January 8, 2024

Fear Revealed: Climbing Blind

Hazel Findlay

Jesse has been climbing since he was two years old. He spent his childhood enjoying climbing weekends with his dad and led his first outdoor route when he was just 11. As an adult, Jesse hasn’t lost his taste for adventure and challenge, despite losing his sight – he’s made first ascents in the Stauning Alps in Greenland, climbed iconic British trad routes up to E3 onsight and built an impressive international competition climbing record..

While his sight challenges are beyond his control, how he approaches these challenges certainly isn’t. Jesse appreciates that mental strength, mindset, and managing fear when tired is an essential part of climbing, and something he has to be stronger at than most. So as climbers, what can we learn from the man who became the first blind climber to lead Scotland's Old Man of Hoy? Strong Mind’s Hazel Findlay spoke to Jesse to find out about his approach.

(N)onsight climbing

Going into competitions, Jesse measures his success based on what’s in his sphere of control, rather than judging his performance on things he can’t change. “If I lunged to get a hold and missed because I didn’t know where it was, it doesn’t bother me that much,” he explains. “But if I had slipped off a foothold or something that was in my control, then I’d be annoyed with myself. Success for me looks like being in a good headspace for the route, and then doing as well as I think I physically could have done. That's awesome.”

You might be asking yourself just how someone without sight can manage to navigate the complex routes that Jesse tackles. There’s a few answers. Jesse’s partner Molly often acts as his ‘Sight Guide’ on routes, and will usually read the description to him so he has the route in his head, and can make a mental count of the moves, direction and distance. “If a route follows a big corner, arête, or a crack or something like that for the whole pitch, then route finding isn’t so much of an issue,” Jesse says. “But if it’s a face climb just on a series of crimps, then it’s much harder to find your way – and so much of British climbing is like that.”

Jesse refers to his ‘sixth sense’ when climbing: a feel for the route and holds. “You could say sixth sense,” he suggests, “but I guess that’s just that you’re really paying attention to all the information. Complex information, going into your subconscious, and then you’re using your intuition to gravitate towards different directions. I think one of the things I’m really good at is proprioception: having a 3D mental map of where my body is in space.”

When he’s climbing, this skill means that Jesse can remember the position of a hold that was several moves back, and can return to it if he needs. And when he needs to find an unknown hold, he follows where his body wants to be, rather than attempting to reach a safer hold that doesn’t necessarily fit in with his body position.

“It’s not like you’re climbing in a totally black box,” Jesse adds. Having lost his sight in his twenties, he still has the ability to recreate visual perception by imagining his surroundings, using different cues to build a mental picture. “Your mind reconstructs as much as possible using tiny little bits of information that you do get: I’m really tuned-in to noise, and how it changes depending on if you’re in a corner or an arête; or if you feel the wind coming up from beneath you you, that’s the mental cue for: ‘Oh, really exposed here!.’”

Through years of experience of climbing and managing his experience in the moment, Jesse has developed the tools needed to climb demanding, adventurous routes, despite losing his sight.

What can we learn from Jesse?

  • Take responsibility for your climbing experiences and learn the importance of a positive mindset. Taking responsibility means recognising what isn’t within our sphere of control, as well as what is. Check out this article for more.
  • Develop a toolkit that helps enhance your focus, reduce negative talk, manage stress, and stay in the present. At Strong Mind we call these ‘mind tools’ and they help us manage stress, fear and other distractions in the moment.
  • Jesse makes great use of his intuition and his embodied mind. Because Jesse can’t see he really needs to tune into the sense of proprioception (where his body is in space) and he can do this a lot better when he’s not distracted. One way to do this is to turn down the volume of our thoughts and focus on the sensations in our body.

You can keep up with Jesse’s adventures on his blog or his instagram.

DISCLAIMER: Strong Mind content may not be appropriate for someone suffering from a mental health disorder. If you are unsure whether you should try some of the techniques or advice referred to on this site or in this text, please consult your doctor or therapist first.

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