Updated 8/19/20: Jesse has “non-sighted” another E2 trad route! Info added at the end of the story.
On August 1, British climber Jesse Dufton onsighted Forked Lightning Crack (E2 5c, roughly 5.10d), a classic trad line on Yorkshire gritstone. Dufton is blind. He was born with a degenerative eye condition, and his vision has deteriorated to the point where he can only distinguish between light and dark. When it comes to finding holds or placing gear, he relies on beta suggestions from his belayer/wife Molly Dufton, tactile feeling, and intuition.
Dufton’s father began taking him climbing when he was just two years old. He led his first trad route when he was 11, even though he had only about 20% of blurry central vision and no peripheral vision. Throughout the years Dufton’s vision has continued to fade, but his love for climbing has not.
Dufton joined a mountaineering club at his university—where he met his wife and climbing partner—that helped him develop his passion and craft through both indoor and outdoor climbing, while also breaking into ice climbing and alpinism. In 2017, on a self-organized expedition, Dufton made first ascents of two peaks in Greenland, a feat that is likely a first for a blind climber.
Less than two weeks ago, he sent his hardest rock climb to date with Forked Lightning Crack. The route is located in Heptonstall Quarry and was first put up by Don Wilhams. The gritstone crack is a Yorkshire classic, with steep climbing on wide hands.
“Today I did the hardest bit and committed to trying the route,” Dufton wrote on Instagram. “I pulled on knowing this was likely the hardest thing I’d ever tried. What pleased me most, was that once I’d got into the layback, I relaxed and climbed smoothly. No jitters, I just smashed it. On-sight! I mean, non-sight! My first non-sight E2 and only the second E2 I’ve ever tried.”
Molly wrote of the ascent: “So proud of Jesse. Can you imagine being led to the base of a crag that you can’t see (and have never seen), having your hands placed on the rock at the start of a route and setting out into the unknown with only verbal suggestions from your belayer/wife! Forked Lightning Crack is steep, hard and unforgiving. Big gear is weighing him down, it’s warm under the sun, and he climbs slowly, move by move, unable to plan ahead. The ease at which he led this route was astonishing. Every time I thought this must be the crux, he powered on through. Just wow!”
Dufton climbed E1 (about 5.10a) with partial vision in 2008. Now that his vision is all but completely gone, it has been a mental battle to push his grades, especially within the bounds of the infamous gritstone “ground up” ethics.
“E2 was a big threshold for me, mentally,” he wrote. “Of late I had pushed my grade back up to E1 with no useful sight left, but I had never climbed harder with no sight until now. I’m super chuffed that I kept my ethics and did it in good style, onsight, no need to headpoint.”
On August 15, Dufton announced that he had repeated his impressive feat with a “non-sight” of Auricle (E2 5c, 5.10d) on Neb Buttress at Bamford Edge in England’s Peak District.
“I managed to keep a cool head after the crux, while I was hanging off one arm searching for something to stand on with my other hand” Dufton wrote on Instagram. “Apparently this isn’t normal!”