing fingers, I adjusted tactics. High left side pull, high left smear to keep in balance, bridge out, move the hands up and go over with the right. Executing my right hand’s fingers snaked over and back, searching. No jugs here, only a sloping divot. “It’ll have to do” I thought, the texture of the hold casting my mind back to many a Fontainebleau top out pulling on shallow slopey dishes. I scampered my feet up and heaved over, grinning.

A photo of jesse climbing Rubicon, a thin crack line up another huge boulder. The route is in the shade with clear blue sky above.
Rubicon, Joshua Tree

Our days in the desert were numbered, time was running out. With some trepidation I decided to go back to Rubicon. The route follows an impressive Z-shaped series of cracks up the side of a huge freestanding boulder marooned in the sea of sand. It’s graded 5.10c/d depending on where you look, which put it right at the top end of my ability, hence the trepidation. As we Stood between the shrubs at the flat base, Molly described the crack system to me. It starts with a vertical section of wide hand jams before traversing left along a horizontal break for 15m to reach the base of a narrow finger crack that starts almost vertical, before curving an arc rightwards to the top of the boulder. We were using double ropes and discussed how to arrange these with my gear to minimise the rope drag as I geared up and pulled my shoes on. The first crack and the traverse along the break were easier than expected, I had feared the traverse would have no footholds and be a pumpy swing fest, but the crux was yet to come. I reached the base of the curving thin crack and paused. This was the Rubicon, once I started up it, I wasn’t going to be able to reverse the moves. It was going to be simple, climb to the top or fall off, retreat wasn’t possible. I smiled at how aptly named the route was, with its reference to Caesar. Like the Roman general over 2 millenia ago I was at the point of no return. Alea iacta est I thought as I torqued my fingers to lock and pulled up into the thin crack. It was strenuous, and I knew I couldn’t afford to mess around, “push!” my mind screamed at me, as I worked higher in the crack. Initially, I had been able to jam my toes in the crack, but as it arced over to the right I was forced to begin smearing on the blank wall. My fingers probed the thin fissure, searching out wider sections where I could sink in more than ½ my first pad. It was uneven and sharp inside the crack and it hurt as I twisted my fingers against the unyielding and implacable stone. Feeling insecure, I placed my last dragonfly, it wasn’t an ideal placement for the small cam, I just hoped it would be enough. Desperate to make the most of any footholds, I felt a small protrusion which jutted out from the left side of the crack. It was small, slopey and not in an ideal place as I was moving rightwards, but it was the only actual foothold, the alternative was smearing on nothing. I shifted my left foot up to it and twisted to move higher and to the right in the crack. My foot slipped and I dropped like a stone. To my great relief the dragonfly held, calculating how far I’d have gone if it hadn’t, wasn’t comforting. Taking a moment to refocus after the fall I pulled back on, committed to smearing my feet and climbed through the crux to the top. On-sight climbing is so unforgiving. The smallest of mistakes can be irrecoverable. I sat on top with mixed emotions swirling in my head. Initially disappointment at my mistake, but then slowly, as rationality returned, satisfaction at my physical effort and my commitment, positives to take with me to the next battle. It occurred to me that if climbing Rubicon clean had been a certainty, the experience would have been denuded and hollow, why roll the dice if the result is already known? My motivation for climbing is multifarious, but a large component is about what I learn about myself and how I handle challenge and uncertainty. Let’s face it, I don’t just climb in these amazing places to see the view, even if it is incredible.

A photo of Jesse with a big grin on his face
A big smile after a fantastic trip to California

‘Internationale’ E3 on-sight, It’s still sinking in…

“It gets E3 5c in this guidebook”. That’s the bit of my conversation with Ian at the top of Internationale at Kilt Rock on the Isle of Skye, that took me a little while to process. I’d just topped out, sweaty and scratched having led the beasty 45m pitch and he and Cat had kindly directed me to the belay stakes. It took a long time for the penny to drop if I’m honest, I was still buzzing. Turns out I’d unwittingly just non-sighted my first E3!

