Natalie Berry reflects on the life of one of the most influential characters climbing has ever known - Climbers Against Cancer Founder John Ellison - who sadly passed away on 27th December 2015 (UKC Report), with contributions from John's daughter Charlotte Ellison and GB Climbing Team Manager Ian Dunn.
he first time I met John Ellison was at the NEC Outdoor Show in Birmingham over ten years ago. I was a wide-eyed 12 year-old watching the Boulder World Cup competitors in awe, nervously clutching an autograph book in my hand. A smiling man with thick, black-rimmed glasses and rosy cheeks approached me and asked how I was doing. At this point, I had no idea who John was – he knew my name but I didn't know him, yet already at the age of 12 I could sense that he was a very unique person.
As a competition judge, he sneaked me into isolation and took me to see some of the world's best climbers and introduced me to them. He didn't introduce them to me, but rather me to them. As a kid, you can imagine how special this was. I was awe-struck, thanks to the kind-hearted nature of a man I had only just met. John insisted in his jovial manner that they sign my autograph book and I walked out with a book chock-full of autographs and a beaming smile. This close encounter with John and my childhood idols was a major impetus to fulfil my ambition to compete on the international circuit in the years to come. I still have that autograph book.
The second most influential meeting with John before the birth of CAC was at Malham Cove in 2009. I was climbing with a friend and chose to abseil from the Upper Tier of the Cove, which was atypically deserted for a summer's day. Not long after starting the descent, I realised that my Gri-Gri wasn't locking. Being limited in abseil experience, I had no idea what was happening (the rope was too thin). My friend had descended without issue moments before, but I was struggling to hold my weight on the rope. It was an uncomfortably hot day and my hands started sweating before I had reached halfway down - I started to panic. John had turned up with his daughter Charlotte earlier in the day and became aware of my struggle. He swiftly walked to the end of the rope and held it, reassuring me and telling me to wrap the rope around my leg a few times and compose myself before slowly feeding the rope through again. If John hadn't have been there to keep me calm and advise me on what to do, the alternative outcome could have been very serious. The day ended on a lighter note with a guided tour of John's much-loved local crag - Craig y Longridge.
Both of these anecdotes seem to have "John" stamped all over them in hindsight and it's no exaggeration to say that he was very much a hero to me long before CAC was born.
John was heavily involved in the UK competition climbing scene through Charlotte, who was a talented youth competitor and a member of the GB squad. His presence at national and international competitions - where he acted as a Judge and Jury President on numerous occasions - was always well respected and enjoyed by competitors of all ages. Although outgoing and sociable, John was never the loud and overbearing sort; he could command a room with his soft, Lancastrian lilt. No matter how well or how poorly you had climbed, John was the one you'd walk up to and be honest about how you felt. He wouldn't be disappointed, as he held no expectation - everything happens for a reason, it's not the end of the world. As GB climbing team member Molly Thompson-Smith so succinctly described, John was "always there, always knew what to say and always with a smile."
Upon hearing of John's diagnosis of terminal cancer in 2011, close friends were shocked that the interminably positive, humour-loving "Father John" - as he was known to some in the competition circles - could be dealt such a cruel hand. However, John's outlook on the situation was somewhat different:
"What to most would seem like their worst nightmare ever actually has a positive side. My life all of a sudden made sense and almost like washing the screen of the car I could see clearly. My heart was pounding, beating heavily. More with love and excitement than sadness. I knew straight away that I had been given the opportunity to live, share those special moments with family and friends that we all take for granted and now more so than ever with open eyes."
12 months following his diagnosis, John looked to the climbing world to turn his predicament into an opportunity for raising funds and awareness for cancer research centres around the globe.
"I feel that climbing is a unique sport – everyone is so supportive. It was at the World Championships in Bercy, Paris in September where I really felt this – a big happy family!"
CAC was founded in 2013, and in just three months became a global phenomenon. Through the sale of the iconic CAC t-shirt in a rainbow of bright colours, John was raising incredible amounts of money and encouraging people - both young and old- to talk openly about the dreaded "C" word.
Whilst teaching English in Landeck, Austria, I presented CAC to children from the ages of 12-18. The moving effect that John's message had on these young people - non-climbers and non-native English speakers - proved to me how John's positivity and bravery in the face of adversity could transcend many barriers. John often described the wider appeal of CAC, stating that "In life we are all climbers."
"So many people have changed their attitude around me – both kids and adults. If we can make cancer become a little more acceptable to talk about by raising awareness then we will have more chance of defeating it – at the moment it's all a bit hush-hush and a dark, aggressive topic."
Following his diagnosis, John remained very much the John that we all knew before. His self-deprecating humour and brutal honesty towards dealing with terminal illness helped to foster an atmosphere of open discussion. His story reached people from all over the world who were inspired by his positive attitude towards coping with and finding a cure for cancer – an illness which will affect everyone at some point in their life, whether it be directly or indirectly. Through the advent of CAC, John travelled extensively in order to spread the CAC spirit as part of his ambition to make donations to research centres on each of the five continents. His passion for the endeavour was so energetic that for a moment one could easily forget that this man was terminally ill.
