Remembering Joe Brown: Mountaineering Legend Dies at 89

Joe Brown aka “The Master” was a pioneer and one of the greatest climbers of the 20th century.

Remembering Joe Brown: Mountaineering Legend Dies at 89

Joe Brown was born on 26th September, 1930, in Manchester, England. From using his mother’s old washing line as a rope when he was 16, to stealing ropes from roadworks, to working as an apprentice plumber—in 1955, Joe went on to climb one of the hardest peaks in the world: Kanchenjunga.

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Joe climbed with Don Whillans and Chris Bonington—all three widely regarded as equal pioneers in the field. Joe and Don were a rare breed of post-war climbers who came from working class backgrounds. Don’s climbs quickly became so famous that even the Post Office delivered letters to him addressed to his nickname—“The Human Fly”. Apart from making history by climbing Kanchenjunga’s south-west face with fellow climber George Band, Jon made the first ascent of the west summit of the Muztagh Tower in Karakoram with Ian McNaught-Davis, a climber and BBC presenter who died in 2014. Apart from his ascents, Joe was known for creating a new type of climbing protection, by creating a type of chockstone or nut, which led him to open up several gear shops in the 60s.

Photograph: John Clear/Mountain Camera Picture Library

“Immense sadness to hear of the death of my good friend Joe Brown whom I have known for over 60 years and had some wonderful climbs with him—he was one of the most brilliant innovative climbers the world has seen and a very special human being”, wrote Sir Chris Bonington in a Facebook post, adding a tribute link from the Mountain Heritage Trust, an archive of films, images, and books of Britain's most iconic achievements.

Joe was also well known for his televised rock climbs of “Old Man of Hoy” in the north coast of Scotland in 1967, along with Ian McNaught-Davis and Chris Bonington. In 2011, he was made CBE, for services to rock climbing and mountaineering.

Joe climbing Cemetery Gates with the late Don Whillans:

British mountaineer and writer Stephen Venables, known for being the first Briton to climb Everest without using supplemental oxygen,  tweeted: “Very sad to hear that Joe Brown died last night. What an amazing life. Kanchenjunga, Muztagh Tower, treasure hunting in the jungle … but for most of us his greatest gift is the legacy of peerless rock climbs: Vector, Vember, Right Unconquerable, Shrike, Cemetery Gates…”

UKC posted a musical tribute to Joe Brown by his longtime friend and climbing partner, Dennis Gray. They also included a personal message from Dennis, sent to Joe's friends and the climbing media:

"Shortly before Joe died, and before he was no longer able we had a long conversation for we both realised that a reckoning was coming.

Joe was sanguine and emphasised he felt so lucky to have led the life he had been able to pursue. We both agreed that to have started climbing in the late 1940s had been so fortunate, with the opening up of the countryside with easier access and the ability that developed to first travel to climb in Europe, and then almost worldwide.

I have been privileged to climb with many outstanding climbers from the UK and abroad, but Joe was the most naturally talented rock climber of any that I tied onto a rope with.

Joe himself was never solemn for long, he loved life and one of my abiding memories is that we sang a lot when young. Joe's party piece was the operetta 'The Sergeant Major'. I do not know of any recording of this, but I do know he liked to laugh along at Tom Patey's wonderful song 'The Legend of Joe Brown'. There are two recordings extant of Tom playing and singing this in a couple of party settings, but unfortunately on each of these, key verses are missing, e,g. The one about the Mustagh Tower ascent.....'In the cold cold Karakoram' which is by mutual agreement a superb example of Tom's versifying ability, and on the other tape there is much background disturbance.

So not for ego, honest, I decided to send out a copy of myself playing and singing this as an MP3 cover. And I intend this as a tribute to Joe, who I was friends with for over 70 years.

For this MP3 recording I thank Paul Cherry who worked overnight to provide this at his Cotswold studio."

Thanks to Geoff Birtles and Jim Herrington for providing photographs.

Joe Brown died on 15th April, 2020, at the age of 89.

“In our hearts, Joe will continue to climb evermore.”

Featured Image Courtesy: High magazine archives.