Thinking about it my mind flashed back to the scene in Climbing Blind where Alastair asks Molly “Do you ever lie to him?”. Now to be clear, Molly didn’t lie to me about the grade before I set off, she was just careful not to press the issue, probably a good thing, as otherwise I might have been put off trying it because of the number 3.

It was only the first afternoon of our trip to Scotland and the second route after Grey Panther which had been my main objective for the trip. I’d thought beforehand that if I could get a couple of E2s on the trip I’d be really chuffed, I hadn’t thought about trying anything harder than that.

A photo of Jesse leading Grey Panther at Kilt Rock on the Isle of Skye.
Jesse leading Grey Panther at Kilt Rock, Isle of Skye

Molly had had a look at Internationale as we’d abseiled into Grey Panther as they’re next to one another, and clearly decided I was capable of leading Internationale too. She said it was a bit harder than Grey Panther, looked amazing and would definitely suit me. For some reason I never asked the grade. With her encouragement and the loan of several big cams from Ian & Cat, I’d decided I wouldn’t get a better chance “If you save the hard routes forever then you will never get them done” was bouncing around my head as it had before I’d climbed Forked Lightning Crack, it was clearly time to pull on.

Molly abseiled down first and set up a belay at the base of the route, then I came down to meet her. Lets face it, if I’d have gone first I may have ended up in the sea!

The route follows a continuous wide crack for the full length of the crag (about 45 metres). It’s a good job I had this feature to follow as Molly was unable to guide me for all but the starting moves, there is a bulge low down that blocked her line of sight for part of the route and in the top section I was too far away for Molly to see any detail of where the holds are. I probably missed some of the holds either side of the crack, but that’s usually the way, I feel around and find my own beta. She spent most of the time watching a pod of dolphins swimming out in the bay. I’m not sure what it is about wildlife watching while I’m on the sharp-end of a big lead, but it seems to be becoming a theme!

A photo of Jesse leading Internationale at Kilt Rock on the Isle of Skye.
Jesse leading Internationale at Kilt Rock on the Isle of Skye

It was a fantastic route, Molly really is great at picking out climbs for me. It was a battle but never felt desperate. Lots of jamming, wedging and torqueing different limbs into the crack. I managed to find a few spots where I could get the weight off my arms and recover a little before the next round! The crack ended and for the last few metres it was steep and blocky but with big holds. I pulled on a block that appeared to move, so gently letting go and finding another way, added a little bit of spice at the end.

Now I’ve had a chance to process it, I’m really happy I did decide to commit to the line. It was a hugely unexpected bonus on the first day of a stella trip to Scotland. 2 ‘Extreme Rock’ ticks in a single afternoon I’ll be catching that James McHaffie at this rate….haha…

A photo of Molly and Jesse on the first belay ledge on Vulcan Wall, in the clouds a few days later.
Molly and Jesse on the first belay ledge on Vulcan Wall, Sron na Ciche in the Cuillin a few days later.

Building My Climbing Dreams For Myself

Technology is a wonderful thing. I use it to compensate for my broken eyes. Having a program that can speak to me is a god-send, almost like magic. Technology allows me to access what most people take for granted, the ability to read. It’s strange, that in all my years of climbing I’ve never really interacted directly with a fundamental part of the outdoor climbing ecosystem, the guidebooks. They’re a cornerstone of the way of life , not only a practical means of finding your way, but a link to the history of the routes and often a astute and witty commentary on this strange sport and culture that is climbing.

A photo of Jesse with a big smile on his face.
A wonderful thing – big smiles all round!

Niall Grimes is right when he describes them as “a book of spells”, another form of magic to counterpoint the technical wizardry that is the text-to-speech programs I use.

The Magic of Climbing Guidebooks

Fitting then that I recently found a way to use this wizardry to unlock that book of spells. I found that with some ingenuity (and a small amount of sighted help), I can use my screen reading software to “read” the Rockfax App. I’m more than 20 years into my climbing life and I have only just taken the introductory step of reading the guidebook and dreaming of routes that I hope to someday climb. I have truly relished this freedom.

