Chris Barber, Founding Chairperson of Gwent Mountaineering Club and Honorary Life Member has, on hearing of the death in April 2020 of the inspirational climber, Joe Brown, written this personal account of a memorable day spent with Joe, climbing on Clogwyn Du’r Arddu.
Like many of you I was saddened to hear on the BBC News one evening that Joe Brown had just passed away at the age of 89. I immediately started recalling a very special day that I had in June 1966, climbing with him on Clogwyn d’ur Arddu, which is of course affectionately known by climbers as Cloggy.
I had been rock climbing for about three years, having started, like many others on the Idwal Slabs at Ogwen and then progressed to some of the classic steeper routes in the Llanberis Pass. The idea of doing a route on Cloggy was a special dream but having walked up to it on one occasion, I felt very intimidated at the very sight of such a steep crag. In 1966, during a week’s holiday in Snowdonia, initially climbing with a friend, who after two days had to return home and go back to work, I walked and scrambled on my own for a day or so. Then I wandered into Joe Brown’s shop in Llanberis, which had not long opened. He was of course a legendary figure and to actually meet him was a great privilege. There he was behind the counter and I was able to chat with him, after making a purchase of course. During the conversation about local climbs I told him that it was my ambition to do a route on Cloggy one day. To my surprise, he then said, “Would you like to go there tomorrow and do one of the classic routes? He then explained that he needed a break from the shop and a chance to stretch his legs and because the weather had been dry for several weeks , the crag would be very dry for a change.
The next morning I arrived at his shop and expected that we would walk all the way up to Cloggy, but he said, “We can cut out the first part of the walk by driving up a steep and narrow lane to a point just before Hebron Station on the Snowdon Railway. This will save time and considerably reduce the amount of ascent. At that time I had a Morris 1000 convertible and by a remarkable coincidence Joe had a Morris 1000 van of the same vintage. He liked the idea of going in my convertible, with the roof down, taking in the fresh air, sunshine and views, and I felt really chuffed to be driving this famous climber up to his favourite playground. Joe told me where to stop and park and we then put on our boots , picked up our sacks and started walking. I even had my Joe Brown rucksack with me that he had designed, but I must admit a few years later I bought a Whillans sack which was a better design and more comfortable to carry. We didn’t have Joe Brown helmets because they had not come out by then and very few climbers were wearing helmets at that time!
In due course we reached the Halfway House (i.e the original building which years later closed and was demolished, to subsequently be replaced by the one that you see there today). Joe suggested that we had a stop there for a cup of tea and a piece of home made cake. He had been fairly quiet so far, but now started to open up and tell me about some of his experiences of going to Cloggy in the early days of his climbing career. He also told me how pleased he was to leave Manchester and settle in North Wales and his new way of life running an equipment shop. He had a very dry sense of humour and I gradually tuned into his Manchester accent. I asked him, “Have you ever thought of writing a book about your climbing experiences?” He replied, “Well actually, I do have one started . I’m not really much of a writer myself, so I’m recording my memories into a tape recorder and a friend of mine is going to put the book together for me.” The Hard Years by Joe Brown was published a year later (1967) by Gollancz and I have a first edition which I purchasedas soon as it came out. After about 20 minutes, during which Joe smoked three fags, we set off again and did not stop until we reached the crag, which to me still looked as intimidating as ever and I started wondering what I had let myself in for.
