Joe Brown – Rock Climbing Legend
- Thursday 16th April 2020
The late Joe Brown was arguably the greatest climber this country has ever produced. His rock routes of the 1950s and 60s were genuinely game-changing and broke through new barriers of difficulty. The quality of many of his first ascents, particularly in the Peak and Wales is still recognised today. His partnership with Don Whillans became legendary and they both moved on to ground-breaking ascents in the European Alps. Joe also became an important Himalayan pioneer and made the first ascent of the third highest mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga, in the Nepalese Himalaya, with George Band. Also, in 1956 he made the first ascent of the west summit of the Mustagh Tower in the Karakoram with Ian McNaught-Davis. Many of Joe's finest first ascents are on Clogwyn Du'r Arddu in North Wales and he retained a great affection for one of the very finest of British crags.
As part of a special feature on Cloggy that appeared in the July 2014 issue of Climber, one of Joe's oldest friends, Jim Curran, talked to him about his Cloggy memories and we reproduce it here.
Can you remember the first time you even heard of Cloggy?
Not long after I started climbing, I got a book from the library, Let's Go Climbing by Colin Kirkus, and he mentions Cloggy. But the other thing was that, not very long after starting to climb, we did Lot's Groove on Glyder Fach, which was rated as one of the hardest climbs in the guidebook. We noticed in the guide that it said this is the roughest rock in Wales, with the exception of Clogwyn Du'r Arddu, and we thought, bloody hell, if Cloggy is rougher than this, you will be able to climb anywhere.
In 1949, I was in the army from 20th January and the first long leave I got was at Easter and I knew the Valkyrie Club were having a meet below Lliwedd. I was hitching from Caernarvon and asked a farmer who had given me a lift if he knew where “Lewed” was. He said he had never heard of it. Anyway, I met them there and we climbed on Lliwedd, with the next day being earmarked for going on Cloggy. We descended down into the cwm below Cloggy, in fairly thick mist and there was a feeling of excitement, which most people seem to get when they first go to Cloggy, and I can remember that incredible feeling of excitement. The mist was rising slightly so that you could see about halfway up the crag. We found Curving Crack, which we decided was probably, with our sort of expertise on cracks, probably a good thing to start on and we just climbed it, almost whooping with excitement. It was just a fantastic experience. There was no technical difficulty of any sort that made us stop and think.
In those days, of course, we had practically no runners. The only runners you carried with you were probably four slings with steel karabiners, so if you got a spike you'd got a runner or if there was a chockstone you would get a runner, but very few. That was just the way things were in those days. When we got back down to the bottom, at the bottom of the first pitch of Curving Crack in those days was a big grass ledge. It's not now, it's just solid rock, but in this big grass ledge were two deep footholds. Peter Harding was there with a group and one of the group was leading — not Peter Harding — and had fallen off the first pitch and the foot marks from where he had landed were there. So we ended up thinking, what a fantastic day it was. For whatever reason, we did not even think of doing a second route, although we obviously could have done.
I can't remember when Easter was in 1949 but later in the year, which would be July, I think, I got embarkation leave because I was being drafted to Singapore. So Slim Sorrell and I went to Cloggy with his then-girlfriend, Dot, who became his wife. The weather was absolutely perfect and in three days we did all of the routes that were in the guidebook and I had led every pitch of every route. The last climb we did was Bow-Shaped Slab and I'd done the traverse across to belay on Narrow Slab and this is probably about somewhere between 150 and 200 feet above the screes. At the belay there was a huge flake, so big that you had to layback up it to get the rope round it, which I did. I brought Slim across and, instead of changing places, this was the only time in the trip I said: "You carry on, I don't think it is very difficult and you do the next pitch", which was just a rising traverse. He did this and I laybacked up the flake, flicked the rope off and just as I did that, the whole flake came off and I did a backward somersault with this huge flake, which must have weighed two or three hundredweight, plowing a big groove in the grass just to the side of me. I probably went about 50ft and landed face-in on a big grass bank that was there at the time. Just at the same time as the rope went tight, so I wasn't hurt at all.
