Among the world’s exploding population of rock climbers, extremely few can claim “first ascensionist” status. Why? Because it’s hard, dirty, scary, gnarly work.
Most of us (looking straight at myself here) would much rather choose known routes than grind through the myriad difficulties FA’s introduce. “The unknown” is one of our closest associations with fear.
So what about climbing a new route if you’re blind? The only person we can find who’s ever done it (with traditional protection, no less) gave a somewhat surprising answer.
Climber Jesse Dufton, who is blind, is that person after the first ascent of Morocco’s 300-foot Eye Disappear (4b, or YDS 5.7) in mid-March. The Brit led the first leg of the three-pitch affair, in all likelihood becoming the first blind person to put up a trad first ascent.
And he said it was pretty much business as usual.
“Everyone has asked, ‘What did it feel like climbing into the unknown?’ And I’ve been like, ‘Just like every other time I go climbing?’” Dufton joked in a phone interview. “In a lot of ways, for me, normal climbing is a lot more similar to new routing [than for a sighted climber].”
‘Non-Sighting’ Doesn’t Hold Him Back
Dufton has rod-cone dystrophy, a genetic condition. He was born with around 20% of his sight, and now it’s deteriorated to the point that he can only distinguish between light and dark in an “extremely restricted field of view.”
But that hasn’t stopped him from building his adventure resume. Dufton is both well-traveled and unafraid to push his limits. He became the first blind climber to lead the storied Old Man of Hoy in 2019. His “non-sight” bids have earned him deserved acclaim.
When asked what kept him from doing first ascents until now, he answered matter-of-factly.
“Climbing in the U.K. has been going since the 1800s — all the obvious stuff has been done!” he said with amusement. “You’ve got to go somewhere super remote. In Morocco, there’s still an amazing amount of unclimbed stuff out there.”
“Super” remote is right. Eye Disappear is on a crag colloquially called Heavy Rock. It’s nestled in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, outside the hamlet of Alma. It’s a few houses, a dirt road, and plenty of unclimbed stone — a first ascensionist’s paradise.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Dufton’s wife, Molly, is his boon companion and dedicated belayer. Together with local climbing developer Paul Donnithorne, they hiked their way out to Heavy Rock. For Dufton, the approach can be the crux of any day out climbing.
“When you can’t see, crossing broken ground is a right pain. It’s not, like, a nice, smooth path. You’ve got boulders, cactuses, very spiky trees. I can do the hike in, but it just takes it out of me far more than if I could see,” Dufton explained.
He attunes himself to Molly’s movements, listening to the sounds she makes for navigation. The pair sometimes uses hexes to exaggerate the noise. (If you’ve ever been near somebody carrying one or more of the traditional climbing chocks, you know they resonate like cowbells when they clank against anything else.)
Feeling Out the Route
How can you confidently place trad gear in a crack you can’t see? Dufton has no choice but to feel it out.
Climbing tests Dufton’s senses of tactility and spatial reasoning as he feels his way through sequences and keeps track of whether he’s run out. But it also engages his sense of hearing. He has said before that he can perceive a different ambient sound when he’s particularly exposed on a route.
“I never know what’s coming up; I can’t plan my climbing, like, ‘OK, I’ve got a good rest there, and I’m going to put a good piece of gear there.’ I have to climb one move at a time,” he said.
That methodical approach has produced Dufton’s proven track record, and Eye Disappear fell right in line. He led the first of the route’s three pitches, which all checked in around 5.7. He felt comfortable on the route (he can lead trad up to mid-5.10 and is a World Paraclimbing Championship medalist) and spoke to the high rock quality.
Dufton judiciously said on Instagram that it “must be the first ground up, on-sight first ascent of a mountain trad route by a blind person!”
“It’s probably the first time it’s ever happened,” Dufton told me. “I don’t know for sure, so I didn’t want to say I was definitely the only one. But I don’t know of any other blind climber doing first ascents.” (GearJunkie confirmed this with Paradox Sports, a leading adaptive climbing organization in the U.S.)
First Ascents in the Arctic
Eye Disappear wasn’t technically the first FA Dufton has notched. In April 2017, he and his wife tagged a few unclimbed peaks during a winter visit to Greenland. Massively remote locations and temperatures as cold as -20 degrees Fahrenheit limited the group to routes that, though adventurous, were technically moderate.
Picking out a few towers guarded by expansive glaciers, they skied in. Actually, Dufton said, that made the job a lot easier on him.
“For me, skiing into routes is a whole lot easier than crossing boulder fields. Moraines are soul-destroying — boulders you can’t see, and some of them move,” he said. It’s “swapping one sufferfest for another,” he continued.
What’s Next for Jesse Dufton
Turning to what’s next, he doubled down on the “sufferfest swap.” New routing in Antarctica is his dream.
“It depends on how the trips shake out,” he said. He daylights as an attorney for a company that makes hydrogen fuel cells, and he considers Molly’s priorities. A tour of the western U.S. is on the radar. Indian Creek is a particular target — he thinks the splitter climbing style would be “quite good” for him, and I’m inclined to agree.
Then there’s all the untouched sandstone to consider and Dufton’s budding first ascent record. Don’t be surprised if you come across his name in the next new guidebook you buy.