Joe Brown, British Climbing Colossus, Dead at 89

Cenotaph Corner, Cemetary Gates, Vector: The “Human Fly” not only defined but inspired hard rock climbing in the UK

By Alison Osius | April 17th, 2020

In 1964, at Curbar Edge on the gritstone of Derbyshire, Geoff Birtles started up the striking Elder Crack, which at mid-height widened to offwidth—just before a roof. He was forthwith so exhausted that he “slithered,” as he put it, back down the crack to the ground.

Joe Brown. Photo: Jim Herrington.

Joe Brown had established the route in 1950, protected only by slung machine nuts.

As Birtles wrote in Hard Rock, a book that inspired a generation, he later asked Brown, of the route:

“You did it, didn’t you?”

“Yeh!”

“Who did it with you?”

“Can’t remember!”

“It says in the old pink guide that it was VS” [5.7-5.8].

“Well, it is, isn’t it?”

Elder Crack was later boosted up beyond Very Severe (VS) and beyond Hard Very Severe (HVS) to Extremely Severe 5c, or 5.10+.

As Birtles, longtime editor of the great British climbing magazine High, informed us Thursday by email, Joe Brown “died peacefully at his home in Llanberis” on April 15. “He was arguably the greatest ever all-round climber,” Birtles wrote. “His new rock climbs in Britain commencing in the late 1940s were the hardest in the world.”

Brown was 89 and had been ill.

Birtles also listed the Fissure Brown on the West Face of the Aiguille de Blatiere, Chamonix Mont Blanc, done in 1954 with Brown’s many-year partner Don Whillans, as “possibly the hardest single mountain pitch climbed to that date,” while Brown and George Band’s first ascent of Kangchenjunga (8586 m), in 1955, “was a great high-altitude achievement, along with other Himalayan climbs, such as the first ascent of Trango.”

Joe Brown during the first ascent of Trango Tower, Karakoram, 1976. Photo: Tony Riley.

Brown’s career had incredible breadth: Trango, done with Martin Boysen, Mo Anthoine and Malcolm Howells, was in 1976. He, Tom Patey, Ian McNaught-Davis and John Hartog had made the first ascent of the west summit of Muztagh Tower (7276 meters), in 1956—20 years earlier.

Joe Simpson (UK) recalls: “Joe Brown was an amazing man, surprisingly quiet, shy even, but a gentle man for all his renowned hardness. He was probably my first British rock and mountaineering hero along with Don Whillans. Chris Bonington, Doug Scott and Dougal Haston were also in the loop but Joe and Don were at the very top. At the time, 1940’s to 50’s, his UK rock routes ranked as some of the hardest in the world and all were climbed with what today would be regarded as woefully basic equipment.

“His alpine routes could bite too. I remember leading the Fissure Brown in the early 80’s and roundly cursing him half way up! He climbed at a time when the phrase ‘hard man’ really meant something. His Alpine routes and his first ascents of Kanchenjunga (8,856m) in 1955 and Trango Tower put him firmly in the pantheon of great high altitude mountaineers. Just a lovely, remarkable man, a true great.”

 

[Also Read A Short Walk With Whillans]

 

Brown had physical abilities on rock unlike those any of his peers had seen, such that he was revered nearly from the start. The great Scottish climber Tom Patey, in his classic and comedic One Man’s Mountains, published a ballad about Brown. The refrain went:

“We’ve sung it once/ We’ll sing it twice / He’s the hardest man in the Rock and Ice / He’s marvelous—he’s fabulous / He’s a wonder man is Joe.”

His book tells of a letter addressed from Dennis Gray to “The Human Fly, Llanberis, North Wales” arriving safely at Brown’s home in North Wales.

Photo courtesy High magazine archives.

Brown was a phenom from the late 1940s for decades onward, in North Wales and England. I lived in North Wales for a time in 1980, and would sometimes see him out on the sea cliffs of Gogarth with his friend Davey Jones; in 1994, when he was in his mid-60s, I returned and interviewed him for Climbing magazine, which took five days of calling because he was always out climbing. He said then that he did not know how many new routes he had done, but guessed 400-500 in Wales. He described his love of exploring in all its aspects in Climbing, March 1995: “When I was in my 20s and doing routes on Cloggy, you fail on it and all that week at work you have a photo image of the rock, and how you could do it, the options and alternatives you haven’t tried. You got all this pleasure midweek thinking about it.” In the interview he called Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, aka Cloggy, in evening light “magic.”

