Joseph Brown CBE (26 September 1930 – 15 April 2020) was an outstanding pioneer of rock climbing during the 1950s and early 1960s. Along with his early climbing partner, Don Whillans, he was one of a new breed of British post-war climbers who came from working class backgrounds in contrast to the upper and middle class professionals who had dominated the sport up to the Second World War. Brown died on 15 April 2020 at the age of 89.
He made history by scaling Kanchenjunga’s south-west face, one of the most difficult peaks, and the third highest mountain in the world (Charles Evans’ expedition; George Band was his partner) and then made the first ascent of the west summit of the Muztagh Tower in the Karakoram with Ian McNaught Davis. However, he was best known for establishing new and difficult routes in England’s Peak District and Snowdonia. The following articles detail some of these climbs.
As the owner of a series of equipment shops, he contributed to new types of climbing protection by creating some of the first ‘nuts’(chockstones) by drilling out the thread of the nuts and putting a sling through the centre.
Joe continued to climb until well into his sixties, during which he participated in an expedition to Everest.
He was a legend and inspiration and mentor to many and so, to honour this legend, we present two articles that talk about Joe Brown and the culture of climbing in his heyday.
(References- The Guardian and Wikipedia)
Joe Brown on the first ascent of Right Unconquerable on Stanage Edge in 1949. One of the boldest rock climbs in in the world in its day (Ernie Phillips)
The memory of watching him that day has stayed with me ever since and I used to wind him up about how marvellous he had been on that day which made him laugh as he always knew what was coming next once I said the name Høibakk.
My most lasting memory of Joe Brown was when he disappeared. It was 1969; we were trying a new route on the face to the right of the Trolltind Wall in Romsdal, Norway. There was a huge flake on the upper part of the face to where we were heading but time ran out. We had made a long traverse right and rather than reversing this, we set off abseiling straight down into the unknown, which is never a good idea, but I did as I was told. I was a 22-year old boy and Joe was some 16 years older with skill and experience beyond my comprehension and he was my hero. He was everybody’s hero. Then he disappeared. I looked down the pitch he had just abseiled and he had gone. Had he abseiled off the end of the rope? Then, as I stared, baffled and not sure, his head popped out from the rock. He told me to come down and then disappeared again. When I got to him there was a small bush growing out from the crag and behind that a hole, the same shape as an egg cut length ways. Its curved bottom was covered in dry foliage which made a comfy mattress and the bush acted as a door. It was the best bivouac ever and we had a sleep whilst the half-darkness of a Norwegian summer lifted to a new dawn. Later we sat in the railway café where we were told that some Americans had landed on the moon.
Joe Brown (left) with his great climbing partner of the 1950s, Don Whillans (Ken Wilson)
Three years earlier: 1966 was an eventful year, The Beatles were in full flow, the Ford Cortina Mk2 was launched and there was a bit of a fuss over football but the best thing that happened was that Joe Brown opened a shop in Llanberis; well, his wife Val did as she was the force that ran it and luckily for Joe, Gogarth had just exploded into new route activity which gave him something to do. I always teased him that his autobiography should have been called The Hard Year because after grafting for a few months to get the shop into shape he just went climbing. If he was alive now, he would argue till the cows came home that this wasn’t true but it was. Joe loved arguing and was always right and it was a bit of him that was so endearing.
Early in 1966, I was told about Gogarth. We all knew that there was a secret cliff but not where. Now we knew and in early May I did a complete route there called Suede Wall with Chris Jackson which took the crux pitch of what would be absorbed into Rat Race. It was bold and the first route up the main cliff between Pentathol and Gogarth. Pete Crew was the hot name in British climbing at the time, a status earned whilst Joe had been having a quiet time instructing at White Hall in the Peak District between 62 and 66. That same day as Suede Wall, Crew got wind of it and approached me in Wendy’s Café. He recruited me there and then, a 19-year old lad and, as he was working in Sheffield at the time, we got together mid-week and climbed in the Peak District. Two weeks later we did the first ascent of Cordon Bleu and a week later The Girdle Traverse of the Main Cliff. I was suddenly launched into the top echelons of the British climbing scene—which was fun, believe me.
