50 Years on John Rock
by Peter Young
I have been going to John Rock for over 50 years. The first encounters were while
working for North Carolina Outward Bound School. During those early years, The
Student Route was the primary place where students were taken up for two pitches
before rappelling. It was the easiest line up the face. Also, John Whisenant and I
initiated a practice which now seems dicey, to say the least: we had students rappel off
of the top of the rock, while also on belay. They ended up 150 feet below the top and
typically another 150 feet from the forest floor with the expectation/ demand they climb
back up. While the climbing was easy, the exposure and potential for sad turns were
extreme for novices. The students all thought it was a thrill. Most importantly, no one
After the initial introduction to John, I came back pretty much year after year since I was
in the Southeast. Other rocks were also visited but John offered a relatively easy drive
from Knoxville, lines were relatively short and quiet, and until the last few years virtually
no one ever came to the lichen enhanced “dark side” of John. Across the valley,
Looking Glass was shining, bright and clean with little lichen and a more inviting appeal.
So, John became almost a sanctuary; a few friends and I could climb there without
having to put up with anyone else. Although not a true wilderness, for North Carolina, it
was fairly untrodden.
That status allowed me to climb carefully and in keeping with my sense of ‘what is right’
in climbing practices. By this I mean climbing from the ground up, putting in protection
from the ground up, placing bolts only whenreally needed and, then, only with a hand
drill. It is clear to me that the use of powered drilling devices make it too easy to put in
bolts, so that more bolts are placed than is optimal.
How do I know what is optimal? I am presumptuous in such regards. I do not accept the
term of “ethics” to consider such issues; there is nothing really having to do with ethics
in how people choose to climb, unless they intentionally harm others or the
environment. And, therein is a smidgen of ethical relevance: bolts are a blight- Period.
But, in order to climb safely, they are often needed, especially at John and similarly
configured rocks; there are few natural placements in many places.
Occasionally, I have gone back and added a bolt on a couple of climbs after completing
the first ascent, realizing that a fall at certain points could be highly injurious or even
fatal. Alternately, there have been numerous places where bolts have been placed and
their need is marginal, if at all. An example is on Judicial Review (AKA Rattlesnake
Crack), a prominent crack on the right side of John. It was climbed originally without
bolts. Subsequently, despite good gear placements, there have been bolts placed on
the second pitch that are of dubious need. At the pitch one belay, two bolts were placed
when originally the belay did not require such bolstering. There is protection available in
the crack for the belay, such that a fall would not be long or difficult to belay.
This situation on Rattlesnake Crack, coupled with some other bolt placements that
seem inordinate or even superfluous, has brought me out of a position I have
maintained for years; to not publicize or make known the climbs at John. Certainly this
stance is inherently selfish; I could pretend that the rock was mine and I could protect it
by keeping it silent. But that is obviously not true. People are going to John. The quiet,
untrammeled feeling is gone, and in its place more climbers, more bolts, just more.
The other part of my decision to not keep quiet is that the routes that were already
done should be left AS IS. In order for that to occur, the routes need to be known. And,
it is hoped that the zeitgeist of North Carolina’s view of bolts and of other supposedly
‘ethical’ issues might be maintained at John. Put simply, the general view discourages
what has been termed “sport climbing”, wherein rappelling down a projected route is
employed to place bolts at critical points, rather than on lead.
Given that John only has a few places of overhanging or very steep rock, which might
seemingly provide an objective basis for placing bolts on rappel, it should be easy to
maintain this view. Please, let us not dumb down the rock by using bolts from rappel
and/or bolts very closely spaced.
Apart from keeping John quiet, why did I maintain this position? Surely it is not that
simple. And it is not. By gaining marginal fame for a few climbs in North Carolina, I
realized what John Whisenant had written years ago was spot on. To wit, he noted that
following our climb on Whiteside (“The Original Route”), some people now approached
him in a manner other than they had prior to this ascent. He had become something of
a famous person for the ascent and he found that fame contaminating. Whereas he had
climbed previously just for the challenge, excitement, and joy of being on the rock, he
found after Whiteside that he was conscious of his fame, of people watching him, of
being a known climber.
This awareness undercut or even perverted his focus and involvement; climbing no
longer was just for the pure joy of it. This is clear to me, yes, I do enjoy being known as
a good climber. At the same time, to be known in such ways is corrupting to my
experience; I am no longer an “innocent” individual, seeking the joy of the rocks,
mountains, wildness. I have to in some extent, become a whore, engaging in
pleasurable activities for ulterior motives.
Hence, publicizing routes cuts both ways: it makes efforts to protect the routes and the
rock, and it corrupts my involvement. But at my age, perhaps it is time to let go of that
false ego-enhancing baggage. It surely is time for John to be protected as much as
To that end, I would plea for those coming to observe the zeitgeist: don’t place more
bolts when a route is already established, when putting up a new line, place bolts only
on lead and as few as to allow the route to be safe, use a hand drill instead of a
rock/person-dumbing power drill, and definitely do not rappel into bolt placements.