So I don’t usually get too excited about anything, but for this I’ll make an exception! My exciting news is…I am now part of Team Boreal! The first paraclimber to join the team, my year keeps on getting better and better! I’m super psyched to join these guys.
They’re a super strong team and it’s an honour to be part of it. I never imagined that I’d be on a team with such a group of climbing legends. A massive thanks to Boreal for welcoming me.
A few months back I tried several Boreal climbing shoes and was really impressed by their range and in particular the Synergys. Finding well-fitting climbing shoes is no easy task and I’ve been through a lot of different manufacturers and models over the years. My friends think I’m super picky with shoes! The Synergys are one of Boreal’s performance shoes and are designed for optimum feel. These are the only shoes I’ve worn where I can actually feel the holds with my feet. They’re amazing. As I’m blind, I need to rely much more on feel, I found the Synergys are perfect for this.
The first time I tried these shoes, I was amazed by how much more I could feel through them. I was able to adjust my foot placements to optimise the position and purchase on the holds. The cumulative effect of the small improvements in each foot placement throughout a route becomes really quite significant. My first session climbing in them, I finally ticked the project I’d be working on for several weeks.
I’m off to Leonidio in Greece next week and I’m looking forward to testing them out on real rock. I can’t wait to start smashing routes out in these..
It’s been about 6 months since I was selected for the GB paraclimbing team and started to train for competition climbing. A lot has happened since then…
It was clear that I needed to start training seriously. I needed to be stronger, lighter, and able to go for longer. I didn’t really know where to start. With the support of a grant from the Arctic One Foundation, I was able to employ the much needed knowledge of a climbing performance coach.
Adam Harrison (the local beasting guru), based at The Climbing Station in Loughborough has created a personalised training plan for me and I’m making huge gains in my climbing. Coaching a blind guy can’t be easy, but Adam took on the challenge and I’m hugely grateful. I’m unable to train on my own and am very much reliant on others. I’m lucky that Molly loves climbing as much as I do, she trains with me and provides all the support I need. We’re a great team.
It was obvious from the start that while I was really quite good at some strength exercises (press-ups and weights) more climbing specific exercises (fingerboard and endurance) needed lots of work.
The category I am in requires me to wear a blindfold for competitions and it didn’t take too long to get used to this. I train all the time with a blindfold on now and to be honest, it makes little difference! Just a little darker and the fact that I have to have something across my face.
Another key aspect was route reading and streamlining the communication between myself and my sight guide. I spent some time researching the best Comms system and eventually went with a pair of SWAT com radios. The grant I was awarded from the Irwin Mitchell Grants Programme helped towards the purchase of these for which I am extremely grateful. These have proved invaluable.
Let’s not beat around the bush, training is hard and so it should be. I did, and still do, finish my sessions as a sweaty knackered mess. However, the results make it worth it. I notice massive step changes in my climbing and I am still improving fast 6 months on.
Along with my personal training plan, I have attended all the Para team training days. We went over the types of training we should be doing in our personal sessions and importantly for me I got a chance to practice having Robin O’Leary act as my sight guide. This is critical as he will guide me in the competitions. I also began to get to know my team mates, they are a great group and fun is never far away!
However, it was when we went to Briançon for my first international competition that I really got to know everyone. This was a really great experience. I managed to top my first qualification route and ended up coming 4th, which I was really happy with. It showed me where I was relative to my rivals. In short I had some catching up to do, but the gulf between me and the podium wasn’t huge. The main things I needed were more endurance and more competition experience and the composure which accompanies it.
With only a short turn around it was time for the World Championships in Innsbruck. It really was an awesome venue with a great atmosphere. I found it quite strange to be in the company of so many world class climbers, I guess I’d better get used to it. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get the full experience as while the team went to watch the finals of several disciplines, I can’t see anything but my teammates do give a great commentary for me and the atmosphere of the crowd is great to experience.