So, top gunslinger, Joe Brown, rides into town where new gun Pete Crew is top dog. Pete was a great and charismatic character and had already been featured in something like The Sunday Times magazine as the top climber of his day and I can only imagine what he was thinking then; possibly a mixture of apprehension and excitement at the same time. It was only a matter of time before they would face one another outside the saloon. Meanwhile, Joe had found his way to Gogarth and at Easter 66 made the first of numerous memorable climbs at Gogarth with Television Route on Red Wall. A few months later, accompanied by that God-to-be Martin Boysen, Joe made the first ascent of Wen a 350 ft three-pitch direct line up Wen Slab which is quite demanding for its HVS grade. Indeed, everything on Gogarth was psychologically demanding. Joe added some more new routes there and eventually in June he finally teamed up with Crew when they made the first ascent of Dinosaur, an imposing line up the main cliff some 350 ft of Extremely Severe; on-sight, no bolts, no practising and the mild steel pegs available then would not easily go into the quartzite rock. This was an historic period of new routeing in great style at a very high standard, almost unprecedented in its day. We all knew about Joe and Pete climbing together that day and the buzz in the Padarn that night was electric comparable only to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on stage together; Joe was back in town. The Padarn Lake Hotel in Llanberis became the centre of the universe on Saturday nights and an unprecedented haunt of who’s who on rock. Whilst I got to know Joe socially there it wasn’t until February 67 that I was finally tied on to the same rope as God when I joined him and Pete to do the first ascent of Ormuzd in the Easter Island Gully area of Gogarth, a mere 100 ft route with an imposing overhang near the top. The route takes cracks and chimney to where it widens to a cave-like size and from there the wide chimney crack goes horizontally straight out. Joe bridged out of this wide chimney to a large natural thread in the roof round which he threw a sling which he used for aid to reach the lip of the roof, then a pull over led to a short steep wall and the top. It was a fun route.
I had other adventures with Joe on Gogarth. Between South Stack and the Main Crag there is a low isolated buttress to which Joe took me. He rather schoolboyishly started trundling huge boulders down the slope and led me astray. Like many climbers he never quite grew up. We climbed the most obvious line on the buttress and I still don’t know if it ever got recorded.
On another occasion I was in the distinguished company of Joe, Pete and Baz Ingle on Castell Helen on what would become Kalahari, 240 ft XS. The first two pitches had been climbed before by Joe and Pete but they had not done the headwall. The first two pitches consisted of ordinary approach climbing to the headwall which reared up plumb vertical. Pete had a go and cricked his back, retreated and abseiled off. Then Joe had a go and came down with cramp in his arms, something which amazed me, especially when he said he’d never had cramp before. So, I was sat there like a puppy expecting Baz to take it up but they looked at me and said: “Time for a little ’un” and at that I set off, a little daunted by taking over from two legends, and launched upwards. At one point, I thought there was a loose flake in the crack and lurched up for it and ripped it out which left me a sidepull to continue. Afterwards, Joe said that he thought I was about to come off. All I had was the one peg runner which Pete had placed, and it wasn’t somewhere to place the kind of nuts we had then, so I just legged it for the top. It was an unbelievable moment for me. Whilst I belayed Joe and Baz up, Pete strolled over and clipped me round the ear with a gruff compliment which meant a lot.
I had one more adventure with Joe when we tried what would become Sind on Yellow Wall. We were at the foot of the final pitch, a big rightwards slanting groove and again Pete came down off this pitch and abseiled off leaving just me and Joe. He had a go but the winter daylight was closing fast and we decided to head for safety by abseiling to the base of the crag, then traversing right to a big leftward sloping ramp which we scurried up as it was going dark. Eventually we arrived at a headwall about where the route Pterodactyl goes. Pete and Dave Alcock, among others, were on top which is just below the car park and they threw a rope down to us in the pitch black and literally man-hauled us up the face; which was more fun.