A photo of Molly and Jesse's book shelf which has many many climbing guide books on. For climbing all over the world including Romania, Spain, Italy, Norway, Oman, Malta, USA...the list goes on.
Our bookshelves are full of climbing guidebooks, but I’ve never been able to read any.

Finding routes for the wishlist had always been an enigma for me, my only way of finding new routes was to garner suggestions from other climbers and while some had kindly given great suggestions in truth , the list had been getting rather short lately. No longer. The past week has had me set my sights on a great selection of climbs throughout the UK. From Pembroke and Cloggy to Scarfell and Skye, the routes I’ve picked are well-spread and varied, ok perhaps not as varied as they might be, not many slabs made the list haha. I was picking routes for a blindman after all. I’m excited to get on these and see if they feel to me as I have imagined them, but more importantly I’m extremely happy that I’ve found a way to finally access a climbing codex and be able to build my climbing dreams for myself.

A photo of Jesse and Molly with the helmets and headsets on, sitting at the base of a crag. They both have big smiles on their faces.
Lots more climbing adventures await…

Top of my list is this: “The line follows the huge corner all the way but on an angle of rock normally reserved for E5s. Start below the corner and climb up to the sloping ledge. Climb the right wall to an overhang. Move around this and continue to another bulge with a line of holds leading out right. Ignore these holds and pull over the daunting bulge above on some of the biggest holds in the universe. Continue straight up the crack and right-leaning groove above to ledges. Climb the crack above to the top, then stand back and beat your chest triumphantly!” It sounds suitably epic and right up my street.

Using the technology skeleton key has reinforced that famous line “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Deus Ex Machina

My new high point and getting in ‘the zone’

My high point of 2020, check out the video:

A short film by Alastair Lee of me climbing Forked Lightning Crack

It’s safe to say this year hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would back in January! After a good winter of training, the year started well and I was able to squeeze in a trip to Norway at the beginning of March. Then of course everything changed. Corona, lockdown – my trips were cancelled, the walls were closed, competitions cancelled.

A picture of Jesse ice climbing on a huge frozen waterfall in Norway. He is leading up with the rope below him, and swinging his axe into the ice. The ice has formed in hanging chandeliers which looks quite spectacular.
Ice Climbing in Hemsedal, Norway March 2020

It’s often really hard in situations like this to stay positive, but I try and focus on the things that I can affect and not what I can’t. I couldn’t train at the climbing wall, but I could train in my garage. So I decided to work on my weaknesses through lockdown. My max finger strength is a relative weakness for me. And throughout the early part of the pandemic I really focused on this. I put in the effort and saw big gains which translated to my outside climbing as soon as lockdown was eased.

A picture of Jesse training in his garage on a homemade campus board.
Adapting my training in the garage over lockdown

Luckily I live with my climbing partner! So once the restrictions eased and climbing outside was back on the menu, Molly and I could happily climb outside together as a household bubble. With climbing walls still shut and no competitions in the calendar, we focused on climbing outside at our local crags in the Peak District and we’ve had a cracking summer on the grit.

A picture of Jesse rock climbing. He is wearing a blue t-shirt, a white helmet and has a harness full of gear dangling around his waist. He is hanging on to a small side pull hold with his left hand, with two feet in a horizontal break. His right hand is dipping in his chalk bag.
Left Unconquerable E1 5b at Stanage Plantation in the Peak District

This culminated in something special, a new high point for me, I led my first E2! To put this into context this is harder than the Old Man of Hoy and that wasn’t easy. Forked Lightning Crack is only 25 meters tall, but it overhangs for it’s entire length. All the moves are physically challenging and there are no places to rest to place gear. It requires total commitment both physically and mentally.

The mental aspect of this route was a big one for me. It was harder than anything I’d ever climbed before. When I was younger and had a tiny bit of sight, I had led E1, then I had lost what little sight I had. This knocked my confidence and I’d taken a break from leading. Through hard work, I’d pushed my climbing back up to that level culminating in the Old Man of Hoy last year. But I’d never climbed harder.

