John Turner Appreciation Thread


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Alan Rubin

Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 2, 2009 - 06:24pm PT
The recent re-posting of the thread on one of my all-time favorite crags--Poko-Moonshine--and the new post on Paul Preuss have spurred me to start a thread on another one of the perhaps little-known, or at least under-appreciated, "great ones". John Turner was a man who was well ahead of his time in the difficulty of the routes he established, the style in which he established them, and in his attitude towards climbing and training. During a brief period from the mid-1950s into the early '60s Turner established a series of routes primarily in eastern Canada and the northeast US, many of which remain as well-respected classics today.Turner was a doctor who lived in eastern Canada roughly from 1956-62. He reportedly moved there to avoid having to do National Service (the draft) back in the U.K. Previously,he had climbed at Oxford, and was reportedly one of the first to repeat some of the classic routes put up by Joe Brown and Don Whillans and their compatriots in the Rock and Ice Club. Once established in North America, he began an amazing new routeing spree.On many crags he would establish routes that were several full grades harder than any of the previously established routes(not that routes in this area were graded by any system recognizable today), while on others (such as Poko)he would be the first to put up any routes. During this period most climbers in this part of the continent approached climbing in a very conservative manner, but Turner was famous (infamous to some)for his bold, often run-out climbs and spectacular (sometimes limb-breaking)falls. Many of his routes achieved a fearsome reputation in subsequent years, a few lasting about a decade until they were finally repeated. Routes such as The Joke(5.9) and Sweet Dreams(5.8) (Bon Echo, Ontario);Bloody Mary(5.9),Positive Thinking(5.9) The Cooler(5.8+, R)(Poko); Partition (5.9 but originally graded 5.7)(Giant's Washbowl, also in the 'Dacks); Recompense(5.9), Remission(5.8 but really 5.9R), and Repentence (5.9+ or 5.10c--depending on which guidebook)(Cathedral Ledge,N.H.) are just some of his still highly regarded first ascents. The latter(FA, 1958) is a candidate for the "first 5.10"--though classic New England undergrading (beware 5.9+s!!!!)has kept it out of the limelight. Perhaps Turner's best known route to the general climbing population is the 50 Classic NE Ridge of Bugaboo Spire, though far from his hardest climb. He was equally famous for his very thick eyeglasses(it is reported that some of his most difficult FAs were the result of his getting lost because of his poor eyesight, but since most take obvious lines this is unlikely) and intenseive training--primarily weightlifting. Turner moved back to the UK in 1962 and largely gave up climbing (though he was involved in several recorded FAs on the Cornish seacliffs)taking up The Hunt instead. But he left behind an amazing lagacy of climbs done in a pure, bold style that set a standard for future generations of climbers. I know that many of us who began climbing in the northeast in the'60s and '70s had it as a goal to climb the Turner routes on any of the crags we visited--a quest undetaken with not a little bit of trepidation.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Nov 2, 2009 - 06:34pm PT
Gotta go with you on this one Al. That guy was quietly putting up sandbag routes at about the same time the "Golden Age" Yosemite crowd was taking credit for the first 5.9 and 5.10 climbs. Some of Turner's 5.9s are a wee bit harder than the "Open Book."

Nov 2, 2009 - 06:43pm PT
The first name I remember hearing associated with the grim epithet, "unrepeated."

Also, later, I heard that many succeeding generations brought forward occasional unwary specimens who failed to understand the implications of calling a climb, "The Joke."
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Nov 2, 2009 - 07:40pm PT
Nice. google yields an article in a 2007 newsletter of the Alpine Club of Canada - Toronto Section: "John Turner: Life and Climbs" by Kit Moore:
Here's the article text and one of the photos:
leading on UK gritstone &#40;Valkyrie at Froggat Edge - 1953&#41; Phot...
leading on UK gritstone (Valkyrie at Froggat Edge - 1953) Photo: John Peacock (from 2007 ACC article by Kit Moore)
Credit: John Peacock
John Turner leading on UK gritstone
(Valkyrie at Froggat Edge - 1953) Photo: John Peacock

