Sending with Eyes Wide Shut: The Blind Climber Leading Trad Across the UK

Jesse Dufton recently became the first blind person to FA a multi-pitch. But he’s indifferent to “firsts.”

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It was raining when the taxi dropped me off outside a small two-story home in Loughborough, England, where I was to interview British climber Jesse Dufton. The home was clearly being renovated. The driveway was littered with wooden boards and drywall, the front door cast wide open, plastic protective sheets covered all the floors, and several workers hammered and drilled downstairs. “Lookin’ for Jesse?” one yelled. “Yeah mate, he’s upstairs!”

I was met by a tall, muscular guy with a close-shaved head, the kind of fellow you’d back away from in a street brawl. (Dufton, I’d soon learn, practiced Brazilian jiu-jitsu for many years.) He was perched halfway up the narrow staircase, leaning forward with one hand on the rail. I could barely hear anything over the roar of power tools downstairs, but Dufton met my eyes with a friendly, steady gaze. 

This was somewhat disconcerting, because he is completely blind.

Jesse Dufton on lead in Lofoten, Norway. Photo: Courtesy Jesse & Molly Dufton

Jesse Dufton recently became the first blind climber to establish a multi-pitch route, when he and two partners swapped leads up a 300-foot cliff in Morocco’s Lesser Atlas mountains. His ascent of Eye Disappear (VS 4b/5.8) received international coverage, as “firsts” often do. And it was, ostensibly, why I was there to interview him. 

Dufton led me up his staircase and into a small home office. I realized, over the course of the afternoon, that not only was he rather indifferent about his first ascent, but also that his list of achievements on rock was far deeper and more inspiring than I could’ve ever imagined.

Light and Dark

In film and television, the depiction of blind individuals is often one of guide dogs and walking sticks, of bumping into things, of being unaware and unsure of one’s surroundings. But in just a few minutes with Dufton this stereotype was blown out of the water. 

He was poised in movement and speech. It was nearly impossible to tell he was blind. He had the thick, heavily calloused hands of a climber, which moved as he spoke with the languid mannerisms of someone completely comfortable in body and mind. He has no tattoos, jewelry, hair dye, or other affectations. The clothing he wore when I met him was similarly plain and nondescript. 

“Being blind just does away with worrying about appearance at all,” he said. “I don’t worry about any of that.”

On a trip to the States Dufton ticked the unmistakable lean of Rubicon (5.10c) in Joshua Tree. Onsight, of course. Photo: Courtesy Jesse & Molly Dufton

It’s understandable that someone born blind could be at peace with their condition, not knowing what sight was like in the first place. But the 37-year-old Dufton hasn’t been blind his whole life. He was born with rod-cone dystrophy, a genetic condition that caused his vision to rapidly deteriorate. By his twenties, his vision was essentially gone.

“When I was born, my eyesight was just terrible,” he said. “My parents realized something was wrong when I went to school and couldn’t read the board. His doctors estimated that as a child Dufton had only 20 percent of his central vision (with several blind spots) and no peripheral vision. “In a climbing context, I could only see gear when it was right in front of my face,” he said. “I was 20 years old when I realized other climbers stood at the bottom of a route and actually planned their sequence.”

Today his vision has decayed so much that he is aware of differences in lighting—during daylight hours he can tell if a window is nearby—but nothing more. “It’s a bit like looking down a drinking straw with a layer of paper over the end,” he explained. “I can kind of tell whether the end of the straw is light or dark. That’s it.”

Dufton was climbing even before he could walk, brought along by his father, a keen climber, and led his first route when he was 11. The elder Dufton was a staunch ground-up traditionalist, and for his son, there was never another way to climb—abysmal eyesight notwithstanding. “It was always trad, with my father,” Dufton said. “That’s just the way it was.”

Dufton, age 6, figuring out the finer points of rope ascension. Photo: Courtesy Jesse & Molly Dufton

As a lifelong climber, going blind was hard. But even on his worst days, Dufton’s relationship with climbing remained a positive motivator. “I always knew I was going to go blind, but I was about 15 when that sunk in,” he said. “So I had quite a long time to come to terms with it.”

But when Dufton’s sight finally did leave for good, he was surprised to learn that climbing is a (relatively) blind-friendly sport. “I mean, in most circumstances, the rock doesn’t move,” he joked. “It might not seem that easy to climb blind, but it’s certainly easier than trying to play tennis!”

After secondary school, Dufton studied chemistry at the University of Bath, where he stayed for his Ph.D. in Computational Chemistry. “Amazingly, of the four chemists who lived in my house, I wasn’t the one whose nickname in the lab was Mr. Smashy Smashy,” he said, chuckling.