A picture of Jesse climbing Forked Lightning Crack in Yorkshire. Jesse is wearing shorts (not a good choice for a gritstone crack...). He is sideways on to the rock in a layback position. His two hands are pulling sideways in a vertical crack and his feet are on the right hand side of the crack, pushing his body to the left. It looks like a very strenuous position. The rope is below him and several pieces of gear have been placed in cracks and clipped to the rope.
Forked Lightning Crack E2 5c, Heptonstall, Yorkshire

It was really difficult for me at the base of Forked Lightning Crack knowing that this was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever attempted. I’d not been to this crag before, I had no previous memory to fall back on and had no idea of my surroundings or what it looked like. All I had was the verbal descriptions from Molly.

Try and imagine you’re me. You’re at the base of the crag, you’ve had the route description read to you, you know this route overhangs all the way, you know it’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever tried and that sighted climbers are intimidated by this route. On the first ascent, Don Whillans famously had 2(!) calming fags before setting off. The mark of a serious route, few of his ascents required this ritual. You’ve never seen the route, you’ve never seen the crag. How do you prepare, how do you plan? What will the holds feel like? How do you psych yourself up to pull on?

Molly leads me up to the base of the climb and puts my hands on the starting holds. I remember thinking, she said it was steep, I didn’t realise she meant this steep! I had to reset mentally, not let that put me off. I thought about all the preparation I’d done, the trust I have in Molly, built on the thousands of climbs we’d done together. A conversation with a friend when he’d reminded me that there is never a perfect time to attempt a route and if you save them forever you’ll never get them done. I pulled on. I think that was the hardest bit. Having the bravery to try.

A picture of Molly and Jesse both standing at the base of the crag.  There are 2 ropes that have been flaked ready to go on the ground behind them. Molly has her hand on Jesse's left arm and is directing him to the starting holds.
Molly showing me the starting holds and describing the features of the rock

Once I was on the wall it was like a switch had been flicked, I had crossed the rubicon, there was no going back now. Just full commitment, and I just had to go for it. I think the thing that I was most proud of was that I relaxed and let my body take over. It’s physical climbing but it seemed to flow easily, on the top section, my arms weren’t even tired. I got my hands on the top ledge and thought about trying to extricate myself in style, but decided the safety of the good old belly flop onto the final ledge was the safest option. For me that moment of reaching the top was pretty big, I’d done it. Despite all the challenges, the preparation had not been ideal, corona virus had turned the world upside down. All my plans had gone sideways. I’d found it hard to commit mentally at the base of the route, but I summoned the courage to try. The only disappointment was that my massive green cam went for another unused adventure!

A picture of Jesse sat on a rock at the base of the crag wearing a bright red jacket. He has both fists clenched and his arms in the air and a huge grim on his face. He looks extremely pleased to have successfully climbed the route.
Chuffed. Back at the base of the crag having successfully climbed the route on my first attempt

On reflection, I don’t remember all of the route or all of the moves, my head must have been in that space that is purely focusing on the task at hand. Molly and I usually discuss climbs afterwards and she sometimes checks whether her wittering away in my ear is distracting and interrupts my flow. You may think it would, but interestingly it doesn’t. To be honest I’m not sure how the rest of you cope with all the visual distractions! Molly explains that for her, when she’s leading, she focusses on the holds, the next moves and tries to block out all the noise. I guess for me it’s the opposite, I have no visual input and focus purely on sound. In fact, I sometimes encourage Molly to keep talking when I’m in a hard section…where am I going, what’s next? Even if she can’t see the next hold or what to do next, as often she is stood in close to the base of the crag belaying me (and she’s not climbed the route before), she always comes up with some useful words or encouragements on the spot and never panics.

A picture of Molly and Jesse at the base of the crag with grass and shrubs in the background. Molly is holding the guidebook and is looking up at the route.  Jesse is looking towards Molly and listening intently to the verbal descriptions.
A still from Alastair Lee’s film, Molly describing the route to me from the ground – to jam or to layback..?

