A couple of years ago I wrote a post about my first proper attempt at outdoor rock climbing. If you can’t be bothered to read it, I’ll summarise by saying it’s great fun, but jolly hard when you have two largely non-functional shoulders and your eyesight is not much better functioning. My shoulders still don’t work anything like properly, though since my third surgery, where they sliced a chunk off the bone, I now have one semi-functioning shoulder out of two. My sight is a bit worse though, due to cataracts. But I’ve dabbled a bit more when I can find the time and a willing climbing partner, and I love the mental and physical challenge. I’ve also got quite into via ferrata after holidays in the Swiss and French Alps the last two summers, and realised that that’s actually a really good sport for blind people with limited use of their arms, as you can rest whenever you want (if you attach a sling to your harness) and you can (almost) never get lost as there are fixed wires (except when there are multiple routes). I still find both activities mildly terrifying on occasion, and in some sense via ferrata is worse due to the fall factor. Plus it’s still not trivial when you can’t see, as you often have to feel around endlessly for foot and handholds.
Over the summer, I read (well, listened to) Red Szell’s book about his journey towards becoming the first blind person to climb The Old Man of Hoy, and it was a fascinating read. Although my sight is better than his, it was wonderful to hear about someone else having many of the same issues as me, and I became a lot less worried about it being a completely ridiculous thing to do (not that that stops me, I also cycle and mountain bike, which is much more ridiculous). So when I heard about Jesse Dufton and his incredible achievement of being the first blind person to *lead* the Old Man of Hoy, I had to see the film. Luckily for me, the premiere was in Sheffield city centre, and amazingly, on a date when I actually happened to be in the country (a rare occurrence these days).
It’s almost impossible not to compare Red and Jesse, given the similarities in their stories, but they’re also very different in their background and journeys. Jesse’s story should not detract in any way from Red’s incredible achievement, but nevertheless one has to admit that there’s a vast difference between leading and following, especially in terms of the amount of danger involved. Jesse’s film, Climbing Blind, is breathtaking, but also very down-to-earth, interlaced with many hilarious moments. You don’t expect to be laughing like a drain watching a blind person dicing with death, but he’s just a very funny guy, and like many of us, he deals with both tricky situations and the general frustrations of blind life with a hefty dose of black humour. I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the “seagull incident” (you’ll have to watch the film to understand, but let’s just say seagulls don’t tend to make good handholds).
Apparently it’s now a common training technique to blindfold people on an indoor wall. But even though that gives you a little bit of the experience, it’s still a million miles away from what it’s like as a blind climber day in day out. It’s incredibly frustrating, and it’s incredibly tiring, and I don’t think anyone else can really *get it*. A friend who’s known me a number of years and accompanied me on all sorts of adventures had a total moment of revelation when we were on the via ferrata last year and she saw me feeling around for a metal staple below me. I could see it was there, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out *where* it was in relation to my foot, and it’s somewhat terrifying to let your weight go and hope you’re going to drop onto the hold, especially when there’s a big fall factor if you miss. Not to mention the things that look like holds and aren’t (wet patches, loose stones, earth, foliage, chalk marks…) There are advantages in that you tend to be quite used to feeling your way around, and this probably helps with trusting holds once you’re on them, as sight is largely irrelevant. I’m not sure how effective it is, but I also mountain bike largely by “feel” (sometimes with undesirable consequences when the first thing I feel is my body hitting the ground). I think it does make you more aware of your weight distribution and balance. But on the other hand, it makes you very slow climbing, as you simply can’t route plan in the same way, and it’s hard to get a good fluid rhythm. This is something my friends totally don’t get – there can be a lot of trial and error in finding a good hold, that just wouldn’t happen if you could see the rock properly, or see what was coming. You can spend ages hanging needlessly off your big toe and one fingernail and wasting energy, when 2 inches to the right is a massive helicopter landing pad you didn’t know about. So it gets tiring very quickly (and I have rubbish upper body strength due to all the shoulder issues).
I don’t know how much you get a sense of all the difficulties of blind climbing when you watch the film as a sighted person. I also don’t know how much of the detail I missed. Given that my sight is a lot better than Jesse’s (to get an idea of mine, close one eye, put on a pair of blinkers, then put on a pair of glasses with butter smeared over the eye you’ve got open, and imagine turning the contrast on the television either all the way up or all the way down – depending if it’s dark or light conditions – and you’ll get an idea) , I’m sure I don’t appreciate half of what it’s like for him, but so many of the “little things” resonated with me. I sensed the eternal conflict between trying to make people realise how difficult some things are, while at the same time trying to do them as well as anyone else, and not wanting help. I think it was during the Q and A afterwards that Jesse summed the whole thing up perfectly – while in some sense climbing seems a particularly daft and dangerous thing to do when you’re blind, in another sense it also gives you the element of freedom and independence you don’t get in everyday life. Jesse claims it’s much safer than crossing the road, and in a sense he’s right. Climbing is about nothing but you and the rock. Many of the biggest challenges as a blind person come from the variables – the things that change and you don’t necessarily know about. Other than interfering seagulls, most things on the rock are static, and you can focus on each imminent goal more or less undisturbed.
Visually impaired or not, climber or not, Climbing Blind is an absolute cracker of a film, beautifully and very sensitively directed and produced by the legend that is Alistair Lee. You get the sense that they had an absolute blast throughout the making of the film, even if there were some heartstopping moments for both of them. Jesse describes himself as “blind and able”, and his mental and physical abilities are both incredible. He’s also incredibly lucky in his sidekick Molly. Alistair and Jesse were keen to emphasise during our discussions after the film just how amazing Molly is too, and I suspect she really doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. Jesse wouldn’t be able to do half of what he does without her – much though he’d like to assert his independence. This is the one thing more than anything else that hinders my foray into the world of climbing – having to find the right partner – though that’s really just an excuse. Onwards and upwards (literally) with renewed inspiration!