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Climbing By Numbers: How to Conquer Routes as a Blind Climber

Rock climber, adventurer, author and first blind person to climb 'Old Man of Hoy', Red Szell shares how he goes about climbing a new route.

The question I get asked most often as a blind climber is: ‘How?!’

The glib answer, that I tend to use outdoors when I just want to get on and climb the crag, is: ‘I follow the cracks like tramlines and hope they don’t run out, or lead me into trouble.’  

Of course, indoors it’s a different matter.  Most walls have three or four routes set on them, each with different colour holds.  But if you can’t see the holds (let alone which colour they are) then you can’t guide yourself.  Which is where my long-suffering climbing partner Matthew, comes in.

Goes Like Clockwork 

Red Szell climbing at the Castle

Over the past decade Matthew and I have developed a clock-face system to guide me to my next hand or foothold.  Taking my chest as the centre of the clock, my right hand covers from roughly 12 o’clock to 3 o’clock; my right foot, from 3 o’clock to 6; left foot, 6 to 9; and my left hand 9 to 12 o’clock.  Obviously there is some overlap but generally it works.  

So if I need to move my left foot to a higher hold that’s out to the left, Matthew will call out: ‘Left foot 7 o’clock, 12 inches.’ 

Depending on how hard the grade is (and particularly if the route is overhanging and I need to move through it quickly) he might add more information, such as telling me whether it’s a crimp or an undercling; or he’ll advise me to be slow and precise with my footwork if I’m toeing a nubbins or a sloper.

Climbing By Numbers

So a typical sequence might be:

‘Trending right:  Right hand 2 o’clock, 8 inches, undercling.  Right foot to 5 o’clock, 10 inches.  Mantle with your left hand and rockover.  Right hand to 2 o’clock, 9 inches.  Match left foot to right and breathe!’

It’s not fail-safe and as you’ll see from the video of Castle Duty Manager Dan Clemson guiding me up a 6b+ in The Tower Top-roping Area, sometimes it’s just easier to say where the hold is in relation to a part of my body.  But as a general approach it works very well and means I spend a lot less time hanging around in stress positions while my guide tries to work out the next set of directions.

Teamwork Takes Two

Red Szell climbing at the Castle

But it’s exhausting for my sighted guide too; both mentally, in terms of concentration and trying to put himself in my climbing head; and physically.  Craning your neck to look up and shouting instructions as your blind climbing partner heads up the wall is hard work - and stressful, especially if I’m leading the route!  

And as we get more tired we all make mistakes.  One of the most common for every sighted guide I’ve worked with is to muddle up left and right.  So my daughter and I designed a T-shirt with a large clock-face printed on the back and an L and R on the shoulders.  

Another problem we’ve encountered is that as I climb higher my guides perspective gets foreshortened; so a hold that appears to be at 11 o’clock to him lies at 10 to me.  When this happens I explore the wall with widening circles of my hand (or foot) till I find the hold.

The whole system works equally well for lead climbing, top-roping and bouldering.  I have also tried a variation in which each hand or foot is the centre of its own clock face.  Some coaches I’ve worked with prefer it, but Matthew and I both found it confusing and it works less well the higher I climb.

To find out more read Red Szell’s book ‘The Blind Man of Hoy’ which is on sale at The Castle Shop