"My bank account manager thinks I'm mad: "What would normally take years you're organising in 3 months and also you are terminally ill!""
He hid his pain behind a smile, choosing not to dwell on the negatives and instead embrace the fact that he had a ticking clock to fill with memories and experiences. John's unrelenting drive for CAC was described by his daughter Charlotte as follows: "It was the life and soul of Dad, and the unique legacy which he leaves behind."
John's efforts were recognised by climbing federations and organisations the world over. In January 2014, John won a Social Awareness Award at the annual ISPO tradeshow in Munich. In March 2014, he was made an Honorary Member of the International Federation of Sport Climbing and shortly afterwards, CAC was selected as the official charity of the IFSC. In recognition of his contribution to the climbing community, John was presented with the Arco Rock Legends Ambassador Award in September this year, in addition to an award from the UIAA for contributions to international mountaineering.
When asked in a UKC interview what his ambition for CAC would be back in 2013, John responded:
"I would like people to be able to say that I made them laugh and gave people good memories. As the saying goes «You can't do anything about the length of your life but you can do something about its width and depth» and this is what I hope to achieve in sharing my passion for life with those around me!"
It's safe to say that John well and truly achieved this goal, and surpassed all expectations of what CAC could become - with over £350,000 raised and counting through the sale of CAC merchandise and fundraising events, including 32,278 units of the popular CAC t-shirts sold worldwide. Perhaps John's most significant achievement, though, was his demonstration of mind ruling over matter; of approaching a dark situation with rays of light, a smile and laughter.
Very few people could muster the courage to turn such devastating news on its head and enrich the lives of others. It's ironic, perhaps, that the one autograph I never got was John's, although it goes without saying that he made his own permanent mark on the climbing community and leaves behind a legacy that will live on well beyond his years.
May your crags and climbing walls be adorned with the brightest and boldest of CAC attire, in honour of John Ellison.
Charlotte Ellison, John's 21 year-old daughter, sent in the following tribute to her father:
'"When I was 8 or 9 Dad and I used to drive up to the Lake District every Sunday and walk up one of the peaks. I always remember being half way up Blencathra in the torrential wind and rain and crying to Dad 'I don't want to carry on any more.' It was cold, it was wet and the last thing I wanted to do was walk up a mountain with the mud squelching in my boots. But with the attitude he is renowned for, Dad told me I could do it and said 'imagine how good you will feel once you get to the top.'
That stayed with me throughout the period of my life where I was climbing. There would be some days at training where I would just want to quit and if it wasn't for Dad's determination I probably would have. Around the time I got onto the GB squad I was also sitting my GCSE's, playing hockey at county level and riding my horses at a national level. Things got very overwhelming, but as he used to say to me 'you can do anything if you put your mind to it'. He took me to my first international competition in Arco, shortly followed by others in Imst and Belgrade and was always driving me to all the competitions. I guess it was slightly annoying when he couldn't watch me compete due to being Jury President, but I know that's what Dad loved doing - meeting people and sharing his stories.
I really do miss him every day and I try very hard to not to get too down about things. I don't think Dad would have wanted me to waste time being sad and upset. It is hard but in a way the illness was a blessing in disguise. He lived the last four years of his life to the absolute full, he travelled all over the world and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity. If there's one thing for certain this world is a better place because of him."
Ian Dunn, GB Junior Climbing Team Manager and close friend of John
"I first met John as he was passionate about taking Charlotte to climbing competitions. John took her not only to the local youth events but to Belgrade, Aix en Provence, Arco and Imst too and on a number of occasions we travelled together. John had a passion for travel and meeting people and climbing competitions. He was great company on these trips and we continued our friendship whilst I coached Charlotte, where she won a number of events and made it onto the Junior GB Team, competing in a number of Internationals. John became an Assistant Manager and the first ever Parents' Rep to the GB Team and he also acted as Jury President in many competitions.
John was in many ways the perfect Jury President as he was always extremely fair, he knew from his own daughter's experience how much a decision means to a young climber, and he was always able to pass on the decision with good humour. He has many many friends in the climbing world and everyone will always agree his friendly approach paid dividends when difficult decisions needed making.
His fight against cancer, the formation of CAC and its success will be his legacy. I saw him the Sunday before he died, he could still have a joke and a smile, Jim Pope was with me and we chatted together, quickly after this John deteriorated and the climbing world lost a character that made a lot of people smile. John was my best man at my wedding to Chantana, my best friend and a great father to a daughter he was immensely proud of. RIP my friend."
Regarding the future of CAC, Graeme Alderson, CAC Trustee and IFSC Technical Delegate told UKC:
"The Trustees are all determined to ensure that CAC continues and develops, John's legacy will keep on truckin'!"
For more information on CAC and John, please visit the CAC website.
The video below produced by Polished Project in 2013 gives an insight into John's astonishing bravery and positivity in the face of illness: