Joe Brown: Painting by Keith Bowen:Image KB
I prefer to look forward and not back, but occasionally it is good to sit and remember. I do hope however, that climbing never becomes anything more than a pastime for idlers.
‘Vroom’ a boulder the size of a human head smashed into the scree landing near to Joe ‘Morty’ Smith, Joe Brown and myself. ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ we chorused, craning our necks and looking up the East Gully Wall. Peering through the gloom and the light snow that was falling. It was March 1958, and our day had started many hours before. We had left our tents at the Grochan field early that morning, four of us- for besides the three now straddled across the foot of the wall- Don Whillans had been with us when we set off.
We had driven to Hafod Newedd, walked up past a deserted half-way house, then across the main Du’r Arddu. We had been shocked by the amount of snow around and there had been a disagreement about objectives. Joe was fixated on trying the steep wall rising out of the East Gully which he later ascended as Shrike. Whilst Whillans had suggested another possible line, somewhere over on the Far East of the cliff, but as we had skirted above the Llyn, tempers had flared as Don declared that the whole outing was now ‘bloody mad’.
It ended with him stalking off. In those days there was no reasoning with him. Joe as always was phlegmatic in such situations and Morty and I were too young, and too inexperienced to interfere. Joe was the senior, and both Morty and I used to defer to him on all matters to do with climbing. He was just so much better, older and wiser about mountaineering than we were so we were happy to follow him wherever he led.
Soloing up the first part of the East Gully had been no joke, covered in a light dusting of powder snow it had been a frightening experience, at least for me! In such situations I never knew whether it was only I, or if the others were also gripped, but if they were they never showed it. Normally the East Gully is a scramble except for the last hundred feet or so, but a covering of snow can transform anything, especially easy angled rock. The East Gully in winter is an impressive place, a natural amphitheatre it is flanked on all sides with steep rock walls. Easy rock lead in summer up into this bowl, which has only one straightforward exit, the Gully climb itself, graded Very Difficult.
At the base of the wall, we had roped up onto over-weight single nylon ropes; two 150 feet lengths of hawser-laid which had become like wire as we struggled to retreat. Joe had led us up the first pitch of the East Gully Wall and Morty and I had then spent a couple of hours on a cramped belay while he battled with the unclimbed rock face above. But the cold, and then the snow which had started to fall had made it difficult going. In the end somewhere out on the edge of even his abilities he had decided it had become too much. The retreat had been orderly and we had assembled at the bottom of the Wall, still in good spirits. We knew we had to get off quickly for there was not much daylight left, but the thought of trying to climb back down the easy slabs in the falling snow, frightened me in no small measure.
Joe traversed to the bottom of the final pitches of the East Gully climb. ‘We’ll go up there!’ he decided pointing up to where at about 30 feet there was a bulge covered with ice. ‘Up you go Morty’. Grumbling, swearing, Morty set off whilst I belayed him and Joe sat on a nearby rock, smoking, like a reclining Buddha. ‘Vroom’ another boulder, this time the size of a football hit the rock above Morty and then shot off into space. ‘Bloody Hell’ Morty cried, whilst I jumped sideways, only Brown was unmoved. ‘Must be a goat or sheep up there’ he declared.
Rock and Ice icons gather in The Peak, 1957. Back Row left to right...Nat Allen,Don Roscoe,Ron Cummaford. Second Row...Les Wright,Joe Smith, Ray Greenall,Eric Price, Don Whillans. Front..Dennis Gray, Joe Brown.Photo Doug Verity
‘Look Joe, this is bloody desperate’ our leader advised. ‘Oh get up it you little ninnie’. After such a statement, Morty had no option but to continue, however at the ice bulge he was stuck. The snow increased, the wind began to whip it into the gully and holding the rope I was uncontrollably shaking from the cold.
‘I can’t do it, its just too bloody desperate today’ Morty shouted down.