He also joined the school’s mountaineering team and began taking climbing trips abroad to Europe. During these years he met his future wife, Molly, who guides and climbs with him on almost every route today.

A few years after college, Dufton began his current role as a Senior Patent Engineer for a clean-energy company developing hydrogen fuel cells. He finds the work impactful because it brings forward the possibility of decarbonizing air travel.

But outside of full-time work at his intensive job, Dufton has kept up a voracious pace as a climber, putting many other past hobbies (like martial arts) to the wayside to focus full-steam on the rock. It’s clearly paid off.

Dufton fires the steep top out of L'Horla (E1 5b/5.10b) in the Peak District. Photo: Courtesy Jesse & Molly Dufton

Dufton has become a prolific trad ascensionist (onsighting over 1,500 routes across the British Isles), redpointed up to 7a (5.11d) sport, made first ascents of unclimbed peaks in Greenland, and competed with his country’s paraclimbing team since 2018. He also, of course, is the first blind person to put up a multi-pitch route.

Climbing Nonsight

When Dufton, Molly, and friend Paul Donnithorne established Eye Disappear, it was the first time he’d attempted a virgin climb. But Dufton wasn’t fazed by the unknown. “Basically every route I do is onsight,” he said, smiling.

“Well… it’s more nonsight. For me, there isn’t much of a difference between a new route and an established one.”

Whenever he climbs existing routes, Molly reads the topo’s description to him, but typically the pair tackles routes that neither has climbed before. So his wife’s guidance is never more than a couple of vague lines from a guidebook and whatever she can see with her own eyes.“[For established routes] the guidebook description is usually helpful and I try to remember it in my head,” Dufton said, “but other than that, climbing Eye Disappear wasn’t any different.”

The route was also only 5.8, and Dufton’s onsight limit is about 5.10b/c, so it was nowhere near “hard” for him. The main obstacle, he said, was merely having the courage to set out onto the first pitch and keep moving upward, because instead of the 5.8 it turned out to be, Eye Disappear could’ve led Dufton into sketchy 5.13 turf.

So how does a blind person climb? Well, anything with an obvious feature that’s easy to track, like a crack or arête, is Dufton’s preferred style. Slabs are difficult, “because you can’t see your footholds, and there’s no clear feature to follow.” He also finds traverses, where you have to lead with your feet, quite hard. His blindness reflects in his uber-static style on the wall. He moves slowly, deliberately, with complete control. “No dynos,” he said, laughing.

“I certainly don’t get any superpowers,” Dufton joked. “Everyone can close their eyes and be like me. I just have more practice doing it.” That said, he believes he may have developed a few strengths over sighted climbers.

Ice climbing in Hemsedal, Norway. Photo: Courtesy Jesse & Molly Dufton

For one, his proprioception has improved. “I think I have a better 3D map of my body,” he said. “Where my weight is, how I’m balanced, what I’m touching. So if people watch me climb, the first thing they say is that it looks pretty normal. The one odd thing I do is sometimes reach down to touch something [with my hand] to find a foothold, before putting my foot on it.” In general, his memory is also extremely strong, likely a result of having to constantly remember where everything is, both in daily life and on the wall. 

Dufton also has a wealth of stamina compared to the average climber at his grade, simply because he has to move so slowly to find his way. “There’s a bit of window sweeping,” Dufton said, mimicking a searching motion with his hands. “But really I climb on instinct. [As a blind climber] you also don’t get suckered into using obvious holds, which can be helpful. I search for a hold where I want the hold to be, and I’ll use the closest thing to that, so you tend to use holds that are in the correct place from a balance perspective.”

As his vision went from bad to horrendous to nonexistent, it might have made more sense for Dufton to switch from trad to the gym, top roping, or at the very least clipping bolts. But he’s never questioned his passion for leading trad.

Today, Dufton estimates that almost all of his climbing is on gear, onsight, and on routes neither he nor Molly has climbed. The duo has logged over 1,500 routes in the UK in recent years, and out of all of those, Dufton could only recall two that weren’t onsight trad ascents. To some extent this is merely a reflection of UK climbing, a country renowned for its gear-protected crags. But it’s also an intentional choice: “The mental side of having to keep your shit together [on trad] really adds something,” he said.

A big part of Dufton’s success—and willingness to commit to the unknown—comes from his bond with Molly. He’s climbed with other talented partners and sight guides over the years, but nothing compares to his unspoken link with his wife. “She knows me and how I climb far better than anyone else,” he said. She can tell how he’s feeling on the wall and predict the best move or sequence for him at a given moment, often without a single verbal cue.

