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Climber Jesse Dufton takes on Joshua Tree National Park

Hot off the heels of his bronze medal win at the Los Angeles Paraclimbing World Cup, British trad climber Jesse Dufton headed to the Joshua Tree National Park to sample some stunning Californian rock.

Jesse Dufton is a British climber no stranger to pushing the limits of what he’s capable of. Despite being born severely sight impaired he has gone on to become an incredibly accomplished climber.

For those unfamiliar, just take a look at his film Climbing Blind which charts his lead climb of the towering Old Man of Hoy. As a blind climber Jesse experiences the routes and landscapes he explores in a completely different way to most. Without the benefit of sight to steer his way, he relies heavily on the feel of the rock he is traversing.

Post his win in LA, and with his wife and fellow climber Molly in tow, Jesse was eager to experience some of the amazing local climbs before he headed back home to the UK. Keep reading to experience Joshua Tree National Park through his fingertips…

The extreme landscapes of Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree is an amazing place with a landscape totally unlike anything found in the UK. Molly was blown away by the stunning desert vistas. The hot sun bathes the huge granite blobs and boulder gardens, interspersed with the eponymous Joshua Trees themselves. Even without the visuals, I could tell that it is a very special place indeed. Finding a pitch nestled in the Hidden Valley campground, we were ensconced in the heart of the park, with all its climbing history from the time of Jerry Moffat et al.

Getting stuck into some of the classics mere meters from our tent, I began adjusting to the feel of the Joshua Tree granite. The virgin sections of rock are incredibly rough and sharp and can draw blood with the subtlest graze, but the passage of innumerable climbers on the famous easier routes has mellowed the rock’s innate ferocity. The same cannot be said of the flora, all of which is festooned with barbs and spines as sharp as razors, many of which made their presence felt, a searing stab of unexpected pain as I stumbled into them.

Braving the unfriendly plant life is worth it though, as the climbs are stunning. With complex featured cracks, whose widths vary subtly and sport a myriad of complex features, it was interesting for me to explore them by touch as I climbed. A puzzle to seek out the optimum placements for hands, feet and gear. Sometimes as I climbed, the features in the rock cast my mind back to how it formed, imagining the newly minted granite cooling and splintering to give the cracks and the plate-like flakes that break up the walls and bulges, each with that distinctive rough surface that must often be smeared upon. The complexity of the features forcing my subconscious to adjust my movement patterns in an effort to decode the route’s distinctive enigma.

As the day wore on, I sensed myself getting to grips with the style and felt the heat of the sun sinking towards the horizon, imagining the orange light, running over the rocks in the final moments, before the on-rushing twilight and the precipitous drop in temperature that accompanies it.

There is no running water in the park, and the contrast between the park’s rugged and remote feel with the consumerist modernity of LA only hours earlier, rattled around my mind as we decanted water from the bladders we’d brought with us and prepared dinner. Molly marvelled at the star-spangled sky and near full moon, which illuminated the jumbled boulders as we ate, and I soaked in the soundscape of unfamiliar insects and the whistle of the gentle breeze between the rocks. Later, as I lay in my sleeping bag I was roused by the yipping and howling of a coyote pack, as they saluted the waxing moon that lit their domain, this rare bastion of western wilderness. Sinking back into my cocoon I hid from the cold night air and marvelled at this place’s distinctive soul.

Mind over matter

Rising early, I chose a route, currently shaded that would be in the sun later and therefore too hot to climb. I hastened to get stuck into this 5.8 warm-up route before the sun blew away the early morning cool. The route started with an awkward chimney that was the antithesis of the competition climbing I had been doing such a short time ago. After negotiating the first 15m I got into “The Flake” which gives the route its name and made short work of it. The flake runs out before the top and I had thought I’d done the crux. I was wrong.

Molly had spotted from the ground that there are 2 bolts to protect the final slab. I found the first of these without issue, clipped it, and stood up onto the start of the slab. There were no holds. But, rather than being totally uniform the rock’s surface was covered in small sloping depressions and protrusions. Much as if someone had taken a sheet of tissue paper, scrunched it up into a ball, then without tearing, unfurled it and wrapped it over an egg. The result was no positive holds, just sections that had a shallower angle as I attempted to find a way on top of this oversized egg. Footwork was going to be crucial, but as I can’t see where the depressions and lumps are in order to position my feet, this was going to be insanely hard. I thought back to childhood trips to Fontainebleau, remembering the often savagely polished slabs that had honed my footwork and taught me to trust the feeling through my toes for what will, and will not, stick. 

Gingerly I felt around with my hands as best as balance would allow. Identified several sections of the rock that were less steep and began working out how to move my feet between them. Slowly, tentatively, I padded upwards. Up and up I went, always searching for the second bolt that I knew was there, but neither Molly or I could see. I still hadn’t found it. Another move. I’m scared now, these moves are hard if you can’t see, and I know I am way above my last clip on the first bolt now. The next move will be harder still. I’ve found a smear to move to, but it’s a really high foothold, it would be better if I could use an intermediate, so it wasn’t such a stretch. There probably is an intermediate, but I can’t find it. I’m not sure I can make the move without falling and I’m high above my last clip, I do not want to slip, I could easily break something if I do. 

