GB Para climber Jesse Dufton has led the Old Man of Hoy – an extraordinary feat considering he is blind. Jesse led all six pitches of the classic East Face Route (Original Route) (E1 5b), placing his own gear and described it as 'the most adventurous hard Trad rock route I've done.'
The famous sea stack made its way onto Jesse's ticklist back in 2008 when Molly (Jesse's partner) spotted a photo of the Old Man of Stoer in a guidebook: 'She suggested we go check it out, so we did and had a great day climbing it. After this, I became aware of the Old Man of Hoy as an even more impressive sea stack and put it on my tick list. Even though I can't see the pictures of the Old Man of Hoy, my experience climbing the Old Man of Stoer and the things I've heard about it are what made me want to do it! The difficulty and the remoteness accentuate the adventure that is sea stack climbing.'
Jesse was born with roughly 20% of central vision, with large blind spots, and his sight has continued to deteriorate over time. Taking on a climb such as The Old Man of Hoy is far more complicated for Jesse than just the climb, however. Getting to and from the routes is often harder than the climbs themselves. Relying heavily on Molly and walking poles, Jesse uses a combination of 'scrambling, stumbling and bum shuffling:
'I always get the approaches done. It might not be pretty or elegant, but it works. For broken ground I use poles, so I effectively have 4 legs and it's more difficult to fall over. Molly is kind enough to guide me by pointing out obvious features. She's had a lot of practice and is excellent at this. I can tell from the tone of her voice whether we are in a 'don't fall here' section. There was a few of these getting down to the Old Man of Hoy!'
Whilst not preparing specifically for the climb, Jesse and Molly train regularly at their local climbing wall and can be found doing laps of the circuit board. When it's dry, they head up to the Peak District and hone their communication. Molly told us:
'Jesse loves gritstone and I guess this is the closest thing to the Old Man of Hoy sandstone, so good preparation. In the last few months, I've tried to pick out routes on grit that had similar thrutchy, awkward moves to those I envisaged on the Old Man. Mostly the preparation had already be done by climbing together for years.'
Fully prepared, the pair found themselves at the base of the sea stack wearing the radio headsets that are critical to their process. Before setting off, Molly will describe the pitch and read the route description, carefully pointing our any obvious features or gear placements that she can see from the ground.
'Molly is critical and only interjects through the radio when she can see that I'm struggling to find a hold or when I ask for directions. I find the gear myself through feel and I can work out what size piece of gear I need. Molly helps locate the appropriate piece on my harness. When I get to the top, I build my own belay and bring Molly up as normal. I have climbed so much that I have a sixth sense for where gear placements might be. I might not use the obvious gear placements to build my anchor, however, they're always solid. When I led Brant Direct, I built myself a complicated 3-piece equalised anchor about 1 foot from the mass of ab tat that I could have clipped to had I been able to see it!'
When Jesse climbs around a corner or over a bulge, he's on his own and must rely on feel and his experience. The pair have absolute confidence in each other's abilities. Molly said: 'I don't get scared while he's leading, I know his gear is good and he's safe and to be honest I have too many other things to concentrate on. It's almost like I'm climbing it with him. I enjoy the process and challenge.'
One of Jesse's strengths is his mental fortitude and whilst there's extra pressure on him because he can't visually check his gear, he does a good job at 'keeping the fear genie inside the bottle.'
'My gear placement is good, and Molly will tell me if any pieces were rubbish once she's climbed the pitch, this is very rare. On the Old Man of Hoy, I had run out of big gear for the section after the crux, I couldn't see and therefore didn't know that I'd needed to save some for the last section of the pitch. I felt a mixture of irritation and exasperation that I was having to run this out. Mostly, I think I'm hyper-focused on what I'm doing, my climbing and my technique.'
Seeing Jesse topping out was an emotional moment for Molly: As I climbed over to join him, I was a bit speechless and on the edge of breaking into tears. If it wasn't on the verge of getting dark and we weren't having to crack on with abbing back down, I probably would of. The whole day was just full on epic, I'm so proud of Jesse. I never had any doubt; I knew he would get to the top.'
Filmmaker Alastair Lee was on location filming for the Brit Rock Film Tour. He has been following Jesse throughout several adventures and describe the experience of working with Jesse as the most revealing of his career: 'I've never seen him searching around for holds so much, holding himself in strenuous positions as the obvious footholds sat quietly unused and all the sand on the holds. It must have felt insecure, to say the least. But on he battled, and what a glorious ascent it was. Staggering.'
'What Jesse is doing in climbing is as impressive as any E10 or big wall I have filmed, it's so inspiring to see Jesse's determination in action. One of the most amazing things is how he and his partner and sight guide Molly work together, inspiring not just for climbing but on a very human level.'
On the last pitch, Jesse was aware of the light of the setting sun shining through the cleft which separates the stack at the top.
'I only wish that I had a little more time on top to take in the accomplishment. Mostly my emotions are a huge sense of achievement, however, there was also relief that I didn't get eaten alive by midges or puked on by fulmars!
'Lastly, I was annoyed that I'd taken my size 6 cam with me and not found a placement for it! So irritating to have carried the weight all that way unnecessarily... grrr.' – We can all relate to that!
Jesse is currently hard at work training for the World Championships that take place in Briançon this July.