We were incredibly lucky, because if I had done that while Slim was on the stance, we would have both gone to the screes, luck is the name of the game in surviving. Experience makes it less risky, but as they say, experience comes with making mistakes and surviving them and that was one of them. Then I was away in Singapore for 11 months and when I came back the arrangement was that I would meet up at Cloggy — there was Nat Allen, Wilf White and two or three others from the Valkyrie Club. I think that was probably the first time I had met the Williamses who ran Halfway House and they were just such fantastic welcoming people. Mrs Williams became a sort of surrogate mother to us all. If, at any subsequent time, I arrived at Halfway House on my own, it would be into their little kitchen at the back with the big glowing fire in front.
The plan was that we were going to camp by Llyn Du'r Arddu and just climb on Cloggy. We camped down by the lake and the weather was absolutely foul. I can't remember how long we were there, but I would think a week, and I do not remember doing any other climbs. All that I can remember doing was concentrating on trying to do the first ascent of Vember and The Drainpipe Crack, which is the first pitch and had been done previously by Arthur Birtwistle, was so full of water that as soon as you did the first move into it, you were totally soaked. The next pitch had water pouring down it and I think we backed off and went up Curving Crack. We went back the next day and up Curving Crack to get to where we had been the day before but I can't remember it stopping raining for the whole period we were there.
You just kept doing what you were doing and the crunch of this was that I started up the second pitch, which is about 25/30ft, a really nice jamming crack, but it was filled with water and absolutely streaming so that it was unpleasant. About halfway up was a chockstone and I threaded the chockstone and then I thought, I will just see if I can get out of the water. We were climbing in socks and I did not like climbing with socks over rubbers because you would never know when the socks had worn out, whereas socks over feet, it didn't wear out. The softness stopped the wool wearing but these socks were not like modern day socks, they were thick woollen socks, in a way, it was a bit like climbing in felt-soled kletterschue, except they are not such a good fitting. My style of climbing, which has always been of the 'smearing' type, not ‘edging’ worked absolutely fine with socks.
So, having moved left from the chockstone, the crack was in a groove that was probably about two feet deep and I had moved out of that, round on to the wall to the left, and I had climbed up. I actually had my hands on the ledge, which was not the stance but it was a resting place if you got on it. But at that point I think my socks must have rolled or whatever, my fingers were numb so I did not feel anything and I flew off. The rope ran down the arête and we were climbing on hemp ropes, but fortunately this was a brand new hemp line. It was not even a full weight rope and once I fell off I think there were three others apart from the person holding the rope and they all jumped on him. I ended up hanging just above them, with about 15ft of the rope absolutely frayed so that you think, how did that hold? I think that we abandoned it after that and decided that that was enough. Strangely enough, when I went back to look for new routes on Cloggy, that wasn't the first one I went for. I had no idea why I went for Diglyph as my first new route. The only thing I can remember thinking about Diglyph was the upper groove was such a superb feature and it was how to reach that upper groove that dictated where the other pitches went.
What does Diglyph mean, by the way?
It's an architectural feature, meaning two grooves. Anyway, having gone there on this particular day — I cannot remember who I was climbing with — I started off up what turned out to be a difficult pitch. The reason for it being so difficult was that it was a thin crack in a face and about halfway up it there was a sort of peapod in the crack. The crack widened and inside that there was vegetation growing and I was carrying a peg hammer and I hooked all this vegetation out which, when you do that, normally means the crack is a bit muddy. Then I did the next move up with the peg hammer on my wrist, hanging, and the next move put my knee pressing the peg hammer into the crack. I reached above, but then couldn't move my next hand up to complete the sequence of moves and it was something that you couldn't hang about on. This was actually the crux of the climb and one hand was trapped so there was a fairly big rush of adrenaline. There was almost certainly no runners at all on it and I worked out very quickly what was holding me and did whatever was necessary to release the peg hammer and did the moves up, got on a ledge, and was in such a flap that I instantly put a peg in. If I had done it all under control, I would not have put the peg in. In those days, putting a peg in was the crime, not using it. It did not matter whether you used it or not, it was a peg for aid.