Joe Brown at the top camp on Muztagh Tower before the summit day
After that I mainly climbed with others at Gogarth whilst Joe went on to do a huge number of new routes, possibly more than any other single climber and that was after he was supposed to be past his best. I did a few other climbs with Joe in North Wales, on one occasion the pleasant VS One Step in the Clouds on Bwlch y Moch, Tremadog with Joe Brown and Joe Brown, which must be fairly unique; the other one was Joe’s nephew with the same name. On another occasion I was with Joe and another legendary figure from the 1950s Rock and Ice, Joe ‘Morty’ Smith. We just went up to Craig y Rhaeadr in Llanberis Pass and did one of the classics there. Looking back, this time of my life was all like a dream which anybody who loves climbing will understand.
Joe Brown on the summit Muztagh Tower after the first ascent in 1956
Joe had made several sorties to Norway with Tom Patey in the 1960s and was enamoured with the place which, to be fair, is overflowing with rock. Unfortunately, it is also overflowing with rain. In 1969 I had planned to go to the Alps but one day, Joe asked me if I fancied going to Norway with him. You bet I did. I changed my plans, he arrived at my parents’ terraced house in Sheffield and he slept on the sofa and the next morning we were off in his rather fancy Volvo to catch the ferry to Oslo. Frank Davies, of Lake District shops fame, also flew out to join us and together along with Nigel Helliwell, another Brit, we did an easy warm-up route on the Romsdalhorn. There is a drystone shack at the top with no door or windows but inside was a tin box in which there was an old record book which we all signed. Then, only last year, I was in touch with Fred Husøy who deals with publicity in Romsdal and out of the blue he sent me a copy of that signed page from the museum in Romsdal, 50 years after the event. After that, Frank went home and it rained almost non-stop for a month. We mostly pinched what we could and as it only went darkish for a couple of hours, we could set off any time. We did a very fast ascent of the Fiva Route, again with Nigel, which is some 9000 ft long in nine hours. The spectacular, largely slabby route goes up to the right of the highest rock face in Europe, the Trolltind Wall, so all day we had the pleasure of being alongside that.
Joe and I also climbed the unclimbed Høibakk’s Chimney on Sondre Trolltind. It was a most memorable day for me as I watched him set off up this off-width wet crack for 60 or 80 ft with not one runner. It was the living-end and reminiscent of the Fissure Brown on the Aiguille de Blaitière on Mont Blanc. The memory of watching him that day has stayed with me ever since and I used to wind him up about how marvellous he had been on that day which made him laugh as he always knew what was coming next once I said the name Høibakk.
That was about it for climbing new routes with Joe though his daughter Helen came to live in Sheffield close to me and so I had various sorties out on Derbyshire grit with him. He never stopped doing new routes for decades to come exploring places such as the Costa Blanca and Morocco where he climbed numerous first ascents. A few years back he had given up climbing largely because he found it so increasingly hard to get to the foot of the crag though once there, he said he could climb fine.
And so, these last few years we chatted on the phone every couple of weeks which he always had on loudspeaker so that his wife Val or daughters, Zoe or Helen, could interrupt in the background which they did. I always started off by saying: “Hello, is that the famous Joe Brown?” and he always said “Yeah” and laughed in his imitable way which was a slow ‘Ha ha ha.’ Thanks Joe, for everything. It was a privilege to know you.
A tribute to Joe Brown by his friend and renowned climber Geoff Birtles.
The photos are from the Joe Brown collection courtesy Geoff Birtle and Chris Harle, Curator of the collection.
Geoff Birtles has been a climber since 1961. He climbed all over the world and was extensively involved in new climbs in the UK. He founded and edited Crags Magazine and High Magazine for nearly 30 years and published various climbing guidebooks and compiled and edited the biography ‘Alan Rouse: A Mountaineer’s life’.
Pete Crew on Vector
The 1960s was arguably the coolest decade ever. ‘If you can remember it, you weren’t there.’ The UK reeled under the concurrent influences of sex, drugs and rock & roll. Out on the crags, the bravest of the brave were making climbing history. This is their story.
In 1960 Joe Brown turned 30. For almost half his lifetime he had been the predominant British rock climber. Only Whillans had challenged his supremacy. The first ascent of Kangchenjunga in 1955 had secured his acceptance by the establishment. Conversely it had given Whillans yet another chip on his shoulder. Their famous partnership was no more. Whillans aside, by 1960 Brown knew that other, stronger climbers were starting to come through. But the hard years weren’t yet over. In fact the best was still to come.
In the long hot summer of 1959, Cloggy came into condition for weeks on end. Jack Soper and Dave Gregory formed one team among many, securing early repeats of then feared Brown routes. The mantle of invincibility was slipping. Bonington recalled having been spooked by Cenotaph Corner’s intimidating aspect but then realizing that, once you actually embarked on it, the crack bristled with holds and hand jams. A teenage Martin Boysen casually remarked to Nea Morin, “It’s OK - you can get a runner every 10 feet.”
It seemed that the pack might be catching up with the master. There were also a few ominous portents of things to come. Hugh Banner made the first ascents of The Hand Traverse and Troach. The Hand Traverse takes a stunning line above a vastness of space, while Troach demonstrated that Cloggy walls were not quite as devoid of holds as might be imagined. Look up and Troach seems blank. Look down and it’s a ladder of jugs and little ledges.
Further along the crag, Boysen relatively easily seconded Brown on the first ascent of Woubits Left Hand, musing whether the top peg was really needed. Many years later, Banner would reflect that climbing was about ‘jousting for crowns’. Brown must have realized that Boysen – more than a decade younger – was a likely contender for his crown.
Brown on Anglesey
Brown’s riposte was inspired. In March 1960 he made the first ascent of Vector. If Cenotaph Corner and Cemetery Gates had looked unlikely in the early 1950s, in 1960 Vector must have seemed utterly ridiculous. As Bonington noted, after watching him on Tramgo, Brown had far more than superb technical ability. He also had the boldness to go where no one else dared. He was a master at hanging on in highly dangerous situations and patiently inserting pebbles for protection. He could break down the most demanding unclimbed lines into sections and painstakingly piece them together.
As with Cenotaph Corner, Vector is a masterpiece. But whereas, with Cenotaph, the line is painfully obvious, with Vector it’s anything but obvious. Vector is three-dimensional and multi-directional. It vectors all over the place, constantly probing for the line of least resistance. It’s perfectly named (courtesy of Claude Davies, who had been studying vectors for an exam). Vector seems quintessentially 1960s: an utterly stylish name, for an utterly stylish route, in arguably the most stylish decade in history. It’s almost unimaginable that it could have been climbed in the 1950s. And yet the first ascent occurred a mere three months into the new decade.
Brown had thrown down the gauntlet. Any serious contender would have to repeat Vector. One by one, they came. Whillans repeated it. Crew repeated it. A young lad named Barry Brewster repeated it allegedly in big boots. Many aspirants fell from the top crack. On the first ascent, Brown had uncovered a jug, then craftily replaced a sod of grass over it, to obscure it. Gamesmanship personified! Even today, with the sod of grass long gone, arms can tire, as you hang on just below, not knowing how close that comforting jug is.
The 1950s Brown-Whillans hegemony had given test pieces such as Quietus, Rasp, Erosion Groove Direct and The Thing. As with Vector, all these routes are E2. But to think of them in terms of climbing E2 today is to miss the point utterly. Pre-cams, pre-wires, what was your protection? A sling over a spike? Not many of those around! A pebble threaded, a la Brown? No certification and not so many kilonewtons I’m guessing. How good would it be if you took a 30 foot lob onto it? In 1964 Dave Sales fell off Quietus; both runners ripped and tragically he died.
In the beautifully evocative autobiography ‘Rope Boy’, Dennis Gray mentions a climber using garage nuts for runners on Brant Direct, I think, in the early 1960s. The poor guy was derided as ‘Whitworth’ and laughed off the crag. If you climbed VS, then the hallmark of a skilled climber, you took your life in your hands (hardly any runners). If you climbed Severe or V Diff, or even Diff, you still took your life in your hands (hardly any runners). Most routes were death routes. Above all else, a leader had to be steady. Once people left their carefree youth, married, had families, it became increasingly difficult to muster the commitment for hard climbing.
Vector became the gold standard for hard climbing. But there were outliers (there are always outliers). From Whillans came Goliath, Sentinel Crack, Forked Lightning Crack and Carnivore Direct. From Allan Austin came High Street, Western Front and the futuristic Wall of Horrors. Sure, Austin used combined tactics on the boulder problem start of the latter. But going past the second crux, the horizontal break, solo, must have required a huge level of commitment.
For sheer physicality came another outlier, curiously one which would remain well-nigh disregarded for more than half a century. In 1962 Colin Goodey pegged a groove at Tremadog which seemed far too hard otherwise. However, with the pegs in place, Barry Brewster led the pitch free. Today Vulcan is regarded as a hard E4. With some of the holds probably obscured by pitons, heaven alone knew how hard it was for Brewster’s ascent. F7a would be one guess. It can’t have been much easier and it may well have been even harder. At least it would have been relatively safe.
In 1960 a teenage Pete Crew announced himself to the climbing world by falling off The Mincer and landing almost literally in the arms of the newly formed Alpha club. Barely had his feet touched the ground than he was proclaiming to all and sundry that his mission was to burn off Brown. Predictably this went down like the proverbial lead balloon. In the words of Al Parker, “We liked Joe...” While the Alpha males may have viewed themselves as successors to the Rock and Ice, there was still a line to be drawn.
With Vector, Brown had gone onto a seemingly unclimbable crag and succeeded. He did exactly the same on Carreg Hyll Drem (the ugly crag), with the superbly named Hardd (beautiful). He did exactly the same (Tramgo) at Castell Cidwm, an inspired discovery by Claude Davies. And he would go on to do exactly the same at Gogarth, with routes such as Mousetrap, Red Wall, Rat Race and Dinosaur.
In the early 1960s Brown made a series of attempts on the tentatively entitled ‘Master’s Wall’ on Cloggy. Who came up with the name, I wonder – some wag in the pub or maybe an aspirant? For more than a decade, Cloggy had pretty much been Brown’s personal fiefdom. Now, for the first time, he faced serious competition from a host of climbers such as Hugh Banner, Martin Boysen, Barry Brewster, Ian Cameron, Frank Cannings, Pete Crew and Dave Yates.
Famously Crew beat Brown and everyone else to the first ascent – but only by gamesmanship. Brown parsimoniously allowed himself a maximum of two points of aid per pitch. Sure, you could peg your way up all manner of stuff but...was this a game worth playing? With two points of aid, you gave yourself some leeway – though only a little. And given that, back then, nearly all routes had ground-up first ascents, cleaning as you went, two points of aid weren’t such a lot.
The first ascents of Great Wall (1962) and The Boldest (1963) marked the apex of Crew’s climbing career. He peaked, very quickly indeed, barely into his twenties. Both routes utilized what some regarded as cheating tactics—a bolt, hand-placed on lead on The Boldest and several points of aid on Great Wall. Nevertheless both routes will always stand as iconic masterpieces. As with Vector, The Boldest, a direct line on The Boulder, was exquisitely named. With Great Wall, Crew could have stayed with the original name, Master’s Wall—but he didn’t. Maybe he felt uneasy about the extra aid, knowing that Brown could undoubtedly have done it in this style. Maybe he didn’t feel such a master after all. Maybe he felt unwilling to provoke Brown. Not two years previously he’d vowed to burn him off. And arguably he had. But sometimes victory is accompanied by pangs of regret.
Barry Brewster had harboured ambitions for the first ascent of Great Wall. As a consolation prize, he went for the first British ascent of the North Face of the Eiger. Hit by stone fall, his dying words to his companion were heartrending: “I’m sorry, Brian...” Bonington and Whillans risked appalling stone fall to reach Brian Nally; it must have been like going through the gates of hell. Ken Wilson always reckoned that both should have received the George Cross, the civilian equivalent of the VC, for outstanding courage.
In 1964 Craig Gogarth was discovered. Sea cliff climbing was still in its infancy. A handful of routes were done and unbelievably the crag was thought to be worked out. Once again the perils of ground-up exploration were all too evident. Today the route Gogarth is an amenable E1. But when Boysen led the top pitch on the first ascent, huge, disposable flakes abounded. It must have been terrifying.
In the same year, back in the Pass, Eric Jones and Rowland Edwards beavered away, reducing the aid on Left Wall over several weekends. In the end, Rowland soloed it. Working routes is normal today; back then, it wasn’t the done thing and Rowland never made any claims for his ascent. However it’s only fair that, however belatedly, he should be credited both with the first free ascent and the first solo of a route which is, for many people, among the finest in Britain. Both Eric Jones and Rowland Edwards would push themselves hard over the next five decades, having adventures that most of us can only dream about.
