On April 15, the legendary British climber Joe Brown passed away in his home at the age of 89. Brown was at the cutting edge of rock climbing and mountaineering in the 1950s and 1960s, not only for his ascents, but for his vision, technique, and gear. Brown put up countless first ascents in the United Kingdom, including classics such as Cemetary Gates, Cenotaph Corner, The Unconquerables, Valkyrie, Elder Crack, and Great Slab, to name a few. He was also on the first ascent of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak.
Brown came from humble means, a stark contrast to the long history of aristocratic English mountaineers. He was born in 1930, the youngest of seven children. Brown's father died from complications related to a workplace accident when he was just eight months old. The Great Depression hit the family hard; their mother worked as a cleaner to support the brood of children. During World War II, German airstrikes decimated the Browns’ home in Manchester.
In his youth, Brown was drawn to the outdoors. He would camp and hike on the outskirts of the city, and took up climbing as a teenager in the Peak District, taking naturally to gritstone. In 1951, he met Don Whillans while climbing at the Roaches in the Peak District. They became longtime partners, putting up countless first ascents together in the UK, as well as a number of ascents in the Alps. Having made a name for himself as a strong and reliable climber, Brown was recruited by Charles Evans in 1955 to join an expedition to climb Kanchenjunga—at 28,169 feet tall, Kanchenjunga is the third highest mountain on Earth. Joe Brown and George Band reached the Himalayan summit on May 25, 1955.
Brown was a plumber’s apprentice in the 1950s and reportedly a “jack-of-all-trades.” This handy nature of his could explain his contributions to the world of climbing gear: he was one of the first climbers to use nuts as a means of protection. He would buy nuts (like “nuts and bolts”) from a hardware store, bore out the threads, and use them as chockstones. Brown opened a climbing shop in Snowdonia, the northwest region of Wales, in 1966 where he manufactured and sold climbing equipment. His shop has since expanded to three locations with an online presence. Brown is survived by his wife, Valerie, and two daughters, Helen and Zoe.
Video: Watch Joe Brown and partner Don Whillans climbing in 1985: