P Joe Brown at Hen Cloud in 1970.

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.’

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

He was an unconventional hero. He was also an inspiration


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.




This film by Director Alun Hughes, George Smith, and Ray Saunders is a rare interview with Joe, and stands as a tribute to this legendary climber. This film is part of The Alun Hughes Collection. BMC TV is hosting the films of the The Alun Hughes Collection on our YouTube channel. dmEz2GLo_wM

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.


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