In the mid-1960s, John Cleare began taking a remarkable series of photographs of some of the leading activists of the day. The upshot was the superb ‘Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia’. Cleare’s photos have triumphantly stood the test of time. Black and white, superb composition, epiphanies of commitment. The star was a bespectacled figure in a white pullover. Although Pete Crew had passed his prime as a climber, he still enjoyed cult status.
Gogarth Crew had never quite forgotten about the place. He went back and was astounded at the range of possibilities. Gogarth became perhaps the greatest ever Crag X. The mountain crags of Snowdonia were increasingly being regarded as worked out. Maybe the future of Welsh climbing was by the sea?
Once the cat leaped out of the proverbial bag, development was fast and furious. Brown visited and, with his almost uncanny nose for undeveloped rock, found Wen Zawn. Several teams vied for the aptly named Rat Race. Famously Brown and Crew teamed up for the first ascent of the even more aptly named Dinosaur (Brown, apropos of Crew: “Long neck and no brains.”) The pair were on the crag for something like ten hours on a scorching day. Tottering blocks were prised off, hurtling into the sea. Finally deeply deserved success came to ‘probably the strongest team ever to set foot on rock in this country’, in the words of Ken Wilson. Sure, aid was used but going ground-up on such an intimidating and loose line was inspired. The technically much easier Mousetrap (an instant classic) must have been almost as nerve wracking.
Much as he was liked, Brown had reduced virtually all of his climbing partners to seconds (the sole exception is Whillans). And this is exactly what happened with Crew. The ‘old man’ became the boss. To Crew’s great credit, he pushed Brown into tape-recording what became his autobiography, ‘The Hard Years’.
It must have been galling for Crew. To the climbing public—and to the public generally—he had inherited Brown’s crown. In reality he knew that, even with the psychological masterpieces of Great Wall and The Boldest, his routes weren’t really any harder than those of the Brown-Whillans era. And by 1967 there was a vibrant new breed of even younger climbers such as Ed Drummond, Lawrie Holliwell and Tony Willmott. Holliwell made the fourth ascent of Great Wall, Drummond the fifth. Crew must have felt hopelessly trapped between generations.
The new aspirants came from different parts of the country. From 1965 onwards, the then Edwin Ward-Drummond pioneered a remarkable series of new routes in the Avon Gorge. At around the same time, the Cioch club, comprising people such as Geoff Birtles, Chris Jackson, Jack Street, Al Evans and Tom Proctor were developing Stoney Middleton. Going ground-up on limestone first ascents, clearing loose rock as you went made for bold, forceful climbers.
In 1968 Proctor and Birtles made the first ascent of Our Father, at Stoney. This was the first route comparable in physicality with Brewster’s Vulcan. But, unlike the pegged version of Vulcan, on Our Father protection is decidedly indifferent. With arguably F7a climbing in a highly committing situation, Our Father was almost certainly the hardest route in the country. For more than a decade afterwards, hopefuls would make the pilgrimage to Windy Ledge, to attempt it. Most found themselves back on the ground again within seconds.
It was unsurprising that places such as Sheffield and London would yield strong climbers. Less obvious was the seeming backwater of Exeter, which surprisingly boasted quite a few highly capable activists in the mid-1960s. A young Pat Littlejohn rapidly went from beginner to XS leader. Together with Pete Biven, Frank Cannings and Keith Derbyshire he went on to make adventurous explorations of many South-West sea cliffs. However it was Cannings who grabbed the biggest prize of the day with the outrageous Dreadnaught.
Back on Cloggy, yet more blankness beckoned. If Troach was possible and Great Wall was possible, then what about the space to the right of Great Wall? In 1967 the supremely bold Lancastrian climber Ray Evans made an inspired ground-up attempt on what in 1986 would become Britain’s first E9—Indian Face. Although Evans was understandably forced to retreat, I’m sure we can all applaud outstanding audacity. Similarly Evans attempted Right Wall ground-up, before Pete Livesey’s first ascent. On this occasion, he was forced back down again by his concerned second’s unwillingness to give him any more rope!