John Turner : Life and Climbs, by Kit Moore

For many years, I’ve been impressed - and terrified - by any routes put up by John Turner.
Turner spent seven years climbing in North America during the 1950s and 1960s,
and had a knack of finding lines that look impossible, seem impossible while you’re climbing them,
and yet are possible for mere mortals like myself.
In his short stay here, Turner accomplished more than most of us do in a lifetime of climbing.
Laura and Guy Waterman, in their excellent book, Yankee Rock & Ice, described Turner as,
“an isolated comet flashing across northeastern skies and then disappearing”.
The Watermans credited Turner with the best rockclimb (Recompense, in New Hampshire),
hardest single climb (Repentance, also in New Hampshire)
and boldest lead (Bloody Mary, at Pok-omoonshine),
and considered him the most important climber in the northeastern US during the 1950s.

A few years ago, I wrote an article on a favourite Turner climb, Sweet Dreams at Bon Echo, in which I asked where John Turner was,
and ended by saying “Thank you, John Turner, wherever you are.”
A year later I was surprised to hear from Turner, who confirmed that he was indeed alive,
but that he had “retired from riding to hounds . . . and his revels now are ended”.
While he was sad to hear that Sweet Dreams’ crux piton had been replaced by a vaguely immoral bolt,
he was glad to know that we still enjoy his route, which remains one of his favourites from the past.
My efforts to reply to his email were unsuccessful, so we decided to put the full text of his email in the Bon Echo guidebook,
and hoped to hear from him again.
More time went by, then I received this email, “Hi Kit: Have been trying to contact you for some three years . . .
If you would like some notes on the first ascent of Sweet Dreams, and a photograph, let me know. Yours, John Turner”.
This time we made contact, and I learned more about the Turner era in North America.

In our correspondence, John began by sending me a Sweet Dreams first ascent photo, showing the third of five climbers who made the first ascent in 1960 - our best guess is that this man is Alf Muehlbauer.
The other three following John Turner were Brian Rothery, Erwin Hodgson and Dick Strachan.
As for the route name, “Erwin effectively named the climb. It took until Dick arrived for him to recover his breath, exclaiming ‘That was a bloody nightmare!’
He was out-voted four to one.” Thus the name Sweet Dreams.
Other route names came to light during our correspondence.
One of the Dacks’ best routes, Bloody Mary, earned its name in a more ominous way.
On the first attempt, says Turner, “we abseiled off . . . and were met by Mary, who had retreated from Neurosis with a scalp wound from a falling stone, which left her covered in blood”.
Another Dacks climb, FM, got its name when Turner’s partner finished the climb and said, “All I can say is f--- me!”
When I asked John about the Gunks, he credited his second’s girlfriend for naming Glypnod.
She was reading Anglo-Saxon at Radcliffe/Harvard and assured him the name meant ‘Frightened’.

Turner started climbing almost by accident on a 1951 field trip studying geology, his extra subject at University.
He noticed that half the party were climbers, who made a point of collecting rock samples at the highest levels possible, so he tagged along.
Once he got the climbing bug, he worked out in the gym at night, and climbed ancient buildings after dark, eventually graduating to Derbyshire gritstone.
In John’s words, “If you could climb on gritstone, with its sloping holds and ferocious cracks, you could climb anywhere: possibly true!”

Turner was strongly influenced by Geoff Sutton, a climber who impressed
him with a deep love of rock and mountains, and an appreciation of style and quality, rather than difficulty.
Geoff also introduced him to his role models - two impoverished plumbers
from Manchester, who also happened to become two of the all-time top climbers in the world - Joe Brown and Don Whillans.
Turner was impressed that between them they pushed up British standards, had an amazing eye for a good line, and went on to many important first ascents.
He managed to do second ascents of some of their routes, and the resulting buzz made him realize how exciting a high quality, first ascent must be.
Is it any wonder that John Turner brought those same qualities to North America, and made such a startling impact here?