“Is there any particular route you would like to do?,” Joe asked. I replied’ Well how about Longland’s, which I understand is a good introduction to Cloggy and one that I should hopefully be able to manage without too much difficulty.” He said, “That’s fine by me and I have not done it myself for about twenty years, so let’s begin with that one and perhaps do something a bit harder afterwards.” Longland’s Climb, graded Very Severe, was the first route to be climbed on the West Buttress – in 1928 by a rope of five led by Jack Longland. At the bottom of Longland’s route we put our rucksacks down (you could leave them at the foot of a climb in those days and not worry about anything being stolen!) and Joe took out his ropes and other gear. I took my PA footwear out of my bag and started to take off my boots, but Joe grinned and said “ No need for those – you should be able to do this climb in boots.” Who was I to argue, and his boots looked very worn and rather bendy, while mine were fairly new and sturdy. Joe then told me that up until 1955 he had always climbed in nailed boots, but when conditions were really bad he resorted to stockinged feet or plimsolls if necessary.. The Vibram sole made a huge difference when it became available, but he still used nailed boots until he was eventually converted to Vibrams, and it was the expedition to Kangchenjunga that convinced him, despite the fact that in Wales they could be very slippery on greasy surfaces and wet grass. Joe just flowed up Longland’s route with hardly a pause and I did my best to follow him at a reasonable rate, but the steepness of the crag and the exposure soon made me keep looking up rather than down. He put in very little protection, so confident was he in his ability, and as I studied his technique I soon understood why he was rated as probably the best climber in the world at that time.
I have just checked a note that I made in the guidebook that we completed Longland’s in 1 hour five minutes, so I must have been pretty fit to achieve that. On reaching the top we descended the Eastern Terrace and it was then time for lunch and a brief rest before doing another climb.
Joe again asked me if I had anything in mind. My knowledge of the crag was not extensive, but I said “How about Curving Crack?” Okay, he said, and we moved around to the start, which is on the East Buttress and easily recognised, by the distinctive first pitch. This route is a 195 feet Very Severe and it was first climbed in 1932 by Colin Kirkus and J.M. Edwards. I had seen photographs of climbers laybacking up the first pitch, which is only about 40 feet, but actually the hardest part of the route.. Joe of course was a master at hand jamming and just stuck his clenched fists into the crack and angled his boots sideways, to get up it in no time at all.
I was not into hand jamming, so started to layback, but I had not done much of that before either and found it very strenuous and hard to keep in balance. “Go back down he said and try hand jamming instead.” So I did as I was told and found it a bit painful on the hands but certainly easier than laybacking. From the top of this pitch, you have to swing round on a good hold around a sharp corner and move into a continuation of the crack. I did this and then looked up to see was the rope snaking up above me. Joe was out of sight and I only just heard him shout. I realised afterwards that he had joined two pitches together to make one of about 120 feet and it involved a long stretch of hand jamming. I felt quite weary by the time I reached the belay but from there it was quite easy to reach the top of the climb.
When we descended to the base of the crag, Joe commented, “You seem to have got the hang of hand jamming, so I think we’ll finish off the day with Chimney Route.” (First climbed in 1931 by Colin Kirkus and J.M. Edwards). This 350 feet route involved more hand jamming, bridging and an intimidating overhang. This route also took us an hour and it is of interest that there was only one other party on the cliff at the time, a rope of three doing Pedestal Route. We did three routes in 3 hours 5 minutes and had a fifteen minute lunch break, but they were still completing their only route.
When we got to the top Joe said, to my relief, “Well that will have to be it for today, as I really have to get back to Llanberis”. We then returned to the car just beyond Hebron Station and as we were driving down towards Llanberis Joe rolled himself yet another cigarette and when he had finished it, he stuffed out the stub in my ashtray (not that I smoked). In those days all cars had ashtrays.
Well, I kept that cigarette stub in my ashtray for several years and used to try and impress certain passengers that it had been placed there by the legendary climber, Joe Brown, but I doubt that anyone ever believed me. Joe’s stub was probably still in the ashtray when I sold the car!
I was carrying a camera (35mm Kodak Retinette) that day – draped over my shoulder and hanging down my back . Unfortunately, I was almost at the end of the film and only managed to take the few pictures you see here before it ran out – as you can see by the last incomplete picture.
I hope you enjoy this personal account of a very special day in the company of a climber who was undoubtedly the greatest household name in British mountaineering since Edward Whymper.
22nd April 2020
(c) copyright 2020, Chris Barber. All rights reserved.