Boldness. If you wanted to climb hard in the 1960s, you simply had to be bold. You had to be steady. You couldn’t slump on a wire and shout, “Take!” One of Britain’s more unstable crags is Yorkshire’s Langcliffe quarry, poised above the council rubbish tip and conveniently adjacent to the local graveyard. In the foot and mouth epidemic of 1967, most crags were out of action and Langcliffe enjoyed a brief bout of popularity. A relatively unknown climber named Pete Livesey repeated the existing death routes and added another, even harder one, The Sickler. At the time, Pete was caught between the competing attractions of high-standard running (years earlier, he’d come cruelly close to a four minute mile), high-standard caving, high-standard kayaking and high-standard climbing. A few years later, when he focused his formidable energies on climbing, standards would rocket.
In 1968 a young Al Rouse began training on The Breck, a tiny, finger-shredding outcrop near Liverpool. A similarly aged John Syrett began training on a climbing wall in Leeds university. Tom Proctor was training on the walls of outbuildings in a Derbyshire farm. Lawrie and Les Holliwell were training on southern sandstone. Each would have been entirely unaware of what the others were doing. In each case, the training yielded remarkable results.
In the winter of 1967, Martin Boysen, Mick Burke, Pete Crew, Peter Gillman and Dougal Haston staged an expedition to Cerro Torre. Although unsuccessful, it was an attempt to bring hard, technical climbing to a super-Alpinist environment. As such, it was well ahead of its time.
The Cerro Torre expedition coincided with the birth of modern media in climbing. Until the late 1960s, most information (e.g. about new routes) had to be gleaned from journals put out by leading clubs such as the Climbers’ Club and the Fell and Rock. But suddenly there were not one but two vibrant climbing magazines. Rocksport catered for domestic rock climbing while Mountain took a worldwide view of both mountaineering and rock climbing. Mountain was edited by Crew’s friend, climbing photographer Ken Wilson. Quizzing Crew on his return to Britain, Wilson was bemused to learn how slowly an all-star team had moved on Cerro Torre, versus the supposed first ascentionists, Maestri and Egger. Unsurprisingly Maestri later received the full Wilson interrogation – a harrowing experience, as some of us can attest.
Crew on Zukator
Closer to home, scandal erupted in The Sunday Times with a well researched article by Peter Gillman. This alleged that a considerable number of new routes in Snowdonia were bogus. While nobody wanted to risk pushing the perpetrator over the edge, equally there was a duty to inform prospective ascentionists that these routes were almost certainly still unclimbed and the grades little more than guesswork. Televised spectaculars (e.g. The Old Man of Hoy) had brought climbing into the living rooms of the nation. Now we had climbing exposés as well.
At the end of the 1960s, there was a sense almost of ennui in the climbing world. It was well summed up in an article by court jester, Al Harris, in Rocksport. Were all the crags worked out? Was climbing in a cul de sac? One reaction was hard soloing. Both Cliff Phillips and Eric Jones excelled in soloing Extremes. (The then XS covered what’s now E1, E2 and E3. You took a chance on which it would turn out to be!) In the event, Richard McHardy made the coveted first solo ascent of Vector. Others, such as Ron Fawcett and Jim Perrin, would follow him. Earlier McHardy had demonstrated his expertize with a rapid first ascent of The Vikings on Great Gable – probably the hardest route in the Lakes.
Back in the early 1960s, poor old ‘Whitworth’, with his garage nuts, had been laughed off Brant Direct. But of course once a technological genie escapes from the proverbial bottle, you can never quite get it back in again. However crude by modern standards, garage nuts pre-threaded with nylon slings, could be placed with far less skill and a hell of a lot faster than Brown’s pebbles. The obvious next step was machine-made nuts for climbing. Many climbers came to love MOACS and baby MOACS. For the first time ever, good runners could be placed swiftly.
Training would have an effect (Syrett, Rouse, Proctor, the Holliwells). Protection was slowly getting better. Brought together, better protection and training would take climbing out of Harris’s cul de sac. But the time wasn’t quite ripe.