But this was just a belay peg, was it?
No, it was not, it was only part way up the pitch but when the description is written, it is a peg and a peg then was whatever you wanted to do with it. That was one of the things which made it that aid was used on things where it actually was not. But the thing is, having done this, I think my performance put the second off to such an extent that he was not prepared to second it. So he said: "I'll go and find Slim." So he went looking for Slim Sorrell. Why Slim wasn't climbing with me that day, I don't know. He found Slim and it ended up with me knotting a rope and Slim climbing on another rope. In the early days, it was very frequent that I would be leading a climb and the second would not follow and that happened lots of times, which was very tedious. The guidebook gives Diglyph as June 24th 1951 and in 1951, I met Don Whillans for the first time at The Roaches, and he became part of our team. Once he had started to come out with us, that was it. The thing about Cloggy is that whenever you walk up to it, you get this feeling of excitement as you approach, which is unlike any other crag that I know.
I know exactly what you mean, but when you think of crags in Scotland that are bigger, even somewhere like Carn Dearg on Ben Nevis or something, that are every bit as impressive, you don't get that same feeling.
The other thing which played a big part in our lives on Cloggy were, as I mentioned, the Williams family. Mrs Williams was English and Mr Williams was a Welsh speaking, really quiet, really lovely man and they had a daughter, Vember. There was no romantic association with Vember, she was a just a young girl, but we asked Mrs Williams how she'd got her name. She said that she was born in November and so they thought Vember sounded a good name.
One of the things Mrs Williams told us was that as you go down the track from Cloggy, you eventually come to a gate with a little cottage on the left, which also had a barn a bit below it. She said that it was derelict and would probably be a good place to stay in bad weather. So we investigated this and that became almost our hut. We had a rule there — not to start off with because females were not included then — but once people started to get girlfriends, if you took a girl with you then you had to stay in the cottage. You were not allowed in the barn because the craic that went on amongst the boys included a lot of bad language and it was not considered correct to swear in front of women in those days. But going back to the climbing, Slim Sorrell was my number one buddy at that time, he would quite often back off if the climbing he thought was going to be too hard for him so Don was becoming my main climbing partner.
In October 1951, we decided that we would go and sort out the route that we had first tried, which eventually was named Vember and as far as I can remember, it was a pretty nice day. Not totally dry but not a day when you would think it was going to make any difference to climbing, the bit of dampness. I remember the pitch that I fell off, not the part of the pitch that I did fall off, but above that, I found it really hard, about as hard as I find climbs. Usually, if it is any harder than that, I back off, but anyway, I found it hard and Don didn't. He thought it was pretty reasonable. I think when he led it later on, he found it hard for whatever reason but again, there was no protection. There was probably, on that pitch, two runners, one of which was the chockstone only a few feet above the stance. I don't even know how long that pitch was but if you had got runners, you felt that the climb had suddenly become easier, and it did. Then in the same month, Ron Moseley who was climbing with a Karabiner Club member called Walt Beckett — they climbed together quite a bit — had just done the first unaided ascent of Kaisergeberg Wall (on Clogwyn y Grochan) the weekend before. We had talked about doing The Boulder and we decided on this particular day that we would go it. That was me, Ron Moseley and Walt Beckett. You climb up relatively easily for about 40 or 50ft and then you do a rising traverse which goes right across The Boulder, almost into The Black Cleft and then it goes up and takes a stance just outside of The Black Cleft, and I did this and neither Ron Moseley or Walt Beckett would second it.
Because of the traverse?
