Articles - Joe Brown: The Gritstone Legacy

Photo: Doug Verity
Photo: Doug Verity

Simon Kincaid 

Joe Brown was 16 when he first wandered into the Peak District; extending a search for adventure first kindled playing in the clay-pits near his home and exploring the bombed-out buildings of wartime Manchester. An article in the Manchester Evening News which mentioned “Kinder Scout – the highest peak in the Peak District”, together with the distant sight of the Downfall being blown back up into the air, sparked a curiosity that lead him to the top of Downfall South Corner (V. Diff) carrying an old coiled rope to help his mates up (it’s previous use was for swinging about on trees).

Joe was hooked straightaway “And that was it from then on! That was so exciting to me that I went to the local library to see what I could get to know about climbing and I think the first book I got was Kirkus’s Let’s Go Climbing. We then started climbing and for the first few weekends it was just going to the Downfall.” Kirkus’s book and some timely advice from a stranger about belaying gave him the basics, and the friendship of the older, (slightly) more experienced Merrick (Slim) Sorrell gave him a reliable partner.

Joe’s early weekend trips out into the Manchester side of the Peak usually began after a Saturday morning at work. To climb in the Chew valley, meant a tram ride into central Manchester to meet up with his mates, then a bus or train to the closest point they could reach and finally a walk to the crag. The Peak District of the late 1940s was a very empty place compared to today, with very few cars on the road and petrol rationing still in force.

They would usually stay at the crag for the rest of the weekend: climbing during the day and often bouldering on into the evening. Later they would sit around drinking tea and talking, as Joe recalls: “with a gang of 18-22 year olds it was just non-stop chatter and banter.” Sleeping, more often than not, in caves or under boulders (for example those at Stanage Plantation), they would climb on Sunday with one eye on the clock – missing the last bus and being late for work on the Monday just wasn’t an option: “we must have been very disciplined, because I don’t ever remember not getting back.”

Their climbing gear was unbelievably basic: a rope, a handful of slings and karabiners, and nailed boots or plimsolls to climb in. The karabiners were a double edged sword, being made out of untempered steel “when someone fell on them, they straightened out and then the locking mechanism on the gate, which was very sharp edged, became a point that the rope ran across and it could just cut through and snap.” Nailed boots were preferred for edging, (such as on Brown’s Eliminate at Froggatt) and plimsolls for friction. It’s amazing to think that Great Slab at Froggatt was climbed on-sight in plimsolls!

At first they had little contact with the established world of climbing and no idea of which climbs were hard or had reputations. As Joe remembers: “routes were just routes and we didn’t know anything about that – we were just climbing.”

The hard physical nature of Joe’s building work meant he was super-fit. This, combined with a constant desire for the next adventure, his innate ability to move efficiently on rock and a certain disdain for fear, was going to have a revolutionary effect on Peak climbing. Within eight months of starting, Joe was leading the hardest existing gritstone routes and starting to add routes of his own; Saul’s Crack (HVS 5a) on the Upper Tier at The Roaches in 1947 was his statement of intent.

The earliest new routes were simply lead straight off, with no protection, and in all conditions (the difficulty of getting out to the crags meant that climbing plans were stuck to whatever the weather). The seriousness of these first ascents cannot be overstated; to fall off was to hit the ground: “you treated falling off as a possibility that you might die, or you would certainly be injured.” Joe had a couple of very lucky escapes from ground-falls, though neither was from very high. He famously fell off the top of Portfolio (HVS 5b) at Windgather and landed on his feet. He also hit the ground from Birthday Groove (E1 5c) at Curbar: “we’d just traversed around underneath it and I thought ‘bloody hell, I must have a go at this’. I did the first move, which is very unorthodox if you’re small, and then I climbed up the groove and moved out to a hold on the right. Whoever it was that was with me was shouting to the others to come and look at this; I’d got this flat ledge, which was covered in sand, and I knew I was going to fall off it. I couldn’t get up to go through a mantelshelf and I actually ended up with my chin on it. Eventually I just peeled off, just as Chuck Cook came round the corner and I actually landed on him! He went somersaulting down through the bracken and I just sat down on the ground: neither of us was hurt. After that I went round and swept it off and then went up and climbed it.”

