Joe Brown, Llanberis, 2012. Photo: Simon Ingram / Trail Magazine

Did you hear the one about Joe Brown? You know, the one about him sliding down the Snowdon railway, riding a flat stone like a skateboard. Or the one about the mountains of mail from all over the world addressed to simply ’The Human Fly, UK’. About the plumber from Manchester who would become the first person to climb the most difficult peak in the world. The one about the kid who began climbing armed with a length of sash washing line his mother had deemed ’too weak’ to hang clothes on.

“Hang on,” begins 81-year-old Joe Brown, wagging a corrective finger. “It was never a washing line.” No? “No. Back in the forties, around roadworks they used to put these iron pins into the ground around the hole, and between them, there would be a rope. We’d pinch that.”

As far as ripping the foundations from beneath a legend go, this is a pretty pedantic point. But while we’re at it, we’ll correct another myth: Brown wasn’t the ’climbing plumber’ of legend – he was a builder. And while justly famous for his extraordinary rock-climbing ability, you may be surprised to hear that Joe Brown did an awful lot else besides. It’s just that – like all bona fide folk heroes – he doesn’t really talk about it.

This interview is one of the few you’ll read with Brown. Rarer still, in November 2012 he will take to the stage at the Royal Geographical Society to recount his part in one of the key mountain climbs in history: the first ascent of Kangchenjunga, third highest mountain in the world, in 1955.

The short lad from the blitz-bludgeoned streets of south Manchester would reshape the landscape of climbing in general as, before World War Two, climbing was a posh bloke’s wheeze. It was a tale that – washing line or no – began on Kinder Downfall in the Peaks.
“We were messing about in the quarries at Hayfield, and we saw this water blowing up in the air. We couldn’t work out what it was, so we went to investigate.” What they found was the waterfall that tumbles down off the Kinder Scout plateau, blowing upwards in the wind. The climb next to the downfall, now called Waterfall, is one Brown wouldn’t forget. “It’s about 60ft, a V Diff. I climbed up with a rope round my shoulder. That feeling, of senses being heightened, of life being better now than it was a few minutes ago – it’s never gone away.”

Swiftly discovering a natural aptitude for teasing a climbing line from intolerable rock, Brown was soon putting up the hardest gritstone routes in the country – as well as startling peers with extraordinary attacks on Dinas Cromlech above the Llanberis Pass. These yielded Cenotaph Corner in 1952, Cemetery Gates in 1951 (named for a destination plate on a Chester bus) as well as routes on Clogwyn D’ur Arddu – the Snowdon cliff that was Brown’s playground. Often, he partnered with notorious, fellow Mancunian Don Whillans. It was an inspired partnership: Brown nimble and considered; Whillans solid and ox-strong. “I met Don in 1951. He was the best I ever climbed with. He was brilliant to be with on a one-to-one basis, but in a group, I’d say no. He was aggressive, but although Don had a reputation for dobbing [punching] I never saw Don hit anyone. In a funny way he was jealous of friendships. Girlfriends of mine had a terrible time with Don. Friends too... Slim Sorrell I think Don threatened to dob. I think Slim Sorrell would have flattened him.”  

In 1954 the pair convened in the Alps – and what happened next made history. By early summer, they’d already made French climbers shift uneasily in their plimsolls with their ascent of the ‘hardest route in the guidebook’ – the crack on the west face of the Aiguille du Blatiere, recently reconfigured by rockfall. Hardened by British clag and drizzle – he would always climb in bad weather – Brown mastered a difficult crack in such style it was named ‘Fissure Brown’ (or ‘Brown’s Fist’) in his honour. Later, Brown and Whillans arrived at the base of the Grand Capuchin on Mont Blanc. It was early, but not that early (“I was always a terrible riser”) and there were climbers two pitches ahead. “Before they got to the third pitch, we were sat on the ledge beneath them. They were in the way. So we buggered off.”

Brown, with 'Cloggy' - Snowdon's Clogwyn D'ur Arrdu – beyond. Photo: John Cleare

A few days later they were imparting their story of being ‘held up’ to the owner of a climbing shop in Chamonix. “He said: ‘that’s amazing – they’re three of the fastest climbers in France. They’ve just done the first proper ascent of the Dru’s west face’.”

The team had in fact cut the time of the ascent from seven days to three. Brown and Whillans, aware they were probably faster, were gripped by the prospect of a sub-3-day ascent of Petit Dru’s west face. “Don and I just packed the gear and set off. We didn’t take crampons, which was crazy. We also only had one short hammer axe, and on the first bivouac, we snapped the head off it.”

He creases up at the memory. Two 5ft 4in northerners tackling one of the most notorious rock faces in the world with no crampons and one broken axe is funny, but it’s also extraordinary. The climb went like clockwork, the pair making short work of a fissure near the top of the route that had so stumped the French team they’d used a ladder to overcome it. “With what we’d done on gritstone, it didn’t stretch us. What’s amazing is that Chamonix is covered in cracks, yet the French didn’t know how to hand-jam.”  

The west face route done, the pair ended up on the north face of the Dru, where they became lost. Forced to abseil the face and descend the glacier – without crampons, remember – they hunkered down for the night crouched on the ice. “We chipped a ledge, and had to sit there all night, backwards and forwards with the cold, cramping up. Then at about 3am we saw the lights go on in all the huts around us, and we saw how close we were.” Their time was a record – the third ever ascent of the face in two days and foul weather. French guides began stopping the dishevelled pair in the street to offer congratulations. Louis Lachanel – veteran of Annapurna’s first ascent – arrived at the Mancunians’ campsite to pay his respects, sharply dressed with a girl on his arm to find the British lounging around in ‘filth and squalor, like a band of brigands’.

Brown’s success in the Alps – while hardly financially lucrative – gave him an enviable peer-to-peer cachet. And in late 1954, when Brown was 25, this would roundly pay off.
There’s still shock in Brown’s voice when he recounts the day he was invited to join the British expedition to the summit of Kangchenjunga, third highest mountain in the world. Due to its complexity and proximity to the strafing monsoon, many – including Reinhold Messner – consider it harder than K2.

“In October, I got a telegram from [team leader] Charles Evans, and it said: Invitation to join expedition. It was like winning the lottery. “I knew how to climb and be safe in mountains. But I didn’t think of myself as an experienced alpinist. To be chosen with just two seasons… I just remember thinking this was going to be absolutely magnificent.”

The expedition’s backbone was made up of key players from the victorious Everest expedition of 1953: George Band, Jack Jackson, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans. This was illustrious company – Oxbridge mountaineers among which the plucky, skint Brown was an exception. Did it matter? Not a jot. A story Brown tells highlights both this societal gap between Evans, a brain surgeon, and builder Brown – and the bridges a love of climbing built. “I visited Charles in his Liverpool hospital. He showed me his surgical tools and said ‘you probably use the same tools for cutting slate as I do for slicing bone’. I picked up one of his drills and said: ‘You’re kidding – mine would do a far better job than this!’”

Following sorties with oxygen in Snowdonia’s Glyders, the team took a slow boat to India bound for Bombay, then Kangchenjunga.“Camp 1 was made at the end of a gigantic crevasse. I once walked down this crevasse looking for a bog site, and there in front of me was this huge hole. Through it, I saw hanging snow – and realized that I was standing on hanging snow on my side. My hair stood on end – I tried to walk back weightless.” He chuckles. “Nobody else went down there.”