In car parks years earlier or in his home, he was quiet, courteous and rather wide-eyed, almost innocent, with an occasional slow but big smile. I’d been told by one of his friends, Dave Alcock, chief instructor at the nearby Plas y Brenin mountain center, that Brown was sometimes given to exaggeration, and when questioned, would insist, “No, honestly!”

Nick Yardley, a British expat now in Vermont who climbed in the U.K. in the early to mid 1980s, says, “He and Don Whillans were the men my generation most admired, working-class heroes”—as opposed to the upper crust who had previously populated the scene—“who caught the train from Manchester on Friday night, camped at the bottom of Cloggy in the pouring rain and still managed to put up routes that even today are classics and no giveaway—all the time protected by slings wrapped around inserted pebbles. Gulp!”

Joe Brown at the great sea cliffs of Gogarth, North Wales. Photo: John Cleare.

Yardley found Brown’s memoir, The Hard Years, to be a road map for a  climbing life.

“It set out the route many of us wanted to follow: Build the core rock skills on the crags of North Wales and the Peak District, go to Scotland to climb ice, then move on to the Alps and finally off to the Himalaya—we wanted to be like Joe and follow that path. While we all had our favorite forms of climbing, we believed you needed to do it all to be a true climber.

“His eye for a line was phenomenal,” Yardley says, listing the classics Cenotaph Corner (5.10, 1952) on the Cromlech, Vector (5.10+, 1960) at Tremadoc, and Vember (5.10, 1951) on Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, all in Wales; and Great Slab (scary 5.10, 1951) at Froggatt, England. “These were the routes we wanted to test ourselves on and every one was inspirational and perfection in its own way, and is still etched in my mind.”

Born in 1930, Joe was one of seven children in a family in Manchester. His father died when he was an infant, and his mother took in washing and later cleaned houses, eschewing the dole. Brown left school at 14 and started climbing at 16. He was a plumber and builder by trade, and put in a stint in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. It was upon completion of that duty that he truly exploded on the rock, scooping the best lines in his region. He was inventive, too, taking nuts found on railroad tracks, threading them with sling, and placing them in the rock for pro—the first to do so. He and his friends—Whillans and their compatriots in the Manchester-based Rock and Ice club—climbed 5.10 and protected it (or ran it out) with pitons, slings over flakes and spikes, and threaded pebbles. Joe would tuck small stones into his balaclava and take them out to place and sling as chockstones.

On Tensor at Tremadoc, North Wales, still considered fierce, at 220 feet, E2 and three stars in the guidebook. On the FA, he used two pegs for aid. Henry Barber freed the route in 1973. Photo: John Cleare.

In 1966 he moved to Llanberis and opened a climbing shop in Capel Curig, a small gateway town to Llanberis and the home of the Plas y Brenin British National Mountaineering Centre, and then two other shops in the Snowdonia region. My first helmet was a Joe Brown—large as for an astronaut on a lunar landing.

Henry Barber recalls sea-level traverses with Brown: “Joe came back around a corner, looked at me thrashing … and said, ‘What you doing prattling about in the ocean, youth? We got miles to go.'” Photo: Henry Barber.

Possibly his greatest route was Cenotaph Corner (5.10+), 1952, on which his first attempt, at age 18 in 1948, ended when at 90 feet he dropped his piton hammer (actually a mason’s hammer) and flattened his belayer; Joe had to hasten down the rope hand over hand to check the damage. The route’s stellar companion piece is the nearby Cemetery Gates (1951, done with Don Whillans), also on Dinas Cromlech in Llanberis Pass, North Wales. The area is rife with Joe Brown routes, and when I lived there, and I am sure even now, if you were deciding what route to do and someone said, “Well, it’s a Joe Brown route,” that was enough.

Brown was a pioneer at Gogarth, the huge sea cliffs (facing Ireland) on Anglesey Island, North Wales. In 1966 John Cleare and Rusty Baillie organized a BBC broadcast in which Brown and MacNaught-Davis, followed by a second party of Royal Robbins (USA) and Patey, led up Red Wall. The next year the BBC televised the two-day ascent of the Old Man of Hoy, a 450-foot sandstone sea pillar off the Orkney Islands, with Brown and McNaught-Davis, also Dougal Haston, Peter Crew, Christian Bonington and Patey. The BBC returned to Gogarth in 1970 when Brown with McNaught-Davis’ repeated his route Spiders Web, up an immense arch, with Cleare and Hamish MacInnes filming.

Says Cleare today, “It’s the end of an era.”

 

See “The Vector Generation” for an excellent history of the 1960s climbing scene in the U.K.

 


 

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