John Christian died of congestive heart failure at his home in Bethesda MD, May 11, 2022. He was 93. John was a long-time member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) and PATC’s Mountaineering Section (PATC-MS). John was also a member of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), the American Alpine Club (AAC) and many other outdoor and professional organizations.
Trained as an engineer and industrial designer, John was a problem solver. He welcomed the challenge of finding an interesting line up a rock face, a safe route across a glacier, a scenic trail to the top of a mountain, the most aesthetic design for a boardwalk through the woods, and the best way to coordinate the input of diverse stakeholders when resolving climbing access or environmental impact controversies. Later in life, he figured out how to apply his climbing skills to find finger holds in the shower stall following hip replacement surgery.
John was also an irrepressible optimist. When others would say “no” or “it can’t be done,” John would ask “why not”? A family member referred to him as “Mr. Possibilities.” This attitude, coupled with a tremendous curiosity about life that made his eyes sparkle when he encountered new people or ideas, kept him going physically and mentally through the more than eight decades of his life. Aging, for John, was just an opportunity to learn something new.
Learning to Climb: Austria, Carderock, Seneca Rocks
John discovered mountaineering and rock climbing in 1952, on his first trip to Europe when, as a United States Army private, he explored how soldiers based in the US could take “reverse furloughs” (inexpensive vacations) across the Atlantic. In Innsbruck, Austria, he met a local couple who asked if he wanted to go climbing. Excited about a new adventure and dressed in khakis and old tennis shoes, he joined them the next day on the Pflerscher Tribulaun, where they handed him a hemp rope and gave him rudimentary instruction. Once on top, he was hooked.
Returning to the Washington DC area, John quickly fell in with the locals climbing at Carderock and Great Falls in the Potomac River Gorge. He joined the PATC-MS in 1954, learning from experienced climbers including Herb and Jan Conn, Don Hubbard, Sterling Hendricks, and his beloved mentor, Arnold Wexler. Many years later, putting his drawing skills to work, John provided the drawings for the first edition of the climber’s guide: “Carderock Past & Present,” that was later published in several more editions.
Not long after joining the PATC-MS, John became a regular with the group on weekends at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, where they camped by the river and climbed during the day. An enthusiastic and ambitious climber, John soon became a legend and his name is attached to more than 20 first ascents at Seneca Rocks. Most of these were ascents with John as leader and span more than 40 years of his climbing career:
1954 – Horrendous Traverse, with Bob Hinshaw
1954 -Thais, with Bob Hinshaw
1954 – No Dally Alley, with Ed Worrell and Bill Hemphill
1955 -Marshall’s Madness, with Tom Marshall
1956 -GreenWall, with Alan Talbert and Jim Shipley
1956 -Thais Escape with Jim Shipley
1970 – A Christian Delight, with party
1971- Prune, with Arnold Wexler
1971 – Eeyore’s Tail, with June Lehman
1972 – By-Pass, with John Markwell and Arnold Wexler
1972 – Rhododendron Corner, with Arnold Wexler
1983 – Midway, with Pete Grant
1997 – Apricot, with Tony Sanders
The Rockies: Wyoming and Canada
John took his first climbing trip to the Rockies in 1954, traveling to Wyoming. There with PATC-MS members Chuck Wettling, Joel Gross, and Frank Sauber, he ascended the Grand Teton via the Exum Ridge, and Devils Tower via the Durrance Route. John’s ambitions soon turned farther north. Members of the PATC-MS had been making their mark on the virgin peaks of Western Canada since the 1940s, accomplishing over 100 first ascents in Alberta and British Columbia. John couldn’t wait to accompany them on their next adventure, which came in 1955. It was a life changing experience.
Drawn by the grandeur of the scenery with its virgin peaks and its welcoming residents, Canada soon became his second home. He joined the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) in 1957, and became a regular participant in General Mountaineering Camps, Winter Ski Mountaineering Camps, and other ACC trips over the next 40 years. He participated in a number of first ascents including that of Mt. Rhodes in the Clemenceau area, along with new routes on Mt. Stanley and Mt. Livingstone in 1972. Taking a special interest in the Battle Range of British Columbia, John led a group of four to make a new route up Mt. Arras in 1983. Later, as a member of the PATC-Ski Touring Section, he led several groups of Washington DC-area skiers on expeditions to Banff National Park.
Leadership and Advocacy
John’s participation in the mountaineering organizations he belonged to went well beyond climbing. He served as both Chair of the PATC-MS and editor for “UpRope,” the group’s newsletter. Together with Joe Wagner, John organized the Washington DC area Blue Ridge Section of the AAC in 1978. Decades later, he received a “Lifetime Achievement” Award from the chapter in 2018.
In the 1970s, as the number of climbers and foot traffic increased over the decade at crags nationwide, John became active in environmental advocacy projects, leading efforts through both the PATC-MS and the AAC in the 1970s to preserve climbing access and conserve fragile environments.
Campaigning for climbers’ rights at Seneca Rocks, John conceived, wrote, and published the “Seneca Rocks Letter” from 1972 through 1975; the Letter had thousands of readers in six states. Through his efforts and those of others, climbers were able to make critical changes in the plan for Seneca Rocks Recreation Area that might otherwise have jeopardized climbers’ access. On a national level, he served as Chairman of the American Alpine Club’s Climbing Access Committee in 1974 and published a newsletter about access issues for club members.
Closer to home, John continued to be active in balancing the need to protect the natural environment while preserving climbers’ access in Great Falls National Park. At Carderock, the path from the parking lot to the cliff had a low section that turned into a muddy trough after any rain. In 1982 John designed a boardwalk to harden the most secure path through the landscape, minimizing the damage of foot traffic while fitting into the environment. He then obtained donated materials to construct it. Thirty years later, he reviewed and provided criticism and suggestions on the Great Falls National Park’s Management Plan.
A Mentor and Historian
John enjoyed sharing his enthusiasm for climbing with people new to the sport. He helped channel the unskilled enthusiasm and energy of novice climbers into confident, self-assured lead climbers and fellow adventurers. As one of those he helped remembers: “Problems were easy to solve when John’s mentoring advice could be brought into the equation.”
John strongly believed in recording and preserving the stories and accomplishments of his fellow climbers as well as those who preceded him, so that they could be available to future writers, historians, and adventurers. He organized a reunion of the “older generation” of PATC-MS climbers in 2008 and conducted oral histories of several of them.
For the last three decades of his life, John shared his love of the mountains, and his adventurous, optimistic outlook on life with his wife of 25 years, Kate Hughes. They traveled widely, hiking and skiing in the mountains of North and South America and in Europe. John deeply valued relationships with his family, his many friends, and the organizations he belonged to. His enthusiasm for life inspired them all.