Joe Brown relaxing on The Dangler:'He had a remarkable ability to relax in the most difficult situations'
I started rock-climbing at the age of 15 with my school friend Eric Price. There was no formal instruction to be had in those days and we learned by trial and error and watching other people. Rope work was rudimentary to say the least and kit was minimal: an old sisal rope, old clothes and a pair of thin leather boots, nailed with hobnails and steel toe and heel plates. There was only one climbing shop in Manchester — Brigham's little shop in Conran Street; in any case, as working class lads just leaving school, we had little money. I made my first karabiner by bending a piece of quarter-inch mild steel into an oval with the ends overlapping to form a slot into which the rope could be inserted. Fortunately, this karabiner was not called upon to hold any falls before it was replaced by an ex-army one. Thus attired, we set out to discover rock-climbing and along with Alan Taylor we formed a climbing trio which lasted for many years.
Alan was about 6-2" and had the biggest feet I have ever seen, taking size 14 boots. When, several years later, he paid his first visit to Chamonix, he went into Schnell Sports to buy a pair of Terray boots and Msr. Schnell looked at his feet and asked him if he would have two pairs of sevens. Surprisingly, Alan was very good on delicate routes; to see him lead a route such as the very thin and unprotected Dorothy's Dilemma on the Roaches in his huge bendy boots was awe-inspiring. Climbing in boots was the norm then, rather than the exception and climbs were graded for nailed boots.
A route considered too hard for boots would be graded VS rubbers' or perhaps 'Hard VS rubbers, but not easy of this class'. Rubbers meant gym shoes and the best money could buy were to be had from Marks & Spencer. They had thin black rubber soles and cost the princely sum of four shillings and six pence (23p).
I started with one karabiner and sling, which remained more or less permanently round my waist. One day we were travelling out to Greenfield on the bus and we met a lad who asked if he could join us as his mate had not turned up. This lad was Les Wright and his mate, we later discovered, was Don Whillans. Les was physically a full size version of Don. In his army paybook was written 'exceptional physique' but Les, unlike Don, was a mild and gentle person, very slow to take offence. On the day we first climbed with Les we noticed that he carried two karabiners and slings, one round his waist and the other round his neck. Neither saw much use during the day and over a pot of tea while waiting for the bus home I asked him why he had two. "Oh." he said modestly, "the good lads always have two." The next week Eric and I both went out and bought a second krab and sling.
Don Roscoe on Cow Udder: The Cow: Ilkley.Roscoe collection©
As we walked out to catch the bus to go climbing we had to cross a 'croft' — a patch of waste ground resulting from the wartime bombing. Often we would come across two sets of tricouni nail footprints and we would speculate as to who had made them. Eventually, we did meet up with the two climbers, who turned out to be Ray Greenall and Ronnie Moseley. It transpired that Ray lived about half a mile away from us and Ronnie actually lived in the street opposite mine,only two or three hundred yards away. Both became firm friends. Ray was renowned as the best second in the world. In the event of a leader fall — a far more serious matter in those days of sparse protection — he could be relied upon never to let go of the rope. His reputation was really made when he sustained serious rope burns to both hands and forearms while holding Don Whillans in a fall from the crux of Peapod on Curbar Edge, breaking his fall sufficiently to land him gently and unharmed on the ground. He also had other most useful attributes, as we shall see.
Ron Moseley was a brilliant, if somewhat erratic, climber with The Left Wall (of Cenotaph Corner) and White Slab on Cloggy among his major first ascents. He was also a first class commercial artist, probably the only white collar worker in the early years of the Rock and Ice. At the time of this meeting the embryonic Rock and Ice was coalescing from the Manchester element of the Valkyrie and other disparate climbing teams such as ourselves, the Greenall brothers (Ray and Pete) and the Salford-based Don Whillans and Les Wright.
Eventually, the club consisted of about fourteen of us with two major things in common: we were all fanatical rock-climbers and we climbed to a high standard. The Valkyrie was formed in the mid 1940s by a group of mainly Derby-based climbers. This club had a fairly short existence and petered out about 1949, but from its ashes the Rock and Ice emerged in 1951
The Rock and Ice had a mainly Manchester- area membership including, from the Valkyrie, Joe Brown, Slim Sorrell and also the Derby-based Nat Allen. Although officially a club,Rock and Ice was in reality a close-knit group of friends and consequently obtaining membership was not easy if the prospective member was not known to and approved of by the majority of members. Doug Belshaw was the first secretary and held this post for many years. No-one ever paid fees, so a treasurer was unnecessary and as no-one wished to be president this office was drawn from a hat at the annual dinner. Once a member had been a president his name was no longer included in the draw.
