A Climber We Lost: John Appleby
Each January we post a farewell tribute to those members of our community lost in the year just past. Some of the people you may have heard of, some not. All are part of our community and contributed to climbing.
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You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.
John Appleby, 68, March 22
John James Appleby, 68, was an intrepid climber who pioneered routes throughout the UK. He is best remembered as one of the country’s most loved climbing scribes. The Liverpool native founded and helmed the blog Footless Crow, compiling writing from climbers of all stripes across the country. “It started and continued as a hobby,” said Appleby’s son, Liam. “It slowly built up its readership and became a valuable source of articles to the climbing community. In addition to my dad’s own writings, he would publish new articles from climber contributors and also republished historic articles, some of which hadn’t [been] seen in decades.” Prominent British climber John Redhead, a frequent Crow contributor and close friend of Appleby’s, called Footless Crow, “A remembrance of [the] history, characters, and creativity that make movement on rock such a diverse and fascinating subculture.”
Born May 12, 1953, John Appleby was the only child of Jim and Florence Appleby. His father worked on cargo ships while his mother kept house and held a variety of odd jobs, but both were well-read, self-educated social justice activists, and particularly avid campaigners for nuclear disarmament. This activism is something Appleby’s eldest son, Dominic, said would grow to shape his father’s character as he grew older. He was a man always “pushing against the mainstream, backing the underdog.”
Appleby left school at 15 to enter the workforce, taking to a variety of jobs, from telephone engineer to lab technician. He married at 21, to Angela Bell. The couple eventually had five children, Dominic, Jamie, Liam, Siobhan, and Luke. Even while raising a gaggle of younglings, living for much of the time on a farmstead along with goats, sheep, chickens, a pony, and peacocks, Appleby was never dulled into lassitude. He continued to drive toward a variety of passions, pursuing roles from dairy salesman to farmer to Labour party politician.
In the 1980s, he became an avid scrambler, and later a rock climber and mountaineer. He frequently took his kids along on his adventures and put up a number of routes with one of his young sons on the other end of the rope. In a eulogy given at his father’s funeral, Dominic recalled “trips to Pothole Quarry near Mold and the Ruthin Escarpment … usually during the summer evenings after school. For me, the experience was visceral with a combination of sheer panic, exhilaration, and relief as we scaled these short 30 to 40-foot climbs. For Dad, he’d found his calling.”
Appleby went on to share this passion with the community at large via a nonprofit, the Clwyd Outward Group, which helped disadvantaged children participate in outdoor sports like climbing, rappelling, canoeing, sailing, and camping. He also earned a degree in social sciences.
Appleby and his wife Angela ultimately went separate ways, and he met a new partner, Christine, in 1996, who was his companion until his death. Christine had two daughters, Miriam and Sarah, “who seamlessly aligned with the Appleby family dynamic,” said Dominic.
As Appleby improved as a climber, he also began writing, publishing articles in a number of UK magazines and newspapers. “As children, we often took part in the research that went into his writing,” said Dominic, “following dad up numerous walks, scrambles, and climbs, even being photographed for some of the published articles, posing on the rock face, trying to look cool, calm and collected, but in reality petrified—or least I was.”
As climbing publications were transitioning from primarily print to digital, Appleby had the idea for the Footless Crow (named after a difficult Lake District route). Dominic said his father was inspired by the idea of crafting a blog for climbing articles past and present, but also for writing “focusing not only on climbing, but also [pieces with] a political or environmental edge often missed by mainstream publications.” Over the years, Footless Crow became an eminently-respected trove of information for the UK climbing community, and Appleby continued to publish his writing both there and in other climbing publications, such as Alpinist.
His website gathered climbers far and wide, including figures like John Redhead, Harold Drasdo, and Mick Ward. Redhead fondly recalled how, “I once texted John to see if he had received my article, ‘Sinking like a Stone,’ [for publication in Footless Crow]. I got a reply back, ‘I’m on top of a limestone cliff!’ He was keeping it real, keeping the words in their place. I pondered my fingers tapping away with cozy internet connection as John’s were chalky, alive and connected with life’s blood in survival mode.”
In a tribute to Appleby on UK Climbing, “Calling Commander Appleby,” Ward—friends with Appleby for years without meeting in person—called Footless Crow a “vital resource” for the climbing community. “For year after year, John put those articles on, simply from the goodness of his heart. He gave so much to us,” he said.
Ward added that despite Appleby’s knack with a pen (or keyboard), and his climbing prowess, he was most drawn to rugged, untouched lines. “What John really loved was getting out into the hills, well off the beaten track, finding an unclimbed line, and doing it. He had a long friendship with Harold Drasdo. The Welsh mountains are littered with their routes.”
Even into his late 60s, Appleby spent much of his time in perpetual exploration, adventuring and climbing across Wales and the United Kingdom at-large, often in his VW campervan. He and Christine’s home was also “becoming an animal sanctuary,” Dominic joked, “accumulating ponies, stray cats, ferrets, and of course his beloved companion of 14 years—a Springer Spaniel by the name of Fergus.” Appleby and Christine also recently adopted an elderly black Cocker Spaniel, Teal, poorly treated by a previous owner. Though Teal passed away shortly after Appleby’s death, during their time together “Dad ensured that his ‘little lady’ had the retirement she richly deserved,” said Dominic.
Appleby was critically injured on March 18, after rock pulled loose as he was cleaning one of his old routes, The Wanderer. “My dad traversed across, put some gear in, and then proceeded to pull himself up using a block,” said Appleby’s son, Liam. “The block came free, and as it did, the gear also fell out. My dad fell 30 feet, with the rope taking his fall, but due to the angle of the piece [that caught his fall] he clattered into the cliff face, shattering his pelvis and causing internal bleeding. Emergency surgery stopped the bleeding, but the extent of his injuries led to multiple organ failure.”
Appleby passed away on March 22, at the age of 68. He leaves behind a large and loving family, including his partner of many years, Christine, four living children, Dominic, Liam, Siobhan, and Luke, two stepchildren, Sarah and Miriam, and seven grandchildren, Holly, Matilda, Amelie, Teddy, Oliver, Rupert, and Rory.
Liam added that although his son, Rory, was born some weeks after Appleby passed away, he was born on the same day as his late father—the two share a birthday. “My dad never got to meet him, but there was something quite cosmic about Rory being born that particular day.”
You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.