When I asked John how he managed to find so many exceptional lines, he mentioned his mentors and also his research background, where his prime motivation was to venture where no one has been and to discover the unknown.
As he says, “this desire to innovate was perhaps a personality trait, and certainly carried over to climbing, which provided the additional stimulus of fear and excitement”.
Anyone who has climbed a Turner route will be familiar with those feelings of fear and excitement, and will know exactly what he means.

What drove an apparently sedate academic, a Phd chemist, to take the risks
he took on these extraordinary first ascents?
Well, he was no sedate academic.
In Pushing the Limits, author Chic Scott says Turner was the exact opposite, “a non-conformist, noted for his hair-raising driving escapades and other impetuous acts”.
This view was confirmed by a mutual friend, Louise Trancynger, who now lives in the shadow of High Exposure in the Gunks.
In her younger and crazier years, when she was married to John’s friend, Jim Andress, she remembers clearly racing with Turner around the Gunks’ winding roadways,
she on her motorcycle, and Turner passing her on blind turns in his old Studebaker.
Wisely, she conceded defeat before anything tragic took place.
Turner continued his love of extremes after his climbing career ended, when he was riding to hounds back in the U.K.,
and earned the nickname of Dr. Death, as he and his equally exuberant horse, CJ, took jumps at up to 40 mph.
Somehow, Turner managed to survive these high risk activities while climbing, driving, riding, and in other areas of his life,
and in fact had very few serious accidents during his climbing career.
My own opinion, after reading about him and corresponding with him, is that he owed his survival to four important elements of his life:
his remarkable upper body strength, which he maintained by lifting weights;
his natural ability, helped by a phenomenal sense of balance and weight distribution;
his ability to visualize a new route, and to assess and take on the risks involved;
and a certain amount of good luck.

John Turner spent an exciting seven years putting up new routes and becoming an important part of climbing communities in Quebec, Ontario, and the northeastern U.S., and earned recognition in other areas of North
for example, as Chic Scott notes, “In 1958, the classic northeast ridge of Bugaboo Spire was climbed in only five hours . . . only the second route on the mountain in 42 years . . . only a dozen pegs were driven for belays or runners”.
Today we enjoy John Turner’s creations, and can appreciate the tremendous effort and risks that he and his partners took in putting up these routes.
In a future newsletter, I intend to reproduce a list of Turner first ascents given to me during my correspondence with John Turner,
along with comments from some of his many climbing fans and followers.
Once again, thank you, John Turner, not just for Sweet Dreams, but for all
your exciting first ascents you left here for us to enjoy through the years.
May we all continue climbing them for many years to come!
Mighty Hiker

Vancouver, B.C. Small wall climber.
Nov 2, 2009 - 07:50pm PT
Interestingly, one of Turner's acolytes, Dick Willmott, made his way to Squamish in the early 1960s, and put up two significant routes, namely Snake and Clean Corner.
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Ontario, Canada, eh?
Nov 2, 2009 - 07:52pm PT
I get sweaty hands thinking about John Turner routes.

As rock climbing parvenus, my parter John Kaandorp and I feared Turner's mighty route The Joke at Bon Echo, which you approach by boat. "Fall off the crux first pitch," claimed our mentor Chas Yonge, "and your rope is sure to get sliced on the outside edge of the ramp." Runout sandbag 5.9, for sure.

The route is well-named. If I recall correctly, John Turner broke his leg on his first attempt. And on his second, the boat sank! The second pitch is only 5.6, but to compensate, there is a poison ivy vine on it which has grown to the size of a small tree.

We felt like 'eroes when we knocked that one off.

Trad climber
East Coast
Nov 2, 2009 - 08:17pm PT
RIght on Al,

I think anyone who has done a Turner route finds it memorable in some way. I hear people are still taking the whip on some of the Turner routes I have heard of: Recompense, The Joke, Turner's Flake. Someday, I look forward to doing Bloody Mary on Pok-O.