I had a mixed experience in my competition. Some things went really well and some others need some work. Through a combination of circumstance and lack of experience I fell from my first qualification route earlier than I had hoped for. And my second was a similar affair. It was only when I saw the result that I realised how well I had done. 7th in the world, not bad for a competition that didn’t go to plan. With that realisation and some hindsight it was clear to me just how far I had come. My endurance, and preparedness for overhanging climbing is now an order of magnitude better than 6 months ago. The training that Adam has devised for me has reaped huge rewards and there is plenty more to come.
In the weeks since Innsbruck I have continued to improve dramatically, and took first place in the national paraclimbing competition last weekend in Wales. I’m feeling good and getting better fast. Keep it up and I’m sure I can do even better next time around. Molly and I are also working on a quicker way to describe where the holds are, based on the clock face. The quicker I can get the info, the faster I can climb (which is still slow compared with those that can see where they are going!) but every little bit helps.
Juggling a full-time job and training is tough, but I still find time for climbing outdoors if the weekend lines up with good weather and I’m not too tired! I am continuing with my quest to lead the classic, iconic gritstone routes in the Peak District. I battled my way up Kelly’s Overhang (E1) and cruised Congo Corner (HVS) at Stanage and also repeated Bond Street (HVS) at Millstone recently.
What’s next…Round 3 of the nationals is in Newcastle in November, then I’m off to Leonidio in Greece for a week of training in the sun!
For the many of you who don’t believe I was ever little…here is proof! My mum managed to unearth some old photos of me back in the early days of my climbing. Here I am on my first ever rock route, Ordinary Route on Idwal Slabs in North Wales, aged 2!
Molly assures me that my parents had very good taste in climbing attire and that the trousers I’m wearing need to come back into fashion. She is searching on the internet for a pair in mens size large. By the description, I’m not so sure…
My Dad was a keen climber and taught me to climb when I was little. I began climbing outside. Indoor walls were not nearly as prevalent as they are today, or as good either. While my sight was extremely poor even back then, it was considerably better than it is now. We’d go away quite regularly on weekend trips, here I am aged 4 climbing in the Gower.
I learnt all the rope skills required to be safe and also how to climb the rope using prussik loops if I were ever to get stuck. The next pictures shows me practising this technique, aged 6…it isn’t that I have just been abandoned, honest!
I learned to lead trad routes while I was at school too, aged about 11. My sight back then was just about good enough for me to see the pieces of protection and to be able to get good placements that I was happy with. Lots of practise and experience also helped with the confidence. I was able to lead up to a reasonable level.
I only really had one incident when I was younger, it was in Fall Bay (ironic crag name!) in the Gower, South Wales. We’d had a BBQ on the beach and I had gone for some bouldering. It was dark, and I can’t see in the dark, I had a headtorch on. I climbed to the top of a short wall. At the top, I turned around to look back down, and as I couldn’t see the edge properly, over balanced and fell head first to the sand below. The metal plate in the headtorch I was wearing sliced my forehead open and I slightly compressed my spine. I was helicoptered to hospital and was very disappointed that I was not allowed up off the spineboard during the flight! I still have a Harry Potter esque scar on my forehead today and clearly no sense was knocked into me.
As well as climbing in the UK, we would also have annual trips to Fontainebleu in France, a bouldering Mecca! My dad and his friends were old school and it was possibly before bouldering mats were widely available, so all you had was a bar beer towel to wipe your feet on and hopefully a group of attentive spotters.
I remember my dad buying me a basic rack of climbing gear for my 18th birthday, before I went to Bath to begin university.
This is my final planned lecture about my expedition to Greenland last year. It rounds off the series and also my commitments to my very generous sponsors and supporters who made this all possible and to whom I’m eternally grateful.
For anyone interested and able to make it, tickets are available. For more info, click on the image below.
Date and time:
16 May 2018
Members – £10 (in advance)
Members – £15 (on door)
Non-members – £15
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.
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…
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 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…
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