Blind man sets record climbing 450ft Old Man of Hoy cliff above sheer drop into sea

Alex Matthews-King

A British climber has become the first blind person to lead climb the 450-foot high Old Man of Hoy, on the Orkney Islands.

Jesse Dufton, a GB para climber, made history when he topped the towering sandstone column after a seven-hour feat placing protective equipment and clipping his rope to it as he climbed.

Accompanied by his sighted climbing partner, Molly Thompson, the pair scaled the iconic East Face Route, which was the line first climbed by Sir Chris Bonnington in 1966.

A radio link meant that Ms Thompson could offer directions to holds, but as she was belaying him from below most of the climb he was having to operate largely by touch.

"I did it," Mr Dufton said. “I led all 6 pitches placing my own gear, feeling my way up."

(Alastair Lee / SWNS)

“This is the most adventurous hard trad rock route I’ve done - it was truly epic.”

The pair scaled the iconic East Face Route, which was the line first climbed by Sir Chris Bonington in 1966

While the landmark has previously been climbed by other blind climbers, they have followed after a sighted partner who has already placed the rope and protection gear.

The Old Man of Hoy is an iconic 450ft sandstone sea stack on Hoy, the Orkney Islands (Alastair Lee / SWNS)
The sandtsone stack's East Face Route was first climbed in 1966 (Alastair Lee / SWNS)

Trad - "traditional" - climbs do not have fixed bolts drilled into the rock where ropes can be attached, typically because the geology is too soft or it is a protected landmark.

Instead climbers secure themselves with an assortment of metal "nuts" which drop into cracks and jam in place, or camming devices, which can be placed in flared gaps and expand when the weight of a falling climber is applied.

Due to weather limitations the attempt could not be made until the day the team had planned to leave Hoy.

Cams or 'friends' are used to secure the rope in wide breaks and will expand to remain in place if a climber falls onto them (Alastair Lee / SWNS)

But once the weather changed they had to walk for over an hour from the campsite, and then ascend the steep, slippery cliffs to the base of the stack.

This 300m section alone took approximately one-and-a-half hours and the pair didn’t start climbing until 3pm.

Even with the long days at the Orkney latitude, the amount of daylight remaining was a worry as Mr Dufton had to painstakingly find secure handholds and suitable places for protection that would hold his fall.

The ascent marks the culmination of a joint project between Jesse and director Alastair Lee, who is making a film about the blind climber to form part of the 2019 Brit Rock Film Tour.

For the ascent of the Old Man of Hoy, Alastair climbed a pitch ahead to film Jesse from the route itself, alongside supporting cameras on the mainland and in the air via a drone.

Jess Dufton traverse across the treacherous face on a section of the Old Man of Hoy ( Alastair Lee/SWNS)

Mr Lee said: “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 pretty insecure to say the least.

“But on he battled, and what a glorious ascent it was - staggering.”

Additional reporting by agencies