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Blind Climber Completes Historic Trad Ascent on Devils Tower

Devil's Tower in Wyoming is an intimidating feature to climbers. Long, continuous cracks and chimneys demand sustained effort and advanced technique. Add in the placement of trad gear, and you've got a recipe for a hair-raising adventure.
Blind climber Jesse Dufton leading up "El Matador" 10d on Devils Tower, Wyo.(Photo/Montane)
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“El Matador” is a 5.10d classic endurance stemming route on Devils Tower. Many trad climbers find it challenging, but imagine if you headed up without using your eyes. British climber Jesse Dufton did just that last week, recording the first blind trad lead on the iconic formation.

Dufton led all the hard pitches, placing his own gear, and he took several leader falls on his way to the summit. Placing the optimal piece of gear, correctly sized and secure, is hard enough with vision. Astonishingly, Dufton does this “in the dark.”

Jesse Dufton Climbing History

Dufton has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that has rendered him completely blind. Dufton was born with only 20% central vision, no peripheral vision, and several blind spots. The genetic condition progressively broke down his retinas’ cells, and by age 20, Dufton could no longer read. By 30, his vision was limited to only light perception with a 1-2% field of view.

Dufton has been a climber his whole life and has progressed despite losing sight. He trains for World Cup events and leads on gear. And throughout, he has had a great partner.

His wife and sight guide, Molly, supports him on climbs, verbally relaying information and “lending her eyes,” as Dufton calls it. She aids in route finding, foot and hand placements, and gear choices. But Dufton is leading, and Molly cannot always see him. Once Jesse Dufton crosses this threshold, he climbs blind without assistance.

Blind climber Jesse Dufton and sight guide and wife Molly.
Jesse Dufton and wife and sight guide, Molly; (photo/Montane)

Dufton gained notoriety in the climbing world partially through a multi-award-winning documentary titled Climbing Blind, which covered his attempt to become the first blind person to make a “non-sight” lead of Old Man of Hoy, an iconic sea stack in Scotland.

The same filmmaker who created Climbing Blind, Alastair Lee, documented Dufton’s ascent on Devils Tower.

‘El Matador’ on Devils Tower

Blind climber Jesse Dufton on "El Matador" 10d on Devils Tower
Blind climber Jesse Dufton leading up ‘El Matador’ 5.10d on Devils Tower, Wyo.; (photo/Montane)

El Matador” is five pitches and 250 feet tall and was first aid climbed by the iconic Fred Becky and partner Eric Bjornstad in 1967. Free climbing it as Dufton did requires formidable endurance and pain tolerance, and loose blocks and rocks up high demand attention to ensure safety. Most climbers do the first two pitches and bail to avoid this danger.

Dufton would have none of this, and he completed the entire route in partnership with his wife. “El Matador is, without question, the hardest trad route I’ve attempted to date. Nothing I’ve done so far is quite like it; the stem box is unrelenting. I don’t know how long I was in there, but it felt like an eternity.”

Local guide Zach Lentsch of Wyoming Mountain Guides added, “Single-handedly the most impressive feat in climbing I’ve witnessed.”

Filmmaker Lee said it was “some of the most frightening and compelling footage I have ever captured. I cannot imagine how hard that must have been without the use of your eyes; leader falls on your own gear are scary at the best of times. What an absolute lesson in guts and tenacity that was.”

Dufton, Molly, and filmmaker Lee on the summit of Devils Tower
Molly, Dufton, and Lee on the summit of Devils Tower; (photo/Montane)

Finally, itinerant climber and frequent GearJunkie and ExplorersWeb contributor Sam Anderson commented, “Climbing El Matador is a full sensory demand. It’s longer and more technical than it looks, and there are decisions I don’t know how a non-sighted person could make. What’s hardest to wrap my brain around about Jesse’s ascent is how he would have decided when to transfer from stemming to jamming — if you get starfished below the top out ledge, you’re hosed!”

Find out more about Jesse Dufton at his website, and make sure to catch the documentary about this incredible achievement during the upcoming Brit Rock Film Tour.

jesse dufton climbing a sea cliff

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