Jesse proves that, with a ‘can- do’ attitude, perseverance and the belief that there is a solution to every problem, anything is achievable. With his sight deteriorating from a very young age, Jesse has found a way around the challenges that most sighted people wouldn’t deem possible. Accepting and giving support to his team-mates, resulted in towering strength for Jesse…
June 4th 2019
As I sat on the stony beach listening to the waves and feeling the wind and rain hit my face, I reflected on how my Scottish weather luck had finally ended. Climbers like myself often fall in love with the wild highlands that offer us a world-class adventure playground, but the capricious nature of the weather is not so endearing. I had been riding on a string of good weather luck across my trips north. In Reiff, Arran and the Cairngorms the weather had been blessedly benevolent. It seemed unfortunate then that my luck had run out on the day of my most significant climb to date. I was about to attempt to climb the Old Man of Hoy, a jewel of British climbing which is highly prized.
I sat with members of the film crew and hoped the weather would improve. Climbing in the rain is miserable, difficult and dangerous and the drone which would film me climbing couldn’t fly in high winds.
So why would my ascent be filmed? Probably because I’m an unusual climber. I carry a genetic mutation which has gradually robbed me of my sight. I lost the ability to read years ago and when I climb, I can’t see any of the hand or foot holds or the climbing safety equipment as I place it. This is particularly significant as I would be leading this climb. Climbers normally climb as a pair with one leader who climbs up first and places the safety equipment into naturally occurring cracks as they go, and a seconder who climbs afterwards and retrieves the equipment as they follow up. Leading is hugely more difficult than seconding. You must hold on longer in order to place the gear and because the rope goes down from you, the consequences of falling off are dramatic and serious. This leads to the extra psychological difficulty of controlling the inherent fear. Because of this the routes which climbers lead are usually the yardstick by which they measure themselves. A blind person leading a route which is considered serious by experienced sighted climbers is somewhat unusual, to say the least!
So how did I find myself about to attempt something beyond the comprehension of most? I like to joke that I didn’t have much choice about getting into climbing. My Dad was part of a Mountain Rescue Team and took me climbing as soon as I could walk. I seconded my first route aged 2 and led my first route aged 11. The fact that I had been diagnosed as severely sight impaired aged 4 didn’t seem to be an issue as far as my parents were concerned, and I am eternally grateful that they instilled a can-do attitude in me from an early age.
I was born with no peripheral vision and only about 20% of central vision. I could just about guess at letters on the third line of the optician’s eye chart. This isn’t a great baseline, but for me it was the high point of my sight.
Despite my failing sight, I did well academically and went on to study Chemistry at the University of Bath. People often ask how I managed this, given I could never see well enough to read the board and had to struggle with a magnifier to read textbooks. I think 2 things are key. First, I was brutal about focusing in on the important information, and secondly, I worked out mnemonics to help myself remember it. For me the act of writing notes on what the lecturer said helped me to remember, even though I couldn’t necessarily read back what I’d written afterwards.
Needless to say, work in a chemistry laboratory for my degree was “interesting”, but the unenviable title of “Mr Smashy Smashy” went to someone else – my housemate, not me. This I regarded as a win! As soon as I could, I swapped lab work for Computational Chemistry, where I used computer models to simulate reactions or materials.
To my surprise this led to my being offered a Ph.D. position studying materials for photovoltaic solar cells. My sight had been gradually deteriorating throughout my University years, but in the first year of my Ph.D., the deterioration rate dramatically increased. I began to rely on text-to-speech software as magnification ceased to be sufficient for me to read conventionally. I often joke that I’ve written a doctoral thesis, but I’ve never read it.
My clean energy related Ph.D. allowed me to start working for a hydrogen fuel cell technology company. I completed a Graduate Training Scheme and then was sent to London to complete a Postgraduate Certificate in Intellectual Property Law at Queen Mary’s. This was a pre-requisite for my current role in the Intellectual Property department managing the firm’s patents.
Perseverance and problem solving were crucial in overcoming the challenges my eyesight presented in academia and at work. I was always determined to find a way, even if I didn’t know what that was going to be at the outset. I guess it’s these same qualities that have also enabled my climbing.
All through undergraduate, my Ph.D. and afterwards I had been climbing in my spare time. I’d made a group of good friends through the University Mountaineering Club and I’d been away climbing with them all over Europe. As my sight had deteriorated, my friends had started to help guide me. They started with small suggestions at first, then more frequent and more detailed instructions were needed as I had lost more and more of my sight.
For me parity of effort is really important. I don’t want to be ‘taken out climbing’, I want to contribute as much as everyone else in the team. If my friends are helping me by directing, then I need to find a way to pull my weight. The best example of this metaphor is when I took it literally. We organised an expedition to Greenland and one of the best ways I could contribute to the team was to carry all the heavy equipment. I would exhaust myself so that my friends were fresher and more able to perform tasks I couldn’t help with, like map reading and fixing the fiddly stove. I always volunteer to do the things I can, so I can accept help with the things which are hard because of my eyes, and everyone has still contributed equally.
So, I guess it’s the combination of attitude, the years of experience and teamwork that had led me to the base of the Old Man of Hoy, to climb this 137m tall freestanding sandstone pillar rising straight up out of the ocean in the Orkney archipelago. It overhangs on every side and there is no easy way to the top. Fortunately, my misgivings about the weather were ill founded and whichever deity controlled the weather that day smiled upon me and in mid-afternoon I started the climb.
The crux is a section called “The Coffin” a small shoulder-width slot capped by an overhang. With no holds to pull on I had to jam my hands into the crack above the roof and torque them, before contorting the rest of my body into a ball to attain the critical foothold. Meanwhile the roiling waves were crashing below me and sea birds were wheeling overhead. I like the fact that moments like this in climbing demand such total focus from you, forcing you to concentrate and try your hardest. I made it through this and the other subsequent tests which the climb presented.
While I am not one for displays of exuberance, those who know me well could see my satisfaction as I crested the top of the tower as the sun set beneath me.
Jesse’s ascent of the Old Man of Hoy is the focus of Alastair Lee’s multi-award-winning documentary ‘Climbing Blind’. It’s available to watch until April 2021…