In his Hard Rock essay on Extol, Chris Bonington quips that the route is much like its first ascensionist: Don Whillans, "direct, uncompromising, and hard". Now I wouldn't suggest that every route mirrors the personality traits of those who climb it first. However, certain climbers do seem to have a particular style: Ed Drummond's futuristic, yet often flawed creations, or the bold, gymnastic direttissimas of Johnny Dawes.
In this new series, I'll profile five significant first ascensionists whose routes represent some of the finest throughout the UK and Ireland. Each of these individuals appear to have imbued something of their own character within their routes, something that makes them stand out due to their distinct style. I'll also be asking six climbers to share their experiences on their favourite route.
First up: Joe Brown.
Before continuing it is worth highlighting that this series was conceived before the passing of Joe Brown and we did consider whether or not to proceed in light of this. However, given the strength of feeling that climbers have both for Joe and his routes, we thought it would be a fitting celebration and a suitable place to start, because lest we forget - Joe Brown is The Master.
When it comes to character Joe's routes are something unique. Whereas Whillan's routes can often be overcome through brute strength and thuggishness, Joe's require a little more lateral thinking. Cunning is a key skill if you are to overcome the obstacle. Another characteristic to a 'Brown' route is their consistent quality and it's very rare that his routes receive anything below three stars. Each follow a line - potentially even 'the line' - and most tackle what could be considered to be the main event of the crag. Cenotaph Corner is one of the most celebrated examples, but almost all his routes follow suit with regards to their quality, strength of line, and truly unforgettable nature.
Born in Manchester in 1930. He took up climbing in his youth, apocryphally using his mother's washing line in place of a climbing rope on early leads. Brown trained as a builder, and was a founding member of the Rock and Ice Club - a group of working class climbers from the North of England that included many of the leading climbers of the day in the 1950s and 60s.
Like many, his climbing career started on Peak Gritstone. Joe's first climb was Kinder Downfall. He became curious about where the water was blowing into the air underneath him from, so went down to investigate. One thing led to another and soon he was making first ascents across the Peak. Open any Gritstone guidebook on a random page and it will be unusual not to find a 'Brown' route. Most tackle the difficulties direct, often following cracks and still to this day are hard - especially if you can't hand jam.
It's the same in North Wales: early climbs included Cemetery Gates and Cenotaph Corner, then there are the likes of Vector and The Grasper, loads of routes at Cloggy and what feels like half of the routes at Gogarth, many of which still feel hard and serious today - goodness knows what they felt like with just slings and pegs for protection.
Joe Brown was also an accomplished alpinist and made many impressive ascents in the Alps and the Himalaya, including the West Face of the Dru and Muztagh Tower. Together with George Band he made the first ascent of Kanchenjunga in 1955, becoming the only Britons to make the first ascent of an eight-thousand-metre peak.
Joe Brown moved to North Wales in 1966, when he and his wife Val set up their eponymous climbing shop. He continued climbing and exploring around the world until his early eighties. He died aged 89 in April 2020.
Paul Casey - co-owner of Joe Brown shops
Joe's Right Unconquerable on Stanage has to be my favourite of his trademark routes. It's a benchmark in any HVS leader's ticklist.
I'd first climbed the route as a second a few years before on a Wild Country training weekend run by Andy Bowman and Steve Foster. I was only leading VS at the time, but with the encouragement and pointers on footwork from their sponsored athlete - Ron Fawcett - I started trying harder routes and to my delight, seconded Right Unconquerable. It was the hardest thing I'd ever climbed and while I didn't fall off, I was so pumped at the top I couldn't even shake the belayer's hand.
Two years later and after a lot more climbing, I returned to lead the route. It was a fantastic blue sky day, bone dry, great friction and with a fantastic group of friends from The Outdoor Shop where I was Manager at the time. It felt amazing, being fitter and stronger I was able to enjoy the climb and appreciate the boldness it had taken to lead in the days before modern protection.
For me, Right Unconquerable became the pivotal point in my climbing career and as after climbing any of the great man's routes, it left me with a warm glow and lasting admiration for him.
Pete Whittaker - one half of the Wideboyz (and crack climber extraordinaire)
I've decided to narrow my Brown routes down to the gritstone, as it's my home area.
Picking a favourite was tricky so I've picked two which differ massively in style, and show just how diverse and technical Joe Brown's climbing was for his day. So, here we go, in no particular order.