Joe Brown on Kangchenjunga's crack, 1955. Photo: Royal Geographical Society

During the next weeks while camps were established, Brown displayed a tenacity and ability to perform well at altitude, which was noticed by Evans. He later announced Brown and towering 27-year-old George Band would be the first to go for the summit, with Norman Hardie and Tony Streather in reserve. Stormy weather and an avalanched Camp 6, which they had to dig out, meant the pair had an arduous and, at times, cosy final ascent. “The tent we used at the top camp only had space on the ledge for two thirds of its groundsheet; the rest was dangling over the ledge. So what we had was two thirds of a two-man tent.” The camp was the only time on the expedition Brown remembers intense cold. “George and I got out of the tent to turn oxygen bottles on or off. It’s just a knob – but handwear was silk, woollen, and duvet gloves. We both took our duvet gloves off, and George took his wool gloves off. The consequence for me was I couldn’t feel my fingers for a month. George got every finger blistered, and the consequence of that was that he couldn’t pick his nose. You laugh, but at altitude you get so clogged up... you’ve always got booglies and things you want rid of!”

Next day the pair set off for the top, Brown chipper enough in the extreme height that a spot of rock-climbing was in order.

“I climbed the rock wherever possible as it was nice to do – perhaps a bit harder than Crib Goch, but not much.” Band stayed on the snow, plunging steps for their descent. Then came what would be Brown’s tour de force, when his rock-climbing chops and high-altitude aptitude would collide in fine style. “I set off up this snowy gully with a rock face on one side. It had several breaks in it, and I just chose one. It was about V Diff, which at sea-level is nothing, but at altitude... anything which you have to pull on your arms needs careful thought. Normal oxygen flow is about 2 litres a minute; I was able to turn the oxygen set up to 8 litres a minute. With the benefit of acclimatisation, I could perform as well as I could lower down. I climbed to the top of this crack, and there it was – the top. I shouted down to George: We’re there!”
Mountaineer Doug Scott credits this story of Brown ‘hand-jamming at 8500m’ as his boyhood inspiration. Next day, Hardie and Streather found a snow slope further up the gully, which Brown says he would have taken had he known – but he’s still glad he did the crack. “It’s never had a second ascent,” he grins.

Joe Brown on the summit of Kangchenjunga.
Photo: George Band / Royal Geographical Society.

Band and Brown stopped a few feet short of the summit out of respect to the Sikkim’s ‘sacred peak’. Was it a wrench? “No. There wasn’t even a temptation. To me, standing on top of a mountain doesn’t mean anything – I climb mountains for the pleasure of climbing. The pleasure stops at the top. You’ve been there, you’ve done it, you don’t need to plant a flag. We didn’t have a flag – rare in those days. It didn’t occur to us. Where you see in the pictures: that’s where we stopped.”

On descent, Brown hit a snag. “My [snow] glasses kept fogging, so I’d push them up [onto my head]. And George kept saying ‘put your glasses down’. By the time we got down to the tents my eyes were prickling: the onset of snow blindness. It’s like having your eyes filled with hot ash. They’re streaming with water, you’re in excruciating pain and you’re totally blind.”

Norman and Tony had arrived at camp, and with the late hour, Brown and Band couldn’t descend further. “So now here were four of us in this two thirds of a two-man tent, with me in the middle moving round in agony all night. Next morning, it was like I had my eyes shut. George had to put me on a short rope.” Brown’s sight returned a few days later, after which the team departed into the monsoon.

“We were getting special weather forecasts on the World Service. This beautiful BBC announcer voice would come on, and say: [adopts clipped tones] ’This is the forecast for the British Expedition to Kangchenjunga.’ You’d think, bloody hell – that’s special. But after we’d climbed it, the weather forecast was still coming through. Once, on the way out, the announcer came on and said his usual ’this is the Kangchenjunga weather forecast...’, and gave the report. And then he just quietly said: ’well done, chaps.’ Which I thought was great.”