Indecision grips me as the battle between motivation and self-preservation plays out in my mind. This is silly, starting to spiral out of control. I begin to down climb. Reversing the tenuous slab moves from the memory of where my feet had been before. Swearing to myself and not loving this experience, I brush past the second bolt on the way down. Found it! I’d inadvertently climbed past it and despite my searching hadn’t found it to clip. No wonder I had felt run-out and exposed. Relief as the snap of the quickdraw going in and getting clipped hits my ears. No excuses now, time to start going back up. Up I pad to my high-point and the high step. The move is no easier, I still can’t find an intermediate, but at least I probably won’t break my ankles if I mess this up. The sun is up now, it’s hot already, there is no shade up here near the top of this accursed egg. My hands are seeping sweat profusely, I try to chalk, but to no avail. 

“Commit”, my inner monologue screams. I go, attempting the move. My soaking hands slide down the rock, I imagine them leaving slug-trails of sweat behind, 2 streaks at least a foot long down the rock. “This is it”, “I’m taking the ride” I think. But, to my amazement my left foot sticks on the high foothold. I imagine the contact area between the rubber of my shoe and the rock, it must be tiny. Thank f**k for sticky rubber, it’s the only thing keeping me on right now. “Stand up” screams the monologue, with a tirade of internal invective it’s clear my body wants outta here. I stand up, blessedly the angle begins to ease, and I reach the top of the egg. Phew, it’s over. Well kind of, because of course I can’t find the bolted anchor. I know there is one up here somewhere, it’s marked on the topo. But despite prolific searching by scrabbling around at the top I can’t find it. I don’t want to go too far and fall off of the far side of this sodding egg. I built a trad anchor and made myself safe. I’m sat belaying less than 2m from the bolts…arrrg it would be so much simpler if I could see them. While I was climbing, I didn’t particularly enjoy this route, but with hindsight there are some huge positives for me. I hadn’t soiled my favourite pair of climbing trousers! And I’d been mentally tough enough to go back up to the crux once I had a modicum of protection.

Tackling the epic Rubicon

Our days in the desert were numbered, time was running out. With some trepidation I decided to take on Rubicon. The route follows an impressive Z-shaped series of cracks up the side of a huge freestanding boulder marooned in the sea of sand. It’s graded 5.10c/d depending on where you look, which puts it right at the top end of my ability, hence the trepidation. As we Stood between the shrubs at the flat base, Molly described the crack system to me. It starts with a vertical section of wide hand jams before traversing left along a horizontal break for 15m to reach the base of a narrow finger crack that starts almost vertical, before curving an arc rightwards to the top of the boulder. We were using double ropes and discussed how to arrange these with my gear to minimise the rope drag as I geared up and pulled my shoes on. The first crack and the traverse along the break were easier than expected, I had feared the traverse would have no footholds and be a pumpy swing fest, but the crux was yet to come. I reached the base of the curving thin crack and paused. This was the Rubicon, once I started up it, I wasn’t going to be able to reverse the moves. It was going to be simple, climb to the top or fall off, retreat wasn’t possible.

I smiled at how aptly named the route was, with its reference to Caesar. Like the Roman general over 2 millenia ago I was at the point of no return. Alea iacta est I thought as I torqued my fingers to lock and pulled up into the thin crack. It was strenuous, and I knew I couldn’t afford to mess around, “push!” my mind screamed at me, as I worked higher in the crack. Initially, I had been able to jam my toes in the crack, but as it arced over to the right I was forced to begin smearing on the blank wall. My fingers probed the thin fissure, searching out wider sections where I could sink in more than ½ my first pad. It was uneven and sharp inside the crack and it hurt as I twisted my fingers against the unyielding and implacable stone. 

Feeling insecure, I placed my last dragonfly, it wasn’t an ideal placement for the small cam, I just hoped it would be enough. Desperate to make the most of any footholds, I felt a small protrusion which jutted out from the left side of the crack. It was small, slopey and not in an ideal place as I was moving rightwards, but it was the only actual foothold, the alternative was smearing on nothing. I shifted my left foot up to it and twisted to move higher and to the right in the crack. My foot slipped and I dropped like a stone. To my great relief the dragonfly held, calculating how far I’d have gone if it hadn’t, wasn’t comforting.

Taking a moment to refocus after the fall I pulled back on, committed to smearing my feet and climbed through the crux to the top. On-sight climbing is so unforgiving. The smallest of mistakes can be irrecoverable. I sat on top with mixed emotions swirling in my head. Initially disappointment at my mistake, but then slowly, as rationality returned, satisfaction at my physical effort and my commitment, positives to take with me to the next battle. It occurred to me that if climbing Rubicon clean had been a certainty, the experience would have been denuded and hollow, why roll the dice if the result is already known? 

My motivation for climbing is multifarious, but a large component is about what I learn about myself and how I handle challenge and uncertainty. Let’s face it, I don’t just climb in these amazing places to see the view, even if it is incredible.

Inspired by this story?

Find out more about Jesse and his previous achievements on his athlete profile.

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