Rising to the challenge of this route was a bright spot in a challenging year. I’m excited to see what 2021 has in store and hopeful that the delayed adventures will soon be possible. If 2021 includes a couple of routes as good as this one it will be a good year.

Jamfest 2020 – Operation Screaming Fist

For the last few years the Climbers Club have run an annual ‘Jamfest’ weekend – a celebration of the finest crack climbing in the eastern peak district. I’ve been gutted that each year this has clashed with my competitions and consequently I’ve not been able to take part. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, all the competitions were cancelled, but so was the Jamming meet. Until…it was decided to hold the jamming meet virtually, this was my chance! So, the list of Jamming routes and their associated points (for quality/quantity of jamming) was released with slightly altered ‘rules’. Finally…something we could get excited for!

So what’s the deal? Well, the aim is to accumulate as many points as possible from one day’s worth of climbing with your team. Points are awarded for the routes climbed and additional points are awarded for different crags visited too. My team consisted of Molly and I.

Picture of Molly and Jesse walking to the first crag at first light.
Molly and I in the early hours of Sunday Morning – Jamfest 2020

Now…I do realise that I’m not known for my speedy approaches or fast climbing, which makes speed-based challenges like this a bit tricky! If you can imagine blindfolding yourself or your climbing partner for a day, it adds an extra dimension to proceedings for both parties. Obviously don’t do this, we’ve had lots of practice! Molly and I are well known for our teamwork, planning and just not giving up. So we set about coming up with an optimised plan of attack for the order of crags to hit and which routes to try, we codenamed our plan  “Operation Screaming Fist”, respect to you if you get the reference!

As well as a solid plan, copious supplies of pork pies and home-made cookies, we also had a secret weapon in our armoury which could be deployed if required, my blue badge! Parking in the Peak District can be difficult at times and the well distributed network of disabled bays are often empty, waiting for me.

With our decidedly optimistic plan made and a severely sub-optimal weather forecast, the alarm was set for a totally ridiculous hour in the morning, which meant we could make a dawn start.

We left the car at 4.30am on Sunday morning and set off hand-in-hand for our first route at Burbage North. It was extremely windy with light flurries of rain…we were questioning our sanity one route in! Molly was struggling with numb hands, so I led the first couple of routes. This must be the first time I’ve finished a climbing route before 5am! The highlight of Burbage was Mutiny Crack, what a great little climb. We decided to carry on despite the worsening weather, we didn’t want that early start to be in vain!

A picture of Jesse climbing Mutiny crack at Burbage North
Me tackling the bulges on Mutiny Crack, Burbage North

We hot footed over to Stanage Apparent North next to tick off the single route on the list there, before heading on to Stanage Popular. It was definitely not popular, there was no one else there! We climbed some of the classics including the ‘classic rock’ route April Crack, what a joy to climb. A couple of our friends had walked up from Hathersage to see how we were getting on…I think they too were questioning our sanity! It started to rain quite heavily, but I still finished Ellis’s Eliminate, unperturbed, with Molly seconding in very damp conditions. 7 routes later we carried on to Plantation.

A picture of Jesse climbing Central Trinity at Stanage in his warm blue jacket
Leading my way up Central Trinity, Stanage Popular

Molly led Wall End Flake Crack and was nearly blown off the top…the 43mph gusting winds were really starting to cause havoc, but we continued, not letting it impede our quest. Next up was Fern Crack, my lead. The sun made a brief appearance which was very pleasant. I got to the top no problems but had inadvertently smeared a crucial hold with sheep poo (that I’d stood in before starting the route…oops). Molly went for the layback option on the initial crack and covered her left hand in the poo that I’d left behind, to the amusement of our friends! Serves her right for laybacking, it’s the Jamfest don’t you know! Hopefully the rain washed if off later in the day.

A picture of Molly sat at the top of the crag and Jesse climbing the route  on second.
Wall End Flake Crack, Molly flew to the top of this, nearly literally!

We returned to the car, before heading on to Higgar Tor, which contrary to Molly’s belief definitely is not sheltered! But we had to do the File, probably one of the most well-known jamming routes in Eastern grit and it didn’t disappoint. I led the File and the Rats Tail, the latter being a tricky little number!