Fortunately, he had managed to get a sling on above his head to protect him, a full weight one over a large spike. So at least he looked safe. ‘Get on with it!’ shouted Joe, but the next minute Morty had to grab hold of the sling as he slipped into space, his feet shooting off the ice. The spike held his weight, so it was sound. ‘Let me down! Let me down!’ cried Morty and this time I obeyed. He arrived, swinging in and as usual was full of good humour. We were climbing in boots as we had been all day, with vibram soles. ‘Did you see the rubber on ice moves?’ he laughingly demanded.
‘Vroom’ another boulder came whining, down the face, to land once again some distance from Brown, Morty and myself, ‘Bloody hell! That goat ought to be fielding for Yorkshire, it can throw so accurately’ I advised. ‘Often happens, there are many sheep and goats always wandering around up there’ advised Joe. The dreaded thing then happened, Brown offered me the lead. ‘You do it’.
I pleaded, but to no avail. ‘No he told me, Morty has been fined a brew for his failure and if you don’t get up it your fine will be worse’. Joe had evolved a system of incentives to improve our climbing, if we failed we were fined a number of brews (making communal cups of tea), if we succeeded then good scores were given to knock off our cumulative totals.
We never managed to get into credit and Morty was such a staggering number of brews in arrears that we had lost count….. Joe had not! I set off feeling determined and gritted my teeth. I had a tight top rope for the first thirty feet for Morty was giving me G sharp. To my surprise I then managed to climb up and over the ice bulge. It was very hard, but I felt in control until ‘vroom’ another rock smashed into the wall on the left-hand side of me. The noise as it came screaming down the gully filled me with absolute dread, and in the next instant I found myself, hanging by both hands to the sling Morty had fixed up on the good rock spike. Somehow I had climbed back down and then grabbed hold of the sling as I descended.
For some reason and though I believe we were reasonably articulate, when we were climbing we always addressed each other in a mono-syllabic fashion. No long discourses communing with nature or even about the ever rising price of tea! ‘I’ll lead it for a brew each…….’ he offered. ‘No way, No way’ we both objected, but just then ‘vroom’ down came another boulder to land in the snow to the side of us. It was the largest so far, and the noise it had made as it roared down on us, hurtling through space had been awesome. ‘Bloody hell….. O.K’, ‘O.K’ we both quickly changed our minds.
I belayed as Joe set forth and up he went. Through the snow and gloom easily over the ice bulge, and up into the far reaches of the gully, mysteriously no rocks fell whilst he was climbing! It was this ability that above all others which stamped Joe out as our supreme master, this command of being able to climb in bad conditions. He was in a word a phenomenon. He belayed in the Gully near its head. Sheltered, from the wind and falling snow in a deep recess.
First, he brought Morty up and then myself. In truth, it was not too bad on the end of a tight rope. Morty and I should have been able to lead it, and Joe had been right about that, but just as I had once again pulled over the ice bulge, ‘vroom’ it happened yet again, a rock the size of my fist smashed into the rock wall nearby. ‘Tight, Tight’ I screamed and I literally then ran up the rest of the route to join Joe and Morty in the recess. ‘You can finish it off ‘ Joe then told me, and on this occasion I did just that. It was not too hard and after I had pulled out over the top of the cliff, and started to set up a belay in what was quickly becoming the darkness of night, I was startled by a figure emerging from out of a nearby cleft in the rocks. Flat cap pulled down; hands set deep in pockets, short, squat and powerful.
I was relieved to recognise Don Whillans through that gloom. Scared Yer didn’t a?’ he chuckled. ‘Bloody hell, Don, those boulders were close’ ‘They were meant to be!’ was the laconic reply. (In all truth they were probably a long way out from us, but the noise they made, flying down through the
air was frightening and enough to scare most climbers?)
That summer occurred an incident that I have kept buried until now and not talked about much, for it revealed something about myself I do not like. I have always professed to be a pacifist, and when I had to do National Service, I served as a non-combatant, but on two occasions my pacifism evaporated. Once when in a fracas I lashed out and unfortunately hit a police sergeant and the other is the occasion I have in mind now. That was the day we fought Joe Brown, we being Morty and I.
It