Legendary climber Joe Brown died last night, aged 89. Joe, originally a plumber’s apprentice from Manchester, took the British climbing world by storm after WWII. In the 50s and 60s, Joe’s dazzling performance on rock pushed British climbing standards and, in 1955, he climbed Kanchenjunga: the third highest mountain in the world. Here, journalist Ed Douglas remembers this titan of our climbing world.
I remember the relief I felt when Peter Gillman told me how interviewing Joe Brown for the first time had left him dumbstruck. So it wasn’t just me. Peter knew how inappropriate it was to feel that way. He had worked for Harold Evans’ Sunday Times. You were meant to be hardnosed. On the other hand: Joe Brown. Bandy-legged, teeth like tombstones and hands like bunches of bananas: he was the very definition of a living legend. Gillman wrote how Joe occupied the same sort of space in his sport as the fighter Henry Cooper or the footballer Bobby Charlton did in theirs. Names to conjure up whole worlds. He seemed to me a kind of Renaissance master, his canvas blank sheets of rock, his lines elegant and clever.
Joe’s death at the age of 89 seems not simply the end of a defining era in climbing but the loss of an immense creative force. ‘I’m always happiest when I’m doing something new,’ he told Gillman in 1967. And even in his last illness, friends of his told me that the preternatural curiosity that inspired his extraordinary life remained undiminished. He could and did talk for hours in that searching, teasing way of his: always the explorer, but never overwrought, never self-important.
It wasn’t just callow journalists who felt the weight of Joe’s reputation. Gillman was writing in 1967 about the development of Gogarth and Brown’s partnership with the newest young star to come for his mantle, Pete Crew. ‘I worship Joe,’ Crew told him. ‘He’s the best climber in the world.’ By then Brown was in his mid 30s and in the middle of another wave of era-defining exploration in North Wales. If Crew’s assessment was overstated, most climbers of the generation that followed Joe calibrated themselves on the routes he created, first in the Peak District and soon after in Wales.
WATCH: An Interview with Joe Brown on BMC TV YouTube
Martin Boysen described Cenotaph Corner, which Joe climbed in 1952, as ‘the Pass test-piece – the gateway to the hardest climbing,’ and his ascent of that route in 1959 as a rite of passage. Soon after he found himself climbing by chance with Joe on Cloggy; his assessment, as you might expect, was more measured than Crew’s: he could see Brown’s genius, his natural talent and creative mind, but his foibles too. Their motivation was more in sync as well: neither Brown nor Boysen were that bothered about hierarchies. It was the pleasure of climbing, how it offered a compelling way to live that meant something, the psychological doors it opened.
These days the routes Joe climbed in the 1950s and 1960s are comfortably within reach for even moderately able climbers. That’s hardly the point. Read the list: Valkyrie, Right Unconquerable, Elder Crack, Right Eliminate, Cemetery Gates, Vember, Cenotaph Corner, The Grooves, Sassenach, The Rasp, The Mostest, November, Shrike, Vector, Dwm, Hardd. You don’t need to be told where these climbs are: you already know. And they are only a fraction of the very best of the myriad new routes Joe climbed in his long career. They are also a foundation stone in what British climbing is and means.
Joe Brown at Hen Cloud in 1970. Photo MHT / Nat Allen collection.
When Ken Wilson was assembling the first edition of Hard Rock, so recently reissued, he pointed out how: ‘The reader may gain some idea of his ability by studying those of his climbs featured in this book. He has brought to climbing a rare combination of attributes: keenness, patience, strength, technical ability, eye for a line, competitiveness and, above all, a subtle and mysterious charisma. Few would deny that his place in British rock climbing remains pre-eminent.’ This is without mentioning his deep and broad mountaineering experiences: the famous first ascents of Kangchenjunga with George Band in 1955, the only 8,000m peak first climbed by Britons, and Muztagh Tower, climbed the following year with Ian McNaught-Davis.
Joe’s emergence, with his younger partner Don Whillans, heralded a seismic structural upheaval in the social breadth of British climbing. The appearance of working-class climbers galvanised standards, and Joe was at the vanguard of that group, his upbringing having been unusually disadvantaged. Joe was born in the slums of Ardwick, then a heavily industrialised district of Manchester, the youngest of seven. His father was a jobbing builder who, during the depression of the early 1930s, worked as a merchant seaman. In 1931, when Joe was eight months old, he suffered a shipboard accident and his injuries became gangrenous, fatally so.