For my mind, the 1960s Vector generation was the boldest in all of British climbing history. Climbing first and early ascents of E2s, with a dodgy runner every thirty feet, was no mean feat. Often routes were littered with loose rock. Earlier hard routes had often been easier angled – so at least you could hang around, contemplate your fate and try to compose yourself. But some 1960s routes are pretty steep; back then, you really did have to go for it and failure might be painful, if not downright terminal. Although climbers in the 1970s climbed much harder, they generally had far better wire protection. And when the first cams became available in the late 1970s, many cracks became far more amenable.
In 1970 Brown turned 40. Although he would carry on exploring for nearly another four decades, for him the hardest years were over. He will always be widely respected as the greatest ever British climber. Whillans had a last blast of glory on Annapurna, then faced a protracted decline. Crew drifted away from climbing, discovered archaeology and poured all of his formidable intellect, energy and focus into it.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Boysen, with his amazing talent, had seemed set for climbing stardom. Near the beginning of the next decade, he went up to Suicide Wall and, with Dave Alcock, did several new routes in a weekend. Wilson’s verdict, “Go anywhere at Extreme,” was uncannily prophetic. Soon people would be going pretty much anywhere at Extreme.
In the early 1970s, Dave Cook broke the quasi-Masonic code of the dark Satanic mills with a celebrated Mountain article entitled, ‘The Sombre Face of Yorkshire Climbing.’ It ended with a tantalizing mention of itchy-fingered upstarts waiting in the wings, biding their time, with swathes of as yet unclimbed limestone about to come within their grasp.
Dave Cook couldn’t have been more right. But not all of the itchy-fingered upstarts would be content with merely changing the sombre face of Yorkshire climbing. Some had their sights set on much further horizons. Those itchy-fingered upstarts were indeed waiting in the wings, relentlessly training, knowing that their time was fast approaching. Soon not only British climbing but world climbing would be changed forever.
The 1960s according to Mick Ward were the boldest in all of British climbing history. Terming this the ‘Vector generation’ after the classic climb of Vector by Joe Brown, the article covers exciting times—of discovery of routes and the sheer pleasure of cracking them without the climbing and safety aid available to climbers now. In these years Joe Brown established himself as the greatest British climber with close competition from Don Whillans, Martin Boysen, Pete Crew and others of that generation. This was written before the great Joe Brown died but it is a tribute in every sense.
The photos are from the Joe Brown collection courtesy Geoff Birtle and Chris Harle, Curator of the collection.
Mick Ward was born in Ireland and started climbing in 1966 when he was 13. He’s been climbing ever since. Professionally he’s been a psychologist, a management consultant, a writer and a ghost writer. He’s made about 200 first ascents and has had over 50 climbing articles published.
The Himalayan Journal is grateful to UK Climbing for this article.
The 1960s was arguably the coolest decade ever. ‘If you can remember it, you weren’t there.’ The UK reeled under the concurrent influences of sex, drugs and rock & roll. Out on the crags, the bravest of the brave were making climbing history. This is their story.
In 1997, a group of Indian women mountaineers from varied spheres of life made a continuous push across 5000 km from Arunachal in the East to Karakoram in the West in 198 days. They crossed 68 passes. They walked across Bhutan, Nepal, Kumaon, Garhwal, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. In this special Volume, we present a slice of visual nostalgia from this journey.
Vineeta Muni is a commercial artist, avid painter and photographer. She has a collection of over 20,000 photographs taken in the Himalaya and Sahyadris.
Vineeta is an accomplished mountaineer and a trained instructor. She has participated in 26 expeditions to the Himalaya having climbed 17 peaks, 12 of them first ascents. She also guides groups to Manasarovar and Kailash, in Tibet.
She is one of the first women in the world to have trekked the entire length of the Himalaya in 1997. In 1998, she visited the longest Glacier in Asia—the Siachen and trekked 77 kms to the head of the glacier, reaching Indira Col, the northern most point of India. She continues to climb to new heights.
Rathong La, Rathong peak on the left, Sikkim
Frozen landscape across Tsela Pass, Arunachal
Sengor village, Bhutan
Arun River, Nepal
View of Unta dhura from Matli pass, Kumaon
Entire Valley of Flowers from high point on the way to Khunt khal, Garhwal
View from Bhaba Pass, Himachal