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Home » Features » The Life, Times and Scary Climbs of John Turner (1931-2014)

The Life, Times and Scary Climbs of John Turner (1931-2014)

[Photo] Ed Webster

He was a singular climber, of medium height, lean and agile, perhaps the epitome of the fearless leader with an innate talent for rock climbing. A stylist of the vertical–an ethical purist–Englishman John Turner was a 1950s and early ’60s climbing pioneer who always wanted to push his personal boundaries while putting up new routes. Yet his active years in North America numbered just seven. In Guy and Laura Waterman’s apt words, he was “an isolated comet flashing across northeastern skies and then disappearing.”

From Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire’s White Mountains to the Adirondacks and Shawangunks in New York to the crags of eastern Canada, between 1955 and 1962, John Turner created a lasting legacy of classic free climbs combining high difficulty, top quality and often mentally-challenging runouts. Although born in 1931 in Derby in England’s Peak District, John Turner was, in essence, as Gunks climber Richard Goldstone notes, “really a North American climber.”

The “Turner years” on our crags were highly productive. When leading up unclimbed rock, his curiosity egged, forging another first, Turner was consistently bold, bordering on unsafe and foolhardy, said many of that era’s more cautionary climbers. But Turner, forecasting the future, was a trendsetter in multiple ways, placing the absolute minimum of gear, never a bolt, and weight-training to build endurance and upper body strength. After learning to climb mostly with the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club in the Peak District and North Wales in 1951, he took advantage of a Fulbright Award to enroll in post-graduate studies in Organic Chemistry at MIT–and arrived in Boston in 1955.

Leaving behind post-WWII Britain, Turner found a whole new world of possibility in America. He hooked up with the Harvard Mountaineering Club, and climbed his first new route in New Hampshire, the ever-popular Thin Air (5.6) on Cathedral Ledge in 1956. His studies complete, Turner realized he’d be drafted if he returned to Britain, so he moved instead to Montreal. During the next five years, John Turner injected British boldness into the somewhat stagnant Northeastern American rock climbing scene. It was his three other new routes on Cathedral that solidified Turner’s reputation for climbs that were elegant, strenuous and scary. His 1958 lead of Repentance with Art Gran, it’s unprotected overhanging offwidth crux still a daunting challenge today, was perhaps the first climb of 5.10 difficulty in North America. Of Turner’s Flake, now rated 5.8 R and featuring a four- to five-inch-wide crack behind the flake, he wrote, “Our primitive pitons did not fit anywhere, so it was [led] without protection…. [whose] complete absence was a little discouraging.”

Henry Barber praised John Turner for setting such a high ethical bar. “He inspired me and imbued me with a sense of ‘it’s not what you do, but how you do it,'” said Barber. While Repentance and Turner’s Flake still make aspiring climber’s hands sweat, Recompense is one of the premiere multipitch 5.9 rock climbs in America. Fortunately, today, you can sew up the crux layback with all sorts of wired nuts and small cams. You no longer need to use a wooden wedge for protection, as John Turner did on the first ascent in 1959.

In New York, Turner explored extensively in the Adirondacks, according to Jim Lawyer, co-author of Adirondack Rock, ascending the three highest-quality routes at Poke-O-Moonshine: Catharsis, Gamesmanship and Bloody Mary. He also excelled at the Shawangunks, making the first free ascents of Gunks classics Alphonse, Glypnod and Yellow Belly, plus adding Maria Direct and the notorious Thin Slabs Direct–at “hard 5.7,” one of the world’s most frightening “moderate” leads! Jim McCarthy recently stated, “Turner was certainly a force in the Gunks in the late ’50s and early ’60s. John was very strong for those times…. and especially bold. He was not afraid to fall.”

Indeed! It was at Ontario’s Bon Echo cliffs in 1960, on one of his four attempts to make the first ascent of a route he named The Joke (5.10), that Turner took a 60-foot leader fall and fractured a bone in his foot. When I interviewed John at his home in the English midlands in 2013, he declared quite specifically, “In my entire climbing career, I only had two major leader falls. On a Joe Brown route, Hangover in Llanberis Pass in 1955, and on The Joke at Bon Echo. It was later that I developed a reputation for falling off climbs, but that was just a rumor.”

Partnered by Dave Craft, Dick Sykes and Dave Isles, Turner also pioneered one “big mountain” route, the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire, in 1958 in Canada’s Bugaboo Range. This five-star multipitch granite ridge was included in the Sierra Club book, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. In 1962, Turner returned to England, discovered a new passion, horseback riding and fox-hunting, and rarely roped up again–but American and Canadian climbing was never the same. As Steve Arsenault declared, “I have done many of his classic climbs and they are bold, aesthetic lines. The guy was one tough SOB, with a great eye.” John Turner, from the climbers of North America, thank you so very much. Your great climbs live on.