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We interviewed Jesse Dufton

Jesse Dufton is the most recent addition to the BOREAL climbing team. As well as some first ascents in Greenland and strong outdoor performances, Jesse is an impressive competition climber. After having podiumed in his first national competition in Edinburgh in 2017, Jesse has gone on to achieve national gold medals and top tens on the world stage. Oh, and Jesse is blind.

 

Jesse, welcome to the team. First of all, can you give us some background? (where are you based, when did you start climbing, what got you into it)

I live in Loughborough in central England, I train at The Climbing Station and often climb outside in the Peak District. It takes just over an hour to get to gritstone crags like Stanage and Froggatt. I started climbing when I was really young, my dad took me trad climbing from age 2, and I lead my first route outside when I was 11. But, I didn’t get a chance to climb regularly, until I went to University in Bath. I would go away climbing almost every weekend and during the evenings to Cheddar and the Wye Valley. I guess I’ve just always climbed, it’s a big part of my life.

 

I think most climbers would find it difficult to understand how you can climb without sight. Can you explain how you do it? How does Molly come into it?

My eyes have always been terrible, but when I was younger they weren’t’ as bad as they are now. I was born with about 20% of central vision, no peripheral vision and totally blind in low light conditions and it has slowly got worse. I used to be able to see large holds when they were less than 3m away, but I’ve never been able to stand at the bottom of a route and plan my sequence. I’ve always had to climb one hold at a time.

Because my sight has gotten worse gradually, I’ve adapted to losing it over time, and my Friends have learned how to help me. Initially, they would shout up to me if there was a hold I’d missed. Then as my sight got worse, we started to use a laser pointer to direct me to holds. Now that I don’t really have any sight left we have developed a system to lead me to holds verbally using headsets and radios. This works really well in climbing walls, but when we go outside, I’m basically on my own.

Whoever is sight-guiding me tells me where the next hand hold is relative to the previous one. We use the numbers of an imaginary clock face to tell me the direction and then a, b, c to tell me how far to the next hold. This works well for everything other than dyno’s, I’m not very good at dyno’s! For the feet, we usually just go with up, down, left, right. Obviously, because I have to be told where to go, I climb incredibly slowly in comparison to a sighted climber. Consequently, working on my endurance is vital as I need to be able to hold on for what feels like an eternity!

When we climb outside, my Friends (usually Molly) direct me to holds as best they can. Usually, this is just based on what they can see from the ground, I have to feel around for the holds that work best for me and use what I can find. Over the years I have developed a sixth sense for where holds might be based on the features of the rock I can feel. If I’m leading, I need to be directed to the bolts if it’s a sport. If it’s trad, I usually find the gear by myself without too much trouble. I do call down and ask Molly to look at the gear I’ve just placed and tell me if it’s obviously rubbish, but I think most climbers get their mates to tell them the gear they’ve just placed looks good. I don’t think I’m exceptional in wanting a bit of reassurance sometimes! Depending on the type of gear placement I can check it by feeling it, for example, if the cam lobes have engaged properly against the rock.



We interviewed Jesse Dufton


Molly: I’ve climbed with Jesse for over 15 years now and looking in my logbook, we’ve done over 1,300 routes outside together…we know each other pretty well! It might surprise people that Jesse finds walking to the crag and getting back down again much more complicated than the actual climbing. I don’t know how he does it, not being able to see your feet, or the ground, or where you’re going…but he manages fine. He just follows the noise of me walking ahead, and I warn him of any significant obstacles. We just adapt to what works best for the situation. Climbing is the more straight forward bit. There’s no rule book for sight-guiding, you just learn as you go along. I started by calling out the obvious holds he’d missed, and as his eyes deteriorated, we refined our system for describing where the holds are. Sometimes I haven’t climbed the route myself and can only advise on what I can see from the ground. Jesse basically shares my eyes, I describe the area, the crag, the route, and the moves as much as I can. It’s like I’m climbing the route with him, I don’t get scared for him as I’m so immersed in the route as if I was climbing it myself. I have to concentrate so hard there is no room for anything else. He’s super brave, trusts me and just goes for it!