Most people only had one week’s holiday a year back then. Joe and Slim spent theirs in North Wales in August 1948 where they met a pair of climbers from the Derby-based Valkyrie Club: Wilf White and Chuck Cook. The four soon met up again in the Peak and over the following weeks Joe led them up some exciting new routes at Wimberry: Coffin Crack (VS 4c), The Trident (HVS 5a), Freddie’s Finale (E1 5b) and Blue Lights Crack (HVS 5a). Joe was most at home on cracks: “There’s no way you’re going to run out of holds through lack of reach; the crack goes from the bottom to the top, so it’s got a hold everywhere you want one if you know how to use it.”

The Mancunians ended up joining the Valkyrie and were soon introduced to the club’s particular favourites – Froggatt and Curbar Edges (the Valkyrie was to add over a hundred routes to Froggatt and Curbar). Over the next three years, here and at the Roaches, Joe bagged first ascents of many of the best lines on Peak gritstone. Even an 18 month break for National Service didn’t slow things down much, (though a posting to Singapore did create a short hiatus: the Peak was a bit too far to visit for the weekend!), Valkyrie (HVS 5a) and Right Unconquerable (HVS 5a) were climbed on weekend leave during the spring of 1949. Some routes, Right Unconquerable included, had been top-roped before and even given names by previous visitors, but nobody had had the necessary sangfroid to lead them.

1950 produced Cave Crack (E2 5c) at Froggatt and Elder Crack (E2 5b) at Curbar; 1951 Great Slab (E3 5b) at Froggatt and Right Eliminate at Curbar (E3 5b). British rock climbing had taken a quantum leap; a new breed of route had arrived. Now physical power and mental control were both required in abundance.

Throughout the 50’s Joe continued to climb new routes in the Peak, returning throughout the decade to Stanage. 1954 was a particularly good year: Joe lead Quietus (E2 5c) free (“I remember going up and fiddling about and getting two pebbles pulling in opposition under the roof, but I think if you’d fallen off they’d have just popped out”) and aped his way up The Dangler (E2 5c). Eric Byne had mentioned to one of Joe’s friends the possibility of a hard new route on Count’s Buttress. The line in question was what has become the Direct (E3 6a) but in 1955 neither Joe, nor any of his group were able to climb it even on a top rope. Joe, ever with an eye for the less obvious, wasn’t prepared to give it up: “I went right, out to the arête, and I thought ‘well that’s all right’: so I went and led it.” The result was the superb Count’s Buttress (E2 5c).

As ever-more difficult routes were attempted, the need for runners became crucial. Occasionally there would be a naturally occurring chockstone in a crack, but from the early 50’s climbers commonly started inserting their own, which could then be threaded. The downside to this was that it often resulted in enforced rests: “first of all you’d have to find, in your pocket or in your hat, the right size stone to put in. Then you’d get a coil of wire out of your pocket, straighten it in your teeth and use it to hook the sling out. You’d be there, struggling to thread it and by the time you’d managed it, you’d be so tired you needed a rest.” Resting became quite normal, “No-one even though it was unusual to just step in a sling and have a rest.” Routes like Hanging Crack (E2 5b, at Dovestones Edge) and Ramshaw Crack (E4 6a) were climbed with single rests such as these, though in guidebooks these have both been recorded with ‘some aid used’, giving somewhat the wrong idea. In the case of Ramshaw Crack, a big chockstone was dropped into the crack from above, “then to get that chockstone threaded you couldn’t possibly go out and stay there and thread it, so I actually went out, fixed a small chockstone before the crack went wide, stepped in that and then threaded the big chockstone; but then no aid was used getting round the end of the overhang and that’s the crux.” Once modern protection arrived, climbers were able to quickly place gear and press on, and the rests were gradually eliminated.

Joe climbed so many new routes back then that’s it’s hardly surprising, around 55 years later, that some details are now a little sketchy. Even then he sometimes had surprises: “at one stage I remember doing what I thought was the first ascent of something and as I got near the top I realized that it wasn’t the first ascent: I’d done it before and I could remember how it finished.” However, some things are etched clearly into his memory and are readily recalled. On the first ascent of The Mincer at The Roaches in 1951, he and Don Whillans took turns, trying to reach the roof from the tricky start. Joe finally made it and got some good jams under the roof; Don then jokingly tried to pull him off – all his weight on the rope at one point – until Joe persuaded him that if he didn’t let go, he was going to fall off!

