Meetings With The Master By Dave Unwin

Joe Brown CBE died at the age of 89 on 15th April 2020.  Of course it had to happen, but to  climbers of my vintage, some ten or so years his junior,  it seems not simply the end of an era, but also marks the loss of a part of our youth.  Numerous obituaries have already appeared with more to come and we also have his ghosted autobiography (The Hard Years) from 1967 for the detail of his achievements on rock from early days in the Peak, through Snowdonia and the Alps to a remarkably successful, but often neglected, high mountain ascents, including the highest such first ascent by anyone British.

I can’t claim to have known him on much beyond ‘nodding terms’, but to anyone who climbed on British rock in the late 50s and 60s he, and the wonderful climbs he pioneered, remain the stuff of what is sometimes called  “legend”.   Legends are defined as historical stories that have with them some element of myth, and for sure that was true for the stories that circulated about him, Don Whillans, their associates in the Rock and Ice Club, and his climbs.  You’ve probably heard some of them: Hangover in a snow storm, the dropped peg hammer on Cenotaph Corner,   the darkened room for a few days after burning off Bonington on the first ascent of Tramgo (still E5, 6A), Cloggy Corner in the pouring rain, the list goes on and on.  True, much of this was, and is, mythical. Part of the reason for the myths in the legend that he became was simply lack of information in the days before Mountain magazine, decent up-to-date guide books, and the UKC website.  Myths flourish where there is no information, but the fact remains that only the very best and boldest of us had any idea about how to go about climbing his routes, yet these were the climbs we all aspired to. 

They say you should never meet your heroes, still less the legendary ones.  Almost every climber of my generation will recall their first meeting with the ‘Baron’ Brown.  Famously, at a stance during the first ascent of Woubits Left Hand, a seldom climbed Cloggy desperate, a young Martin Boysen recalled that it was like meeting God.   Even the climbing journalist Ed Douglas admits that, throughout an interview for a climbing magazine a few years ago, he was simply in awe of the man.  Alan Hinkes makes the same point.  But meet him most of us did at some time or other.  I can recall just three conversations I had with the man, all of which say something about why he became a legend in his own lifetime.

The time of the first was in the early 60s, October 29th 1961 to be exact , when Joe was instructing at Derbyshire’s White Hall Outdoor Pursuits Centre. The place was under the upper tier of the Roaches.   In those days I was a sixteen year old apprentice to some more senior folk in Sheffield’s Peak Climbing Club who knew him well and so I was drawn, with appropriate awe,  into the conversation with him.  I can't recall how or why it arose, but at some point someone doubted the efficiency of the hand jam, leading to a general discussion about whether or not it was possible to trust one’s entire weight on one.  Later that day, Joe settled the issue by leading Sloth (5A, HVS), a route not often climbed in those days.  It might be technically easy, but even now it is a route to inspire terror in most would-be leaders.  True, if, as Whillans said of the first ascent ‘if you use your loaf’, it isn’t anywhere near as hard as it looks (for the record:  you can tuck in behind a flake as you cross the roof and only when you have the good ledge above to hand do you need to let it all hang out). But Joe made his point about hand jamming by sticking a single hand jam in the crack above the roof and hanging off it. 

My diary entry for the day records the event thus:

Naturally, we took our seats along with about twenty others to worship our mutual hero as he performed.  And what a performance, he deliberately hung for a while on a hand jam, pulled up and then shot up it.

Photo: Joe Brown on Sloth, circa 1961.  I’d like to claim that this was taken by me on the day in question but in fact it was saved as a cutting out of my mother’s Woman  magazine somewhat earlier in the same year


So a legend by virtue of climbing genius.

Fast forward a few years to 1966, when he was in the process of opening the Llanberis shop and I was living in an outdoor pursuits centre near Dolwyddelan.  Late one afternoon as I was writing up that day’s work I answered a knock on the door, only to find myself looking at Joe Brown.  Tongue tied or what?  Those were the days of the early explorations of Gogarth with rumours, almost all untrue, of huge ‘secret crags’ to be found by those with the perseverance to look.  Joe was looking for one such deep in the Moelwyns.  Now, at the time I knew the area very well, having mapped its glacial geology  for my MPhil thesis, so over a cup of tea was able to dissuade him from looking further, at least in and around the Lledr valley.  Maybe, with the benefit of more than 50 years hindsight I should have conned him into an evening at the valley’s finest crag, Carreg Alltrem where my frequent visits and close inspection had already seen some new route potential (notably what became Civetta, E3 , 5C) that unfortunately was way above my pay grade?  

So, a legend willing to extend the boundaries of what and where we climb.

My final meeting tells most about the man.  Fast forward again to 1987 and I am chaperoning a group of Market Harborough Athletics Club stalwarts staying in the club hut, taking them out onto the hills to introduce them to the delights of fell running.  At that time the pub of choice for fell runners was the Royal Victoria, so I took them all out for a Saturday night pint or two.  One of the runners had rock climbed in his youth and started to eulogise about how much ‘Joe Brown and Don Whillans’ had inspired him.  Funny that he did, because Joe was deep into a highly competitive game of pool, maybe 2m away down the bar.  Foolishly, I blurted out ‘well, why don’t you go and tell him yourself, he’s over there on the pool table’, at which the guy proceeded to interrupt Joe’s game, shake his hand, etc., etc. , all something we real climbers would never do.   Later, I am at the bar when Joe arrives alongside, so I apologise on behalf of all things Market Harborough athletics.  I don’t recall exactly what he said, but it was on the lines of ‘no worries, happens a lot and he’s a nice bloke isn’t he?’  

So, that most rare of folk, a living legend who wore this status as lightly as anyone could.  RIP

Last modified: 10th May 2020 at 17:44

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