A picture of Jesse, in his windproof red jacket climbing The File at Higgar Tor
An ultra classic, The File, Higgar Tor

Next up were the quarried grit gems of Millstone and Lawrencefield. We were starting to flag a little now, 15 routes ticked at this point, just battling the wind was quite exhausting. A welcome scotch egg and brownie provided a bit of a boost and the fact that Bond Street is one of my favourite routes of all time and this was up next! We had to deploy the secret weapon to get the last spot in the Surprise view car park before I led Bond Street.

Our pre-planning worked a treat here, we knew the descents from the top of the crag were awkward (if you’re blind) and also that the belay at the top of Bond Street was a stake, which I find next to impossible to locate! So, we walked in around from the bottom and stashed our bags at the base of Chiming Cracks (which was the next route after Bond Street). I led up to the ledge near the top of Bond Street and set an intermediate belay. Molly followed and then led on through to the top stake, to which I scampered up after her. I held onto Molly’s rope rucksack and followed closely behind her, we descended down the right descent path and dropped out back at the base of Chiming Cracks. Molly led this, I followed and then Molly lowered me back down before dropping the ropes, so I could coil and pack up while she walked round. Smooth teamwork.

A picture of Jesse high up on the rock face at Millstone
Making good progress up Bond Street, Millstone

To this point we’d not seen anyone else climbing, it had been a very quiet day on the crags…and then we hit Lawrencefield, clearly the sheltered crag of choice! There were quite a few parties of other climbers here, including a pair on Great Harry, which forced the only rest of the day, it was very welcome. We were also spotted by a couple of friends, a well-timed socially distanced catch up! Great Harry was Molly’s favourite route of the day so was worth the wait.

Baslow, Curbar and Froggatt rounded the day off nicely. We didn’t quite manage to climb all the routes we’d hoped to at Froggatt, but heavier rain had set in and it was starting to get dark. We completed our day climbing Heather Wall with our rucksacks on and made the weary walk back to Curbar Gap in our waterproofs. We got back to the car about 10.30pm.

A picture of Molly and Jesse with their waterproof jackets on with hoods up, looking very tired, as it starts to get dark.
A rainy Sunday evening, a celebratory brownie after completing 25 jamming routes in a day!

What a day! Sometimes the worst days are the best days. Not sure I’ll be doing that again anytime soon…but it was a fantastic challenge! We’d managed to do all the routes clean with no dogging and no soloing either! We tallied up our score the following day:

  • 25 routes (94 jamming points)
  • 10 crags (50 crag points)
  • 144 total points

Results just in, seems like the adverse weather put quite a few people off and we managed to claim victory with a new record score!!

Getting down off the Old Man of Hoy

My ascent up the Old Man of Hoy is quite well documented but what I get asked a lot is how I got down! Indeed, a good question. It’s not covered extensively in Alastair Lee’s film ‘Climbing Blind’ for several reasons – it was really late, it was dark, we were all tired and hungry and had a ferry to catch early the next morning! Descents are where most accidents happen, so full concentration was needed as it wasn’t straightforward. So here goes…

A picture of Jesse and Molly, with one arm around each other and the other arm in the air on top of the old man of hoy. Alastair is in shot, filming our celebration.
A fantastic feeling…on top of the Old Man of Hoy. [Photo: Alastair Lee]
As the weather dictated our start time and despite making good progress up the stack it was 10:10pm when we reached the top. With it being so far North, there was still some light left, but the sun was setting. I only wish that I had a little more time on top to take in the accomplishment, it was quite a moment. A puffin joined us on the summit as the sun was setting and I had the full 360 degree panorama described to me, it sounds stunning! Molly then whipped out my white cane that she’d carried in her backpack the whole way up, “are you going to use this to find your way down?!” Normal service had resumed. We did need to get a shift on, although the darkness didn’t bother me, it would have had a big effect on the rest of the crew and of course Molly’s ability to sight guide me.