Trad climber
Nov 2, 2009 - 08:17pm PT
Thanks Al, it's always a good feeling to complete a Turner route, even with the technical advantages that we have today that he didn't back then.
Have a nice time in Florida. :)

Nov 2, 2009 - 09:40pm PT
Thanks Clint! We don't need to know everything about everyone, of course, but that vignette on Turner's career is quite good.

Trad climber
Lee, NH
Nov 2, 2009 - 10:27pm PT
From Clint's informative post (by Kit Moore),

Laura and Guy Waterman, in their excellent book, Yankee Rock & Ice, described Turner as,
“an isolated comet flashing across northeastern skies and then disappearing”.
The Watermans credited Turner with the best rockclimb (Recompense, in New Hampshire)


Trad climber
New England
Nov 3, 2009 - 07:32am PT
Great picture of Cowpoke on Recompense. Turner definitely plucked the plum of Cathedral with that one, it's probably the best line on the cliff because it follows a prominent natural weakness straight through that diminutive but proud cliff's most distinguished feature.

I first climbed Recompense four or five years ago. Knowing of his "Tumbledown John" reputation, I approached this climb with great trepidation. Doing it at that point in my climbing career made it all the more memorable and satisfying.

Also of note on Bloody Mary at Poke-O, which I just climbed last month. Earlier that day I did Menace to Sobriety (.10b/c) and both pitches of Cirrhosis (.9+). We wrapped up the day with Turner's Bloody Mary (.9+), on which I surprisingly slipped off of the roof move and fell. I like to think that it was John's specter reminding me that humility and respect for accomplishments of older, bolder, and less equipped climbers is part of what this game is about.

Alan Rubin

Topic Author's Reply - Nov 3, 2009 - 09:06am PT
Hi Clint, Thanks for locating and posting that article. It helps fill in a few "blanks". Alan

Trad climber
Lee, NH
Nov 3, 2009 - 10:18am PT
Great picture of Cowpoke on Recompense

Hah, that sure looks like a Cowpoke, but in fact it's a Tarbuster!

Trad climber
The state of confusion
Nov 3, 2009 - 11:30am PT
Bump for a great thread!!!!

Trad climber
Yacolt, WA
Nov 3, 2009 - 07:42pm PT
Recompense is one of my favorite climbs of all time - especially the Beast Flake variation. The variety of climbing and the exposure are fantastic. It also holds the distinction of the route where I have witnesses the most whippers.

When I get home, I'll have to revisit the guidebooks and see what other classic Turner routes I have done - or wished I had done. The man knew how to pick a challenge. Every spring, we would make our first pilgrimage to North Conway and jump on Recompense. That told you exactly what kind of mental and physical shape you were in!!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 3, 2009 - 09:24pm PT
Fantastic post Meastro Rubin! It just goes to show us all that numbers and difficulty are not really one and the same. Eddys and rivulets of real importance always exist outside the mainstream of climbing history. Thanks for highlighting this one!

Social climber
davis, ca
Nov 3, 2009 - 10:55pm PT
if i'm not mistaken i believe at least two gunks classics - yellow belly (5.8) and thin slabs direct (5.7+) - are turner routes....

and both are pretty bold (and fun) lines

Nov 4, 2009 - 09:42am PT
I probably climb Recompense and Bloody Mary at least a few times every season. At some point during each and every ascent, I stop and think in absolute amazement (and considerable humility) about John putting those routes up in the late 50s. Simply incredible.

It seems all Turner routes share a few characteristics:

*Aesthetic, uncompromising natural line
*Remarkable boldness (when one considers them in historical context)
*Hard climbing for the grade

Hats of to Mr. Turner. One of the unsung greats, IMO.


Trad climber
fort garland, colo
Nov 4, 2009 - 10:55am PT
Turner's routes are so fearsome, I still have yet to do all of Recompense after climbing at Cathedral MANY years.(though not quite as many as you Al)

Social climber
Nov 4, 2009 - 12:32pm PT
hey there say all... wow, just indeed ... very great reading stuff here... say, i will be back to soak more it in... am cleaning house right now... :O

oh my.... seems i'm reading a lot of "stuff" in the crack of the walls of this ol' living space... ;)
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