Ramshaw Crack at (would you believe it) Ramshaw. A burly gritstone E4, and if you can't jam its a non-starter because it's too steep to crimp or layback (cheat) your way around. If you're quick you can do it in about 4 moves (each move giving you an extra E point). But if you're slow and continuously switch hands, switch sides, and go back and forth, you can land yourself in a whole world of pain. If you're feeling confident and like a hero, go tapeless, tops off for power and try not to get a single graze or abrasion on your fist or right shoulder. That'll get your jamming technique up to scratch.
A total contrast to the above, but just as good, is Great Slab at Froggatt. It's easy, until one delicate step right. I've climbed this many times, and each time I get to the crux i'm either surprised at how easy, or how tricky it feels. Sometimes it feels like a path, and sometimes it really gets me thinking. It's all about friction, trusting those feet and having the confidence. Whatever you do don't stall halfway through the crux, or you'll end up in a right pickle.
Nick Bullock - former prison officer, award winning writer and lover of loose rock
The Sind, E3
Tom asked for a single Joe Brown route? A favourite… impossible! So, I sat and thought about how to reduce this impossible into almost possible. Look at one area, one crag? I thought. OK, easy! Or not… But in the end, it had to be Gogarth, (of course) though my task still felt almost impossible: Volcano, Wandering Wall, Primate, Mousetrap, Left Hand Red Wall, Wendigo, Red Wall, Perygl, The Sind, King of the Swingers – some absolute classics, some less well known, but all brilliant.
I slept on it, and the following morning, for personal and snobbish reasons, reduced my list to three: Left Hand Red Wall, Wendigo and The Sind. Then two; Wendigo on Red Wall – obvious, long, direct, out there, physical, and all with the sea smashing into the zawn directly below. The Sind on Yellow Wall – two pitches of contrasting style; hidden, run-out-crawling, soft, sandy, technical. But there can be only one (for the Highlander fans!), and in the end, The Sind took it.
I've climbed The Sind several times, and on each occasion, Joe's skill and imagination has shone through, but (in a respectful way) also his devil.
The top, crux pitch, a perfect overhanging V of imperfection, was the first pitch I ever climbed at Gogarth. I still have vivid memories of that calm and warm sunny day. Adam Cooper and I were OK climbers… I think... We had climbed a whole host of clean, solid, "standard" extremes, including a few E5s, so The Moon on Yellow Wall, a three-star classic, was within our abilities. We decided where to abseil, and down we went, but after pulling the ropes and much scratching of heads, to our horror, we discovered we had abseiled into the wrong place.
"OK, no worries, I'll climb whatever this is above us, it's a slab, looks about VS." I said. Adam didn't argue but I noticed he was tightening the rope between himself and the block he had passed a bight of rope around.
As soon as I pulled through the overhanging start, teetering on the sandy slab, I realised my mistake: already the VS grade had gone west, much the same as the seagulls that had taken off with our arrival. I imagined the same gulls would soon be picking at my bones as I lay smashed on the rocks poking from the sea. But we had to get out, so, with ominous feelings, I continued. The roof of the groove was soft white clay with protruding fins of quartz. "What the hell is this?" I was constricted by the roof, legs suddenly too long. I wanted to move right and climb the slab, but the slab was dirty and sandy and unnerving. The crack, between roof and slab, would take big cams for protection, or so I thought, but it turned out to be clay. Brushing away spider webs, I laybacked the dank clay, not seeing the good nut placements I now know exist in the slab at my feet, and not placing cams because I felt it to be pointless. Laybacking – not trusting my feet, not trusting my handholds, I got pumped, but didn't want to stop. So, I kept going, running it out, slipping, grovelling, sweating, swearing. Eventually, wild eyed, dirty and distraught, I pulled out from the groove, and scraped around looking for some form of solid to build a belay.
I didn't climb at Gogarth for years after this experience, but routes like The Sind, Wendigo, Mousetrap, Left Hand Red Wall have now become loved. In my increasing years, these routes give my life waypoints, they remind me of other times, really great times. They remind me of friends, and they remind me of Joe, a man I have never met, but a man who has influenced and enhanced my life for what feels like most of my life.
Sophie Whyte - Sheffield based mathematician and climber
Masochism, HVS or E1 depending on where you look - E7 or E8 depending on who you ask
I climbed a lot of Joe Brown routes before learning to hand jam. Amazing routes in Wales like Vember, Cenotaph Corner, Octo, Dinosaur and Winking Crack, all succumbed to laybacking and crimping. Even great gritstone crack routes, like Avalanche Wall, the Mincer, the Peapod and the Rasp, I somehow managed to ascend without ever applying a single jam.