For competition climbing, the sight guiding is even more important, as efficiency is critical and there’s a lot of pressure to get the route reading right and instructions across quickly. We’re still refining and improving. Sometimes if the sequence is different from the one I had planned, it’s hard to re-adjust and make changes quickly. There’s a lot of thinking on your feet. I’ve tried climbing with a blindfold on, I climbed very differently to how I usually climb. The static moves and the staccato nature means totally different tactics, and I was able to understand a bit more what it was like. Jesse is training hard and still improving massively, and I’m excited to see how far he can go.


How did you start competition climbing? How was that introduced?

I was climbing at my local gym, and one of the members of the GB paraclimbing squad noticed that Molly was using a laser pointer to direct me to the holds. She told me about the BMC paraclimbing series, I was unaware of it. This is a set of 4 competitions which run in the UK each year.  It was a Wednesday, and the next tournament was on Saturday in Edinburgh, so I signed up competed and got on the podium. It all seemed to happen very quickly, I didn’t really know what to expect, this was my first ever competition. I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t have a headset. To communicate, Molly phoned me, and I wore a big pair of headphones, with my phone in my pocket while I climbed and we conversed via phone up the routes. It must have looked pretty funny! I enjoyed the event, so signed up for the remaining 3 competitions. I must have impressed the coaches throughout the series as I was selected for the GB team early the following year.

 

When did you know that you wanted to pursue the competitive side?

Once I found out about the competitions and compared myself to people with similar levels of sight, I realized I could compete internationally. Before then, I had always compared myself to sighted climbers, and while I think I was probably just about above average I wasn’t going to be worrying Adam Ondra!

Once I had realized this I was really keen to give competitions my best shot, I am 33 and so had come to competition climbing relatively late. I wasn’t going to get many opportunities to compete in the World Championships, I committed to putting the training in and giving it my all.



We interviewed Jesse Dufton


Do the competitions motívate you most, or are there other challenges/projects you want to achieve?

I have goals for both. At the moment my focus is on the competitions because it’s the World Championships in Japan this year, and I want to improve on my performance from Innsbruck last year. Training is tough, but when you see the improvements, it’s all worth it.  That said, there are some outside challenges that I’ve got my eye on too. I’ve been wanting to lead The Sloth at The Roaches for a good few years now. If anyone doesn’t know, it’s HVS and follows a crack through a huge roof and is intimidating! I’m sure that I’m strong enough to do it now, but I had always shied away from trying it because I wanted the on-sight, well actually maybe that’s not the best phrase as I can’t see, on-fondle might be more appropriate. I think I’ll try and tick it off the list this year as well as trying to bag some more Scottish sea stacks.

If that’s not enough, in 2017 I spent a month in Greenland and got a couple of 1st ascents. I’d love to go and do some ice climbing in Canada, some more 1st ascents too if possible. I’ve got a plan to, hopefully, make that happen. Watch this space.

 

We interviewed Jesse Dufton



What keeps you motivated to climb?

I just really like climbing, I've always done it, and I still love it. Often people think that climbing isn't a good sport for a blind person, but I don't agree. Sure, it's massively more difficult to climb blind than it is sighted, but I think it's much better for blind people than sports like tennis and cricket. There are blind versions of those where there is a bell in the ball, but I think that sports like climbing where there is no ball, is much better. Also, you don't get to go to amazing places like Greenland if you don't climb!

 
We interviewed Jesse Dufton


Which BOREAL models do you use? Why do you like them?

I usually use the Dharma and Synergy. The Synergy is my favourite, I love them; definitely the best shoe I’ve ever had. That’s a huge compliment. I’m incredibly picky about shoes. I love them because they’re so sensitive. I can feel the foothold through the shoe. Given that I can’t see where I’m putting my foot that’s massively important to me. Because I can feel the hold, I can ensure that I’m really making the most of it.


For anyone out there with a disability who might think climbing (or indeed any other sport) is unachievable, what would you say to them? Any advice?

First thing you have to do is try! Yes, it will be hard, especially at first, but if you put the effort in it's amazing what you can still achieve. I suggest climbing with friends, it's much more fun, and you motivate each other when one of you is having an off-day. The hardest thing is to start. Once you've done that, work out how you can fit it into your life and how you make sure you don't stop. I've found that if your keen people are happy to help you!

 We interviewed Jesse Dufton



Finally, where can people find out more (any web / social media links?)

You can follow me on facebook (@JesseDuftonGBParaclimber) and Instagram (@jessedufton). I also have a website (www.jessedufton.com)  if you’re interested in finding out a bit more.

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