So to get back down you have to abseil. In some ways it’s quite straightforward and in others not so much… I generally prefer abseiling to having to scramble down around the side of the cliff, but on the Old Man of Hoy scrambling down wasn’t an option. Abseiling from The Old Man was reasonably tricky. Our climbing ropes are 60m long. You have 2 ropes so you can tie them together and descend a full 60m in one go, but you then have to attach to an anchor, pull your ropes down after you and start again. As The Old Man is 137m tall you have to make 3 separate abseils to make it back down to the beach below. Fortunately, as Alastair and his rigger Mark were with us, we had 2 pairs of ropes that helped to keep things moving.

A picture showing the old man of hoy with the sea in the background. Red arrows have been drawn at 3 points on the sea stack to show where the abseil points are.
Three abseils were required to get down from the top of the Old Man of Hoy.

Molly and I used our ropes for the first abseil, all 4 of us descended and as Molly and I pulled our ropes through, Alastair and Mark used their ropes to descend to the anchor at the top of the Coffin pitch. We then used Molly and I’s ropes again for the 3rd abseil, a monster 60m all the way to the beach. Darkness had fallen by this point and as this section is overhanging the last abseil was in free space and total darkness for its entirety. I remember as I set off I had a slight rotation so found myself spiraling down the rope listening to the crashing waves below. I remember thinking “I hope someone is going to tell me when I’m close to the ground. I don’t fancy lowering myself straight onto my arse”…

A picture of Jesse on the last free hanging abseil to get down to the base of the sea stack. The sun is setting and he and the stack are silhouetted in the foreground. It is very nearly dark.
The last abseil off the Old Man of Hoy

By the time we had all completed the abseils and were on the beach at the base of the stack it had just gone midnight. Time to scramble back up that dodgy little path with the death falls, oh goodie. I wouldn’t say it was pleasant but going up is a lot easier than going down. We reached the headland at about 01:00. Time for a quick celebratory dram of whiskey and some much needed hot food from the camera guys, which was greatly appreciated before the walk back to the bothy. I think I finally made it to my tent at 02:45 as the mid-summer Scottish sun was threatening to rise again. Not just a benightment but a bedayment, that’s only happened to me a couple of times before! But there is no rest for the wicked as our ferry home left at around 07:00 that morning (Wednesday) so we were back on it a few short hours later.

A picture taken from onboard the ferry to Hoy. The back of the ferry is visible with sea, islands and mountains in the background.
From Hoy it’s 2 ferries to get back to Scrabster on the North coast of the Scottish mainland.

Somehow Molly found the energy to drive us all the way back to her parent’s house in Cheshire stopping only for food. Not pork pies this time, Haggis Pakora…yes apparently it is a thing in Scotland. It was tasty! So a swift stopover in Cheshire and then completed the rest of the journey back home the next day. The tiredness was now starting to kick in.

A picture of Jesse sitting in an Indian restaurant, eating haggis pakora's with his fingers.
Jesse enjoying Haggis Pakora’s

Back in the office on Friday and competing in a competition in London on the Saturday… I won my category but I’m not sure climbing sea stacks at the opposite end of the country can really be recommended as ideal competition preparation! What an amazing week it had been though!

A picture of Jesse competing in an indoor climbing competition. He is climbing a very overhanging roof, making a long reach out to a blue volcano style hold, with his heel resting on a volume.
Competing at the Para Blokfest at The Castle Climbing Centre, London

Climbing Blind

Some epic news to share with everyone…and 2 important dates for your diary!!

Wednesday 20th May at 21:00 Climbing Blind will be aired on BBC4

Thursday 21st May from 05:00 Climbing Blind (the full-length director’s cut & 40 minutes worth of extras) will be available to buy.

Get your pre-order in now:


from Posing Productions

with Bonus Features – not to be missed!!

The full-length director’s cut of the multi-award-winning documentary covering the incredible story of the first blind lead of the Old Man of Hoy.

