Climbing Blind



Gripping drama goes hand-in-hand with inspirational appeal in this striking film


Climbing Blind

This memorable documentary is a film that works well on two levels simultaneously. In recent years we have not been short of documentaries about mountaineering and two in particular stood out (2017’s Mountain, as much about nature as about climbing and with a distinctive use of music, and Free Solo which appeared a year later and featured the exploits of Alex Honnold as he climbed without ropes). Following in their footsteps as it does, you could be forgiven for feeling that this piece would bring nothing new to the table, but it does: the title is to be taken literally since the central figure here is Jesse Dufton who at the age of four was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. Attracted to climbing in childhood (his father was himself a climber and introduced the boy to that world), Jesse refused to turn his back on it when his sight deteriorated to the extent that he now needs the guidance of a sighted person to help him find the right holds.


Jesse’s key assistant in this is Molly Thompson, a capable climber herself who became his fiancée ahead of the major endeavour depicted in Climbing Blind, the ascent of the tall sea stack in the Orkney Islands known as The Old Man of Hoy. The attempt was made in June 2019 aided by the fact that in 2018 Jesse had undergone training with the GB Paraclimbing team. The man behind this film, Alastair Lee, specialises in this area (he is introduced as an adventure filmmaker) and is unquestionably the driving force here with credits as director, producer, writer, photographer and editor. The climbing may be the film’s crucial element but there is enough about Jesse’s history (we meet his parents), about Molly and about the present state of Jesse’s eyes to make the film come across as a decidedly personal tale. A brief scene showing Jesse making buttered toast may seem extraneous but in fact illustrates well how he copes with life in domestic terms.


Since the single climb at Hoy is the film’s pivot, Lee sensibly opts for the relatively short length of 70 minutes and brings some variety to the proceedings by incorporating a series of flashbacks to three earlier preparatory climbs at other sites. These were undertaken as tests and include the presence of sighted climbers who at times are blindfolded to experience something of what Jesse faces (in the setting up of such scenes Lee is aware of the power of dramatising but never takes such things too far). Jesse himself comes over engagingly although one’s first reaction may be to consider him mad to take the risks that he does. We even find him pondering the question of whether or not his blindness has actually helped him as a climber: without it would he lack the determination that drives him?


Climbing Blind offers breathtaking views of climbing but is also a genuinely feel-good movie which inspires by showing how Jesse refuses to think of himself as disabled. His last line in the film is quite perfect, a comment that defines the man.




Featuring  Jesse Dufton, Neil Gresham, Leo Houlding, Alastair Lee, Molly Thompson.


Dir Alastair Lee, Pro Alastair Lee, Screenplay Alastair Lee, Ph Alastair Lee, Ed Alastair Lee, Music Oliver Michael. 


Posing Productions-Jonny Tull.
70 mins. UK. 2020. Rel: 20 May 2020 on BBC 4 then available on Vimeo. Cert. 12A.