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THE BIG INTERVIEW


Joe Brown I


83, LEGEND, LLANBERIS


Niall Grimes talks to the godfather of grit, the visionary of Vector, the king of Kangchenjunga, the greatest climber that we have ever produced: Joe Brown.


’ve had the privilege of interviewing some of the biggest names out there for Summit: Ben Moon, Ron Fawcett, Johnny Dawes, Eric Jones and John Dunne to name drop just a few. But there was always one person that hovered above all these in my mind, a legend beyond all.


Everyone knows his story. The Manchester plumber (who wasn’t a plumber) who rose to dominance in the years after the Second World War and who went on to own gritstone and the Welsh mountain crags for the next 20 years. The Rock and Ice Club, Don Whillans, Gogarth, Cloggy, Cenotaph Corner, wet cracks, first ascents, the Himalaya and the Padarn Lake Hotel – his past is our history. For over two decades, from the late 40s, he pushed standards far beyond what they had been on virtually any rock type and climbing style. From first ascents of the Unconquerables on gritstone; to Cenotaph Corner and Vector in North Wales; numerous hard routes on Cloggy; visionary ventures at Gogarth in the 60s; and the first ascent of Kangchenjunga. I struggled my way through many of his great Derbyshire routes and they usually formed the highlights of my gritstone apprenticeship. However it was climbing one of his routes on Gogarth’s Yellow Walls really gave me his measure. The Sind gets the hair-raising grade of E3 5b – and it’s no pushover at that, following a soaring groove that leans in a couple of dimensions. The rock is a salty dandruff that you can rub away with your fingers; the only thing keeping it in place is a wafer-thin hard brown varnish.


I harrowed my way up it one Easter, emptying an entire rack of cams and 20 quick-draws-worth of nuts into it. At any point, I felt I could break a hold off and take the big ride, stripping every piece. Joe had done the first ascent of The Sind in 1966, on sight. His main protection would have been a couple of pegs and some slings. And that blew my mind; the skill, courage and confidence that someone must possess to attack that steep, decrepit groove on sight. Famously, he doesn’t do interviews. However a chance meeting with his daughter, Zoe, earned me an audience with the great man. And so, some weeks later I found myself in front of a warm fire talking to Joe Brown. Now in his 80s, he walked with a stick but still looked like he could cartwheel across the living room. He was warm, friendly and we talked for over three hours. At one point we were in the kitchen eating a sandwich and he was telling me about Don Whillans when the full magic of the situation hit me. Joe taking about Don; it was like being with Sitting Bull as he says “The thing about Geronimo was…”


Things don’t get any bigger. SUMMIT#98 | SUMMER 2020 | 41


First published in Summit 73 2014


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