Blind rock climber believes he might not be as good if he had his sight

By Mirror | Thursday, May 28th 2020 at 14:34
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In his own words, Jesse Dufton, 34, explains the role that climbing has played in his life, from family connection to meeting the love of his life, and overcoming all the odds along the way.

I was born with a genetic condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and, over the years, my eyesight gradually deteriorated.

The best way to describe it is like looking through a straw then cling film being layered over the end.

At school, I couldn’t read the blackboard and I had to use a big magnifying glass for books.

By the time I got to university in Bath to study Chemistry, it had got to the point where I couldn’t really see images at all, only the difference between light and dark.

And a few years later, once I was in the first year of my PhD, I was almost 100% blind.

When I was young I used to get very angry if I encountered something I found difficult or couldn’t do because of my eyes.

But over time I learned that wasn’t a helpful response. There’s no point getting wound up by the fact I can’t see, because it won’t change it.

I’m an only child. My mum was a teacher and marriage guidance counsellor and my dad ran a charity, and they’ve always encouraged and supported me in everything.

And technology is a blessing. For example, text to speech is kind of a saviour. For my job, I’m a principle patent engineer, looking at patent portfolios for tech companies. My computer and my phone read text out to me. And I’ve got an app on my tablet which will read out things like The New Scientist.

But, of course, my great passion is climbing and there aren’t digital aids and solutions for that.

I started climbing when I was young, my dad took me up my first rock route when I was two. All my early climbing was outdoor traditional climbing, and bouldering in Fontainbleau, France.

My dad had been in the Mountain Rescue and was part of a mountaineering club, so we would go for weekends away climbing throughout the UK.

He taught me everything I know and I led my first route outside when I was 11. At this time I had about 20% blurry central vision and no peripheral vision. I could just about see well enough to place rock gear, but not well enough to pick out the routes from the ground.

People are usually amazed when they discover that not only do I climb, but I also lead climbs.

‘Trad’ climbing is when you start at the bottom, and as you climb up, you put the bits of gear into the cracks and you loop the ropes through them as safety mechanisms, and you hope you won’t fall off!

This is different to ‘sport’ climbing where someone has been up beforehand to drill metal bolts into the rock that you can clip the rope through, rather than having to find a crack yourself.

At university I joined the Mountaineering Club and was able to climb much more frequently. We had regular trips to indoor walls and weekends away outdoors. I developed a great circle of climbing friends and went on multiple trips to Europe. On these I started Alpine climbing and ice climbing too.

But when my sight dropped to a level where I could no longer read, it started to be difficult to place gear as I couldn’t see whether it was properly seated. I also stopped being able to pick out the holds at indoor walls.

There was a time when I thought I might have to give up leading as my eyesight got worse. But I never thought I would stop climbing, I just learnt to adapt with the support of my friends.

People often ask me, ‘Why rock climbing, it doesn’t seem like a good activity for a blind person?’

But when I think about the danger, crossing the road is far more dangerous, and also it’s something where I’m not in control.

It’s quite possible that I wouldn’t be as good a climber if I weren’t blind – if I didn’t have these challenges. It wouldn’t focus me. That determination is built through my disability.

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