‘Taking turns’ seems to have been a feature of Joe and Don’s climbing together; others may have been happy just to follow, Don was not. On The Rasp (E2 5b) at Higgar Tor it has been suggested that Don lost the kudos of the first ascent by tiring himself out placing the gear, only for Joe to then lead it. Joe doesn’t remember it like that: “if you look at the picture of the first ascent, there are only two runners and only one of those is a thread, so it’s not as if he’d have worn himself out. Also, I don’t think he tried it and then I just went up and did it – I think we probably both limbered up, because it’s so bloody strenuous that you try a bit, work it out and then come back down again.” It didn’t always go in Joe’s favour – he famously lost the toss of a coin which gave Don The Sloth. . .

Even with the help of Joe’s reminiscences, it’s hard for us today to really get inside the Peak climbing scene of more than 50 years ago. Our imagination has to work overtime to conjure up the empty roads and edges, dossing out at the crag in all weathers, all the miles of walking, the seriousness of the climbing and above all the sense of freedom and adventure, being out in the Peak after a week spent working in a crowded and grimy northern city. So try a bit of imagination yourself. Next time you’ve pulled over the top of one of Joe’s grit specials, pause for a moment to return in your mind to the hard bit (even if you’re a very good climber, somewhere on Right Eliminate should do), mentally stripped of all your climbing gear, wearing a pair of Woolies plimsolls and with the rope tied round your waist. If you really want to go to town you can add a pocketful of pebbles and a few slings. Get the picture? Oh, and you’re going to have to hurry because you don’t want to miss that last bus!
With thanks to Joe Brown!

Joe Brown on . . .

. . . camming devices: “I think that the invention of Friends was absolutely terrific for people to be able to get up routes that had been far too serious and dangerous. But they devalued gritstone routes especially, to an enormous degree.” And from recent conversation about off-widths: “I said ‘when you do that, you’re doing it with camming devices’ and he said ‘yeah’, I said ‘and do you push those up in front of you?’, he said ‘yeah, everyone does’; ‘well you’re not leading it then’ I said ‘ you’re on a tope rope if you do that.”

. . . chalk: “I think one of the worst things in climbing is the introduction of chalk; I never use it. When people talk about using aid on routes, people using chalk use aid on every move. I’ve said to people: ‘if it’s not aid, don’t use it then!’ And then we’ll have nice clean crags and you’ll have to start using your route finding skills instead of following a line of chalked holds.”

. . . bolts: “It takes away so much from what makes climbing what it is to me. Route finding is a great skill; it might even be a gift if you’re very good at it. And the ability to quickly sort and fix gear, and to be able to judge what you can do – when you put bolts in you remove all of that.”

Joe Brown’s Three-Star Grit-list

The Roaches: Teck Crack (HVS 5b), Matinee (HVS 5a, 5b), The Mincer (HVS 5b), Saul’s Crack (HVS 5a).
Hen Cloud: Delstree (HVS 5a), Hen Cloud Eliminate (HVS 5b).
Ramshaw: Ramshaw Crack (E4 6a).
Dovestones: Hanging Crack (E2 5b).
Wimberry: Coffin Crack (VS 4c), Freddie’s Finale (HVS 5b), The Trident (HVS 5a).
Stanage: The Dangler (E2 5c), Baw’s Crawl (HVS 5a), Right Unconquerable (HVS 5a), Count’s Buttress (E2 5c), Quietus (E2 5c), Terrazza Crack (HVS 5b).
Higgar Tor: The Rasp (E2 5b).
Froggatt: Sunset Slab (HVS 4b), Hawk’s Nest Crack (VS 4c), Cave Crack (E2 5c), Tody’s Wall (HVS 5a), 3 Pebble Slab (E1 5a), Valkyrie (HVS 5a, 5a),
Great Slab (E3 5b), Brown’s Eliminate (E2 5b).
Curbar: Sorrell’s Sorrow (HVS 5a), Elder Crack (E2 5b), L’Horla (E1 5b), Peapod (HVS 5b), Right Eliminate (E3 5b).
Chatsworth: Emerald Crack (E3 6a).

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