His widowed mother took in washing and when Joe was old enough to be left in the care of his siblings, she went out to work as a cleaner. By the time war broke out, the family had moved from their two-up two-down in Ardwick to a large house in Chorlton-cum-Medlock. One night during the Blitz, hiding under the dining-room table, they heard the rattle of an incendiary device coming down the chimney and then a scream from next door. Moments later the windows of their house blew out. Heading for the local air-raid shelter, Joe saw that his school had also been blown up, ‘an agreeable piece of news’, as he put it in his memoir The Hard Years.
Organised sports, organised anything, seemed dismaying to Joe. He was sacked from the Scouts for refusing to go on a church parade. He tolerated school but his real education was in the outdoors. ‘Out of doors my release was to be found in the countryside – doing anything – walking, fishing, messing about in general.’ The family had managed to get new accommodation in Longsight, a big new house that would be Joe’s base thereafter for many years. He explored the fringes of the city, camping out, playing and climbing in old quarries, and eventually, inevitably, aged around 16, he came to the ramparts of Kinder Downfall.
He had read Colin Kirkus Let’s Go Climbing, and borrowing his mother’s (old and discarded) washing line set out for the crag. It was at Kinder Downfall that he met Thomas Merrick ‘Slim’ Sorrell, three years older and with a wider experience of climbing in the Peak. It was that meeting that nudged Joe along a more directed path, put him in a community that in turn grew around him: that ‘strange charisma’ again.
Gritstone came naturally to him. I remember asking him about Right Eliminate, which plenty of strong climbers still struggle on. ‘I found stuff like that quite straightforward,’ he replied. ‘Just over the roof I stopped and jammed my knee in so I could roll a fag.’
WATCH: Steve McClure climb Cenotaph Corner in our BMC TV Hard Rock film:
In April 1951 Joe happened to be at the Roaches on the same day as Don Whillans. What they climbed together that day is not altogether clear: most probably it was Matinee, which Joe had just led. Over the next few years their names would become inextricably linked, like Lennon and McCartney, as the leading lights in a new climbing club, the Rock and Ice, which would become almost as legendary as they were. Leaving aside their achievements in Britain, in the Alps during the otherwise miserable summer of 1954, they managed to climb a new route on the west face of the Blatière and a repeat of the west face of the Dru.
The following November, Joe got a telegram from Charles Evans, leader of an expedition planned for the following year to Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain. That Don Whillans was not invited prompted decades of speculation and a certain level of resentment. The truth is that their personalities were too different for their partnership to have endured, even without Kangchenjunga.
That Joe Brown took full advantage of the opportunity is axiomatic, since he reached the summit with Band on what had been a low-key and exemplary adventure. That Joe might not have the £20 ‘pocket money’ he was expected to bring didn’t occur to the organisers but he managed. In fact, he always did. Until the mid 1960s, when he opened the first of his shops and began manufacturing his eponymous helmets, money was always tight. By then he was married to Val, who survives, and they had their daughters Helen and Zoe. That didn’t stop him from having fun: he had far too much imagination for circumstances to get in the way.
The obvious route as a professional mountaineer – the famous mountains, the big expeditions – was never really his style. One of the hallmarks of Joe’s long and varied career (if that’s the right word) was the company he kept: Tom Patey, Mo Anthoine and Hamish MacInnes are good examples. It’s wrong to say it hardly mattered what they did: the ascent of Trango Tower, for example, or hunting for gold in Peru, or working on Roland Joffé’s movie The Mission. These were significant things done well but above all with a sense of fun. And he just carried on in that vein, reuniting with old friends like Les Brown, Claude Davis and Derek Walker on winter explorations of Morocco.
He was an unconventional hero. He was also an inspiration. Even when I started climbing in the early 1980s, it was hard to find anyone who didn’t find him so. The difficulties in his early life, which he seemed to have casually sidestepped, earned him the deepest respect. And yet the notion of ‘class’ never interested him much. He would laugh about becoming a recluse, but his curiosity and need for friendship kept him engaged, even if being considered a legend was at times a burden.
His contribution was immense. It’s a cliché to say it’s the end of an era, but that doesn’t make it any less true. ‘Bloody hell,’ he told me at the end of one interview, thinking of the world he had encountered and then made his own, ‘we were bloody lucky, y’know.’ But if Joe Brown was lucky, then so were we. British climbing would not have been the same without him.
Joe Brown died aged 89 on 15/04/2020. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.