Then, in Spring 2014, my friend Lindy persuaded me to team up with her for the Staffordshire Nose Challenge, which involves climbing 31 Brown/Whillans routes in a day across Ramshaw, the Roaches and Hen Cloud. Our preparations for the challenge brought me to the route Masochism, at Ramshaw Rocks, and there my hand-jamming learning curve was forced up a notch.
After several laps on The Crank, a friendly little crack, we moved onto Masochism, graded HVS, but described in the guidebook as "obviously undergraded but what the hell, it's traditional!".
Masochism is a short route of two halves. The first 4 metres climbs an overhanging diagonal crack that starts at hand jamming width (for our hands!) then gradually widens to fist jamming width (for someone bigger's hands…). If this is accomplished you then heave yourself onto a big ledge to survey and psyche up for the second half. The second part of the route maintains interest and involves following the crack through a bulge requiring (for us) a stacked hand jam and some leg wedging fun.
Initial attempts were painful and unsuccessful. This was certainly not a crack that you could layback or crimp, and although I felt like I had got the hang of the hand jam on vertical terrain, the steepness of the crack highlighted the weaknesses in my techniques. Learning involved a fair amount more failure in combination with persistence, struggling and beta from Lindy. The effort paid off though and the following visit, with more confidence, conviction and taped hands, I managed to get up it. Although it still seemed really bloody hard, even when fresh and knowing what to do!
That summer, after a lot more preparation and learning, Lindy and I completed the Staffordshire Nose Challenge, including of course another ascent of the delight that is Masochism. Masochism sticks in my memory because it is a test piece and, in addition to being painful, failing on test pieces illuminates your weaknesses and helps (forces!) you to learn. After all, perhaps, you aren't supposed to enjoy a route with a name like Masochism? Joe Brown gave it that name and he was good at the style! However, once I had learned what Masochism had to teach me, I had a wonderful time romping up classics such as Matinee, Hen Cloud Eliminate, and many more, with my new found jamming skills.
More recent repeat ascents of Welsh classics have brought to light that there is a very useful hand jam after the crux of Cenotaph Corner, and that it is actually quite fun to climb Winking Crack as an offwidth, rather than as a layback! I'm grateful to Joe Brown and his local classic test pieces for opening up these pleasures to me, and for equipping me with the skills essential for bigger jamming adventures, in wilder places.
James Turnbull - mad keen climber and director of Outside in Hathersage
The Rasp, E2
What's my favourite Joe Brown route? Well that's a tricky one. There are so many mega classics. I'd like to choose something out of the ordinary. One with a long walk in, rarely repeated, to make me sound adventurous. Definitely not on grit, that's so predictable. However, after thinking about it, The Rasp is my favourite Joe Brown route.
Higgar Tor; short and hard, but also safe and helpful. A bit like Joe himself. I see it every day on my drive home from work. Many a happy day and night have been spent climbing and falling on this wonderful crag.
The Rasp is the obvious line to follow if you want to take on the challenge of the front of the block. Huge jugs, perfect jams, solid gear, great funky rests, and not a small hold in sight. So why the reputation of "hard E2"? It overhangs. Not a roof like Quietus, but the whole route and whole block overhangs, hence the name. A bit like a sport route, but it couldn't be more trad if it tried. Layback the start, and before you know it you're high up, and wishing you'd put a runner in sooner! Now you're hunting for that knee-bar you've heard so much about. More jugs and you're on jams staring at the crux. Move with confidence on a low gravity day and you will float like a butterfly; falter and The Rasp will sting like a bee!
If you make it through the crux, a couple of steep pulls see you at the cave. It looks like a rest but how to use it? Stick your head in and you can take your hands off for a shake-out. There is now less than two metres to the summit, but you're a long way from glory. Above is the desperate 6a mantel of the direct finish. Thankfully Joe was too smart for that, instead scamper right to the niche. It looks simple but it's not.
Just think of Joe Brown, no harness, no cams, no chalk, no rock boots. Just no fear and an eye for a line.
James McHaffie - Britain's best rock climber
I think I'll go for Vector. I did this on my first trip to Wales with my friend Wez. We'd done the Plum the night we arrived. Vector was next. This was a big lead for us at the time. It's sustained, exposed and absorbing, with the crux right at the end, way out of sight of your belayer. It would have been a really intimidating lead in 1960 when Joe and Claude Davies did the first ascent. I used to solo it quite a bit when I first moved to Wales, and it was on my 100 list for the Welsh solos, as were many of Joe's routes.
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