Dufton on Cool for Cats (5.10b) in Pembroke. Photo: Courtesy Jesse & Molly Dufton

On Building Anchors & Busting Ass

Despite his blindness, Dufton feels comfortable placing gear and building anchors. He simply builds his systems with extreme care, and feels the full area of any feature he places gear in. “It always worries me that I could make a bad anchor and put my partner at risk,” he said. “So I’m constantly querying myself and triple-checking anything I build. It’s slow, but better than the alternative.” 

Luckily, his climbing partners rarely, if ever, find any faults in his placements and anchor-building. More often than not his blunders are cases of overcompensation rather than under.

He recalled topping out a route in Llanberis Pass, “building myself this textbook anchor, three equalized nuts, a sling, all tied off to a central power point. It took me forever, and then I brought Molly up and she’s like, ‘Nice, but why didn’t you just clip to this massive abseil tat right here?’ And there’s just this huge [existing anchor] system like two feet away.”

Other times he’ll be unaware of bomber holds just inches away. “Sometimes Molly comes up and she’s laughing like, ‘You stood on that tiny speck? That’s shit! Why didn’t you stand on this massive ledge right here?’”

Like any climber, Dufton has had his fair share of falls, but never a serious accident. “[Molly and I] steer towards safe routes [with good placements],” he said. “I always want redundancy in my gear. Because I can never place a piece of gear and look at it and go, ‘Yeah, that’s fucking bomber. I’d hang my car off that.’ I ultimately just have to place, trust my judgment, clip, and move on.”

In addition to his personal climbing goals, Dufton enjoys practicing and competing with the British paraclimbing team. However, he sometimes takes exception to what he sees as handholding in the community. “All our comps are indoors [and] on top rope,” he said. “I understand, given some of the disabilities our team has. But because of this, some people on the team who could lead are like, ‘Okay, then I won’t do any leading, ever.’ There are people in less-disabled categories than me who don’t want to lead just because it’s not required by the comps.”

This isn’t a putdown of other disabled climbers, Dufton clarified, but a struggle with how the overall paraclimbing community can sometimes influence others to address their disability with resignation instead of motivation. “There are characters on the team who are really strong,” Dufton said, “but it’s unusual for many of [the team’s paraclimbers] to climb outdoors, and that’s a real shame.”

Dufton recalled how, at the team’s most recent training session, he was the only climber who brought a rope. “Everyone else was expecting someone else to put the rope up for them,” he said. “Like, ‘Guys, this is a fundamental part of climbing…”

So perhaps unsurprisingly, Dufton’s proudest achievements aren’t climbs that tick a “disabled-climber first” like Eye Disappear, but sends where he truly had to bust ass and go all in. “I’m fond of the climbs where you did it by the skin of your teeth, and really gave everything,” he said. 

One big moment was the East Face Route (E1 5b/5.10-) on the Old Man of Hoy in Scotland, a six-pitch line he led entirely by himself, guided by Molly. Don Whillan’s Heptonstall Quarry line Forked Lightning Crack (E2 5c/5.10+), was another. The line was Dufton’s first E2, sent in 2020. “That climb was significant for me because back when I could see a little, I’d onsighted E1. Then I lost the remainder of my sight, and my onsight grade dropped. So with Forked Lightning Crack, I’d managed to go above my previous highpoint, all without any sight.” The Isle of Skye route International (E3 5c/5.11a), even harder, is another favorite lead.

Dufton is also quite proud of the two alpine-style first ascents he put up with a team in Greenland in 2017, Katalice (AD 3,600ft) on Boughfell (7,200ft) and the Sequoia Spire Route (PD 2,600ft) on Sue’s Spire (7,300ft). While not technically difficult, these ascents were brutal slogs for someone without vision. For obvious reasons, Dufton doesn’t do much hiking and is much more comfortable on the wall—where he can use both his hands and feet to guide him—than he is on even relatively short walking approaches. “Imagine you’re trying to cross a moraine with your eyes closed,” he said. “I mean, I can do it, but it’s a nightmare. I’m utterly knackered every time.”

Dufton on the first ascent of Katalice (AD 3,600ft) on Boughfell, Greenland, in 2017. Photo: Courtesy Jesse & Molly Dufton

Crossing scree slopes, of course, is far from the only activity that’s difficult in his life. As a blind man, there is a long, long list of things that Jesse Dufton simply cannot do, and never will again. 

He can’t drive a car. He can’t look at a painting, watch a movie, or read a book. On the wall, he can’t see the rock, his gear placements, knots, rope, belayer, or his own hands and feet. He can’t even butter toast very well, he admitted.

But Dufton doesn’t let any of that get him down. Because damn, he sure can climb.

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