Brown’s next major expedition in 1956 was another technical triumph – the terrifying, turret-like Muztagh Tower (7276m) in Pakistan’s Karakoram. The mountain was considered the ‘last citadel’ of Himalayan climbing: it looked impossible. Brown made his stunning first ascent in 1956, with Ian McNaught-Davies, Tom Patey and John Hartog. There then followed a first ascent of The Old Man of Hoy in Scotland in 1967 for one of TV’s early outside broadcasts with three pairs of climbers, including Chris Bonington and Dougal Haston. Fifteen million British viewers watched Brown climb the stack: more than watched William and Kate marry.

Mount Roraima – Conan Doyle’s Lost World – in 1973 with Hamish MacInnes and Don Whillans was a highlight. His first ascent of Trango Tower in the Karakoram in 1976 was the expedition Brown says should have been the best, but wasn’t, as his wife was taken ill prior to departure. “She and I decided that I should go, but my brain wasn’t there – it was at home.” In between, he was Robert De Niro’s stunt double in The Mission (“Nice bloke. The only person I got a letter from thanking me for the help.”), raised a family and moved to Llanberis, founding the gear shops that bear his name around Snowdonia. The home he shares with his wife is like a fantasy adventurers’ home, secluded and cluttered – in the best possible way – with storied souvenirs from around the globe (including the goggles he lifted from his eyes on Kangchenjunga) and many, many pictures of expeditions, family and friends.

What’s striking is how interesting his list of ascents is – a mix of the mysterious and deeply distinguished. His philosophy has never wavered: a love of challenge, from climbing to canoeing to skateboarding (really). And it’s a love of challenge – not a need. “The drive for climbing is not one where you’re thinking ‘I’m the man, I’m going to prove something.’ That isn’t the way it works. People have said that I’m the most competitive person they know; but the only person I’m competing against is me. I used to do it building. Plastering and pointing were measurable by yardage – I’d always want to do more than the day before.”

Brown on the walk-out from Kangchenjunga, 1955. Photo: Royal Geographical Society

His peers revere him, nicknaming him ‘the Baron’ and ‘the Master’ – yet Brown has no discernible ego, no abrasiveness; he’s open, friendly, and at 81 still possesses bounce and wicker-dry humour, cracking jokes in a sly, still-thick Manchester accent. “As a kid, we’d dare and do dangerous things. But bragging was not a thing you did. The ego part of it just doesn’t matter.” Perhaps this ’ordinary Joe’ outlook is down to his refusal to step onto the limelit pedestal many feel he should be on.

“I hate the public eye. It interferes with your life. You get people who hero-worship, and I don’t want to be part of that. In a way it makes people harder to become friends, as they’ll behave in a different way to how they normally behave. If it’s in your nature you like it. I definitely don’t.” That’s not arrogance: he just doesn’t like fuss. He recalls being told of his CBE for services to climbing in 2010 as being “awarded for enjoying myself”, and when asked how he would like to receive the award, half-joked it be “slipped discreetly into his pocket in a brown envelope”. (He also has a long-held MBE.) “If I’d not made it clear long ago that I didn’t want to do any after-dinner speaking, I’d be going for dinner every bloody weekend. And I don’t like going to dinners. I don’t even like going in cafes. I like eating at home. I have some peculiarities. But I still look back on my life and think: that was fantastic.”

Really, the only thing that makes this rather ordinary attitude peculiar is that Joe Brown’s life is far from ordinary. If anything, it’s deepened the mystique of the man they call The Human Fly. The plumber – sorry, builder – who began at the bottom and ended up on top of the world – even without the involvement of that fabled washing line. There are lots of stories about Joe Brown. And even if the ones you know turn out not to be true, there will probably be one you haven’t heard that is even more extraordinary.  

Joe Brown looks at the sweaty sky and wrinkles his nose. The chugs of the Snowdon mountain railway can be heard down the valley, leaving with its payload of tourists for the summit of Wales’ highest peak. “No good for skating down the tracks today. Bit damp.” So – did he really do that? He looks over the top of his glasses and cracks that huge, naughty boy grin. “What? Loads of times!”