Because they thought, if they fell off, they would just take a tremendous swing and smack against the wall in The Black Cleft. Which, thinking back, doesn't make any sense. I did have at least one runner on the traverse, but the fact that he was capable of doing one of the hardest routes in Wales at the time and would not even try to second what I had just done. Because the traverse on The Boulder, as far as I know, is not as hard as Kaisergeberg Wall, but they would not do it. So I thought, I don't want to go down and I was climbing on double ropes, so I told him to untie from one of the ropes, which I then pulled up and knotted it to the other one. Then I had a bit of a dilemma, because although I was on a rope, I was on a rope with a bloody enormous loop of slack, so that if I fell off I was guaranteed to fall 150ft before any strain came on the belay. So, what I was doing was, if I found a spike belay, I would tie an overhand knot in the rope about 20 or 30ft down, and hook it onto the spike so that that would stop me but it would almost certainly snap the rope as well. Anyway, I progressed, and then arrived at the overhang, which is really the top of the climb although there is still a long way to get to the top of the crag, once you have got over the overhang it becomes much easier. Instead of facing right, where it's very overhanging, if you face left from this jammed fist which I had got, being stretched out underneath the overhang. The rock on the left is a slab but it has not got any holds on but that was the way I actually did the climb and it is very difficult to do that. I did the climb, pulled all the ropes up, the runners came off, and that was it but it was an extraordinary thing. At that time, as I said earlier, I was getting pretty used to seconds failing to follow and that was a psychological thing that they attributed me with performance that I did not really have — that I was such a good climber that they wouldn't be able to second, which was absolutely crazy but that is the way it worked.
How often have you done some of the routes on Cloggy?
I have done the trade routes probably 50 times, some of them. Bloody Slab, either five or six times, I think. When John Streetly did it, we were all very surprised. Don went and tried it and actually failed on it. When I went, I can't remember who I was climbing with, I came to the point on the first pitch where it gets very delicate, but it's not hard. It is not like you are going to run out of strength or anything and it is just a couple of delicate moves and then was all right. I just did not find it very hard at all, and I actually went back with Don and led him up it. Then there were several others who said they wanted to do it. I cannot remember over what length of period, several months.
I know when Streetly did it, he led up this monstrously long pitch?
John had the same trouble that I had; his seconds would not follow him. It was not a case that there were no belays. In fact, you go up Bloody Slab and you eventually, after about 60 or 70ft, come to an overhang, where I think he put a peg in and just moved round to the left. The difficult climbing had been about 15ft getting up to the peg and then you go around the corner and you are in a groove. In there, was a peg and a chisel driven into the rock. I remember seeing the photographs of the first ascent, and John actually penduled off the chisel. I do not think it mentions that in the description, that he did a rope move, but it is of no consequence. The description of John's on his first ascent was the description of someone who is not in his comfort zone because of his long run-out, probably like I was on The Boulder. If you are climbing it with a second, and you can put runners on where it is possible to, you are relaxed. In fact, I cannot remember what the pitches are graded, but I would be surprised if that pitch of traversing is more than 5a. They would probably give the first pitch 5c, but the other pitches would not be more than 5a, if that.
Are there any other routes that really stick in your mind, like Woubits or The Mostest or something like that?
Yes, The Mostest was another of those climbs where Nat (Allen) would not second so that increased the feeling of grip considerably. The only thing I can remember on it that picks it out as being different to other climbs was that going round the overhang, I was getting really gripped. I got a peg out and there was a little ledge and I put it in and knocked it into what I thought was a crack. Then I did not even put the rope in, I just got hold of it, did the move, and it was not even in a crack. I just carried on with it in my hand, after that, the climbing becomes easy. One of my failures was Slanting Slab, which Don did and that involved climbing over a roof. The rock is all cracks and I put about four or five pegs in and there wasn't one I trusted and I backed off. Harry Smith then led it and I was still, for whatever reason, feeling incredibly gripped up about these pegs coming out. Why? I don't know, because Harry had already tested them. But I did not find that easy. As for Woubits, there was nothing major that happened on that...
By the way, what is a Woubits?
In the dictionary I had, it said ‘a derogatory term meaning of shabby appearance and small of stature’.
And who named it?
But you looked it up?
Yes, at one time, I had so many routes without names, the list was just getting longer and longer.
How did you do that?
Just browsing through the dictionary and somewhere in a notebook, but I have no idea where it is, I think there is actually a list which are possible names for routes.
And, of course, Woubits Left-Hand, which you did with Martin Boysen.
Yes, and again, I led the first pitch and Doug Verity, who was my second, said: "I definitely can't do this so I will go and find you somebody to second you." He came back with this young lad, who turned out to be a 17-year old Martin and he had no problem at all, and on the second pitch, which is the hard one, I was within inches of finishing it off and just couldn't do it. I just couldn't make the move. It was just a bit out of reach so I ended up putting a peg in, and when Martin came up he said: "You didn't need that peg, you know."
Well, his reach is about two-foot longer than yours.
I agreed with him. I said: "I know that, I just made a bugger of it," and that was my first route with Martin.
What was the last route you ever did on Cloggy? Can you remember?
No, I can't, but a controversial thing is the route Shrike. There was an article published, which was about Harry Smith, who I climbed with quite a bit. And Shrike, it says, ‘Four points of aid. J Brown, H Smith, J Smith. H Smith led over the first overhang using a peg and two slings'. In this article it said that Harry Smith had actually led the pitch, the whole pitch and I said to Morty (J) Smith: "Do you remember doing Shrike?" He said yes and I said: "What happened?" He replied: "What do you mean, what happened?" I said: "Who did what?" and he said: "You led it." And I said: "But was that all?" and he said: "Yes." Well I said: "I remember distinctly I went up, had a go, and Harry had a go and came back down, and then I went up and led it," and he replied: "Yes, you're right." I was telling this to Claude Davies and Claude said: "I was there watching you and I know for absolute certainty that you led it." This was about a year or two ago, so a very long time after the event but the funny thing is that it has always been recorded like that. In any case, my memory is as good as anyone's remembering back 60 years and if two other people — like Morty, who was on it, and Claude, who was watching it, say that is what happened...
So it was totally free when you did it?
No, it wasn't totally free. That was not the question. It was that Harry said that he actually led it and that was not the case but it definitely was not free. We did use some aid to get over the overhang but it is a case of different people's memories of the same event. I have a feeling that the last routes, I think, that I did were in 1965, which were Sinistra, The Key and The Far East Girdle, I don't think I did anything new after that.
One thorny question, about you and Don Whillans, I know, in the end, you hadn't got much time for each other for all sorts of reasons, but in the heyday did you get on okay with Don?
I always got on with him absolutely brilliantly but only in a one-to-one situation. There was nobody better to be on a climb with but it was absolutely predictable, if we were climbing in the Alps, for instance, or anywhere else for that matter, and I would say, 'I think we should go up there' there was no way that he would say, 'No, that is not the way'. But if there was someone else there, there was no way that he would agree with me.
One other thing that has always been discussed is White Slab, which was eventually climbed by Ron Moseley.
I tried White Slab twice, once when I reached a point where I thought this is getting really tricky and in the in-between times I went up Sheaf and looked across at where I had been and realised that just there was a really good spike that you could lasso, hence the lasso pitch. So I went and did it again with Ron Moseley and, I think, Don Roscoe and Nat might have been with us. On both times, we did the proper start, which is starting down by the start to Great Slab and going over the overhang, which Moseley found incredibly hard for some reason. Anyway, we did this, got to the lasso, flicked it over, and the last pitch was there ahead but I had eaten a sandwich that had got paraffin on and I was starting to feel really sick and I actually went about 30 or 40ft up what was really the last pitch before you got on to Longland's. I backed off it and instead of saying to Moseley: "You lead it," I said, "we'll go off up Sheaf," which we did. If I had said that to Moseley, that would have been the end of it. In between times, I went to Mustagh Tower, and while I was there, events happened and in Don's book he actually places me there, when I wasn't. I was on the Mustagh Tower. Apparently he went into the YMCA, which was our meeting place, and said: "I think you have been buggering about on that long enough. I am going to go and have a go at it." Moseley didn't respond to that, but I think he said he was going to the Lakes, with no intention of going to the Lakes. Don had to work on Saturday mornings at that time, so Moseley was there — did the start by traversing in across to the Narrow Slab start, and finished the climb. Don arrived that evening and Moseley was there with a big grin on his face, saying: "Just done White Slab." Don, quite naturally, was feeling really poked off that Moseley had not told him that he was thinking of doing it. That was the only time in the Rock and Ice that you could say that somebody had really pinched a route off somebody. But the funny thing is that in all the guidebooks, it says that the traverse in had been done by me, but it did not mention that the first four pitches had also been done by me, which seems an extraordinary omission of history because there was only a little bit of it that had not had been done.
What's the story behind Great Wall?
I think probably in 1952, I did all but 10ft, at the most, of the first pitch and then backed off, with no proper runners and I am absolutely certain that none of the pegs were used for aid. They were just for protection. When I was in my 70s, I actually did it with David Jones. I didn't lead it, but again the first pitch, which is graded the hardest, I didn't have any problem with. David said: "Do you want to lead through?" So I actually attempted to lead through, got to where the hard moves are, and I just could not reach the hold, whatever I did. I could not work out how to get this hold and I actually wore myself out trying. I came down and he just cruised it, and I did it, but with a struggle on that top pitch, which I think is given 5c but it was for me miles harder than anything below.
And that was when Pete Crew came to prominence. Would you have called it Master's Wall? Because everyone else seemed to know it as Master's Wall.
I honestly don't know. I doubt it. But if climbs have got a name, like Cenotaph Corner, if people have given a name to a particular feature, you tend to think that will save me even thinking of a name. In the case of Master's Wall, that would be a bit presumptuous for me to name it that, I think. The main thing about Cloggy is not really the climbs, it is the atmosphere and feelings it inspires. I have fantastic memories of being, say, in the East Gully and the incredible feeling of, even though you can hear the train hoot, it never detracts from the feeling of this fantastically mysterious place you are in. One thing we did do, which Morty and I set off on was what would have been the first ascent of The Girdle Traverse of the Pinnacle but we started at the wrong time of day; we started late. We went across the front, so that we had got as far as Pinnacle Arête and decided there was no way we were going to get right across the East Gully walls in the time we had got so we would go back the next day. At the belay, which was just to the left of Taurus – you actually do the crux of Taurus on this girdle – I had put a peg in and I had covered it with a piece of moss. That night there was a rescue on Lliwedd and we were out all night so the next day we were absolutely bolloxed, so we did not get back to Cloggy. In the intervening time, which might have been the next weekend, Pete Crew and whoever it was did the Girdle and when he came to this piece of moss and lifted it up, he said: "Joe has been here," and I had. The same thing happened on Great Wall. I had gone up to try it some time before he actually did it. I was not climbing well, so I was not making any progress at all and I put a peg in and again covered it with moss.
Was there any particular reason for covering the peg with moss, not so much the Great Wall one, but The Pinnacle Girdle? Why did you do it? I am not totally clear.
Just so that no one would spot it, if you were doing, say, Taurus, you would not find a peg intruding. But anyway, he knew who had put it there.
In conclusion, every generation seems to make its mark on Cloggy, but it's now 28 years since Johnny Dawes did The Indian Face. Do you see that Cloggy will still be the touchstone in the future?
The thing is, Cloggy is just a fantastic place to climb and the value of a crag is not determined by whether it has got any new lines left on it. The majority of people are just doing climbs that already exist and they're happy with that. What has almost happened already is there is no new space. If you look at a picture of Gogarth, it's like a jigsaw puzzle. If you cut it out along the white lines, you would have millions of little bits of paper, not some narrow strips. What has changed dramatically is climbing walls have changed climbing into a pastime where the elimination of all the things that make climbing what it is, the adventure, the route-finding skills, the ability to place protection, all of those are gone and you are left just with the gymnastics of the climb. At any point on a modern bolted climb, you can just say, ‘Lower me off’, whereas in the old days you would perhaps be 100ft up a pitch and think, I cannot do the next move. How am I going to get out of this?