Joe Brown – The Gritstone Legacy
- Saturday 18th April 2020
By Simon Kincaid (first published in Climber January 2005)
Joe Brown was 16 when he first started to wander into the Peak District, an extension of a search for adventure that was 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 coiled an old rope to help his mates up (it had been used up to that point 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’ ‘Let’s Go Climbing’. We then started climbing and for the first few weekends it was just going to the Downfall”. Kirkus’ book and some timely advice from a stranger about belaying gave him the basics and the friendship of the older and (slightly) more experienced Merrick (Slim) Sorrell gave him a reliable partner. Together with various other friends they began to explore the crags of the Manchester side of the Peak.
Joe’s weekend trips out into the Peak around this time began with a Saturday morning of work. Some of the earliest trips were in the direction of the Chew Valley, which meant first a tram ride into central Manchester to meet up with his mates (though the trams were very soon to disappear). Depending on where they were headed, they then took a bus or train to the closest point they could reach and finally walked in to the crag. The Peak was a very empty place compared to today with very few cars on the road and petrol rationing still in force.
Once arrived at the crag it was usual to stay there for the rest of the weekend: climbing during the day and often bouldering on into the evening, until the fading light announced the time had arrived to get the primus out and cook dinner. Later they sat around drinking tea and talking: “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 as it got later, before taking the bus or train back to Manchester. Missing the last one 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”.
The climbing gear they carried was unbelievably simple: a rope, a handful of slings and carabiners, with a choice of nailed boots or plimsolls to climb in. The carabiners 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 a very sharp thing, became a point that the rope ran across and it just cut the rope and snapped it”. Nailed boots were preferred where the nails could be used to stand on sharp edges (such as on Brown’s Eliminate at Froggatt) and plimsolls where friction could be used. 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 and 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, which often involved him in pushing a fully laden hand-cart around Manchester all week, meant that 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, he 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 climbing meant that once a plan had been set, it was kept to whatever the weather). The seriousness of these first ascents cannot be understated; 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 got one week’s holiday a year back then. Joe and Slim spent theirs in North Wales in August 1948 (though despite the lack of holiday they’d already been to Wales that spring having gone ‘absent from work’). They hit it off with a pair of climbers they met from the Derby based Valkyrie Club: Wilf White and Chuck Cook. The four met up again soon after on the Manchester side of the Peak, White walking across Kinder Scout to get there on the first visit. In 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 Light’s Crack (HVS 5a). Though he climbed all sorts of routes, he 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 the inevitable return visit to the Sheffield side of the Peak soon followed and they were introduced to the club’s particular favourites – Froggatt and Curbar Edges (The Valkyrie was to add over a hundred routes to Froggatt and Curbar). In the next three years, mainly on these edges, but also at the Roaches and other crags, Joe bagged first ascents of many of the best lines on Peak gritstone. Even an 18 month period of National Service in the middle didn’t slow things down much: after an initial few months with no leave he was soon hitting the Peak on weekend passes. Valkyrie (HVS 5a) and Right Unconquerable (HVS 5a) were climbed on such visits in the spring of 1949. In some cases (such as the latter) the routes had been top-roped before and even given names, but nobody had had the necessary sangfroid to lead them. A posting to Singapore, however, did create a short hiatus: the Peak was a bit too far to visit for the weekend!
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 50s 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) and 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 50s 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 realised 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, Joe was going to fall off!
The ‘taking turns’ seems to have been a feature of Joe and Don climbing together; others climbing with Joe may have been happy mostly just to follow, Don was not. It happened again on Quietus and on The Rasp (E2 5b) at Higgar Tor. Concerning the latter, 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 possibility of 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 it 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 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 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 around 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 a 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 top-rope if you do that”
The use of 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’s Gritstone Three Star List
Teck Crack (HVS 5b)
Matinee (HVS 5a, 5b)
The Mincer (HVS 5b)
Saul’s Crack (HVS 5a)
Delstree (HVS 5a)
Hen Cloud Eliminate (HVS 5b)
Ramshaw Crack (E4 6a)
Hanging Crack (E2 5b)
Coffin Crack (VS 4c)
Freddie’s Finale (HVS 5b)
The Trident HVS 5a)
The Dangler (E2 5c)
BAW’s Crawl (HVS 5a)
The Right Unconquerable (HVS 5a)
Count’s Buttress (E2 5c)
Quietus (E2 5c)
Terrazza Crack (HVS 5b)
The Rasp (E2 5b)
Sunset Slab (HVS 4b)
Hawk’s Nest Crack (VS 4c)
Cave Crack (E2 5c)
Tody’s Wall (HVS 5a)
Three Pebble Slab (E1 5a)
Valkyrie (HVS 5a, 5a)
Great Slab (E3 5b)
Brown’s Eliminate (E2 5b)
Sorrell’s Sorrow (HVS 5a)
Elder Crack (E2 5b)
L’Horla (E1 5b)
The Peapod (HVS 5b)
Right Eliminate (E3 5b)
Emerald Crack (E3 6a)