Joe Brown, at the age of twenty one, was already becoming a legendary figure with many hard routes on grit to his name including such classics as The Right Unconquerable and Brown's Eliminate — the first ascent of which was led by Joe in nails. He was also starting to make his mark on the Welsh climbing scene with his impressive first ascents of Diglyph and Vernber on Cloggy and Hangover on the Grochan. Even at this stage many rumours, circulated about him, the most popular being that he had very long gorilla-like arms and fingers like bunches of sausages. Lack of transport kept us confined to Derbyshire for most weekends; places further afield were reserved for longer holidays. However, there was plenty to keep us going on the grit and it was here, on the fierce gritstone cracks, that Joe perfected the hand jamming techniques which were to open up a new era of British rock-climbing in the 50s and early 60s. Joe was always Alan Taylor's great hero in the early days and I would dismiss him by saying that it was all brute strength. This view was dispelled on the very first occasion on which I saw Joe climb. He was leading the very delicate Great Slab on Froggatt and just made it look so easy that I became an instant convert.
The other truly great climber in the Rock and Ice was, of course, Don Whillans. For quite a long time his genius, was overshadowed by that of Joe, but in fact there was very little to choose between them. Don was built like a miniature Charles Atlas and really did have arms like a gorilla; there was no appreciable thinning at the wrist, the solid muscle just merging into the hand. This forearm development was a result of his apprenticeship as a pipe fitter which involved much tightening of huge nuts on large pipes. Don, too, was surrounded by legend --most of which centred around his ability as a fighter, but in the many years of our friendship I never once saw him hit anybody. Usually a threat was sufficient, thanks to the legends. Like Joe he revelled in steep and strenuous cracks and overhangs but he too was equally at home on delicate routes. Don had his own ways of inspiring confidence. The first time I tried to lead Right Unconquerable Don was watching while I made a half-hearted attempt and retreated to assess the situation. To demonstrate that I was making a fuss about nothing Don, who was wearing shoes with very thick crepe rubber soles commonly known as "brothel creepers', proceeded to solo the route with ease.
Both Joe and Don were past masters at appearing to be completely relaxed in the most difficult situations, often resting or arranging runners in places where the second would find himself desperately trying to stay in contact with the rock while removing them. Not that there were all that many runners to be had in those days; nuts had not been thought of in the 50s, consequently runners could only be placed on natural spikes and threads. These were often in short supply so we did not need many karabiners and slings. Eventually, someone hit upon the idea of inserting chockstones as runners and we started to carry suitable small stones around in our pockets. Small pieces of gritstone had a tendency to crumble and so, on our infrequent visits to Wales, we would collect a selection of igneous pebbles.
I often wondered what future geologists would make of these pebbles lodged in the millstone grit.
Discussing pebbles reminds me of what I consider to be one of Don Whillans's most daring leads. Going out to do the Left Wall of Cenotaph Corner he discovered that he had left most of his gear at home. Nothing daunted he set off carrying three karabiners and slings and a hammer and a couple of pegs. Left Wall in those days relied heavily on aid and high on the wall, where one starts to traverse towards the arete, Don found himself standing in one sling round a pea-sized pebble with another sling round his neck and the rope hanging free to the ground a hundred feet below him while he tried to place the third sling round an equally small pebble. At this point he realised that the pebble supporting him was beginning to crumble and quickly hammered in one of his pegs, which stayed there for many years.
It was not long before several groups of climbers began to experiment with artificial chockstones. In the Rock and Ice, Ray Greenall, trained as an aircraft fitter, was our star metalworker and he filed out the threads from a variety of nuts and other objects. We usually carried several of these on one sling. From this point it was but a short step to purpose-made nuts but it was quite a long time before the first good one appeared. In about 1966 while John Brailsford and I were lecturing at Loughborough, he designed the nut which was to become the famous 'Moac'. We got a keen craft student to cast a dozen of these nuts in a sand mould and we split them between us. Some we filed down to give a nut half the thickness of the original, which, with its very shallow taper, became a universal favourite. The advent of good nut protection set the stage for another leap forward in rock-climbing standards, but that is another story.