Jesse Dufton was born with 20% central vision. At four years of age Jesse was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa: a rare genetic disease that breaks down the retinas’ cells. At aged 20 Jesse could no longer read, by the time he was 30 his vision was reduced to just light perception with around 1 or 2% field of view. As a life long climber, Jesse flies in the face of adversity training for world cup events and leading traditional rock climbs with his sight guide and fiancee Molly. As his sight degenerates his climbing continues to make remarkable progress. Despite his devastating condition Jesse only takes on bigger challenges by attempting to be the first blind person to make a ‘non-sight’ lead of the iconic Old Man of Hoy sea stack in Scotland.

This engrossing documentary will make you laugh and cry as it delivers not just a truly gripping climbing story but a tale of human endeavor and attitude the world can take inspiration from. Includes cameo appearances from professional climbers Neil Gresham, Leo Houlding and Pete Whittaker.

Directed & produced by Alastair Lee in association with Montane
Main Feature – 70mins

Extras – 40mins Includes:

  • ‘The Big Deal’ featuring Frances Bensley,
  • Climbing Blind Director’s Commentary,
  • a Drone Story,
  • Blind Bouldering Out-takes,
  • Original Trailer
  • plus unseen clips that didn’t make the cut

A picture of the Climbing Blind Poster advertising the film. There is a picture of the old man of hoy in the background with Climbing Blind in white text in the middle. The 8 international awards are also listed, above the sponsors of the film.


Freeklime Access Programme

Last month, I got a message out of the blue on Instagram from a guy called Chris who was in the process of launching a new dedicated bouldering centre in Huddersfield, ‘Freeklime’. Intriguing…why was he contacting me? It turns out, having been inspired by my Old Man of Hoy ascent, he wanted to make his new bouldering centre inclusive and accessible and wanted to pick my brains on how he could make it ace for visually impaired people.

I thought this was fantastic! I had never been asked about this before and was more than happy to get involved. It really got me thinking on how to make a climbing wall as friendly as possible for blind and visually impaired people, from navigating around the centre, to the setting of routes, the colour contrast of holds against the wall and sight guiding. The launch event was on Thursday, I spent the day up at Freeklime and BBC Look North were there to document the occasion.

“Freeklime, Huddersfield’s only dedicated bouldering centre, has today announced the Freeklime Access programme: a series of classes designed to make bouldering more accessible for those with either physical impairments or learning difficulties. The Access programme is backed by blind climber Jesse Dufton, star of ‘Climbing Blind’ – a film charting his ascent of the Old Man of Hoy, in Scotland. Rolling out over the coming months, each stage of the Access programme will tackle different areas of inclusivity and see Freeklime become the most accessible activity space in the north. Starting with a class to aid visually impaired climbers, founder and experienced climber Chris Whitehead has partnered with Jesse, as well as volunteers from the Kirklees Visually Impaired Network (KVIN) to trial the new facilities.”

A picture of Jesse climbing a boulder problem with purple pockety holds. A member of staff is stood on the mat behind Jesse acting as his sight-guide.
Climbing with the staff of Freeklime.

The great things that Chris at Freeklime has put in place include:

  • a section of the brand-new wall has been altered to include high colour contrast
    handholds. These holds are strategically placed in patterns to ensure there is a colour contrast against the wall to help climbers with limited vision to spot and plan their routes.
  • to cater for those with low/no sight at all, Freeklime also offer a spotter to
    work one-on-one with all visually impaired climbers
  • Lines on the floor to guide you to reception, the toilets, the changing rooms..

I would hate to think that people who genuinely want to get into climbing aren’t able to do so because of the lack of facilities or assistance, so programmes like this are exactly what we need to ensure climbing is accessible for all. The Access programme will ensure a member of the Freeklime team works one-on-one with visually impaired climbers at the centre, guiding routes and offering advice on techniques, as well as empowering them to tackle more challenging problems. This is fantastic, as this is probably the biggest barrier. Molly and I gave the staff at the wall some tips on sight guiding! So they’re all good to go,  super psyched and super friendly, so all you Yorkshire folk should go and have a go…! You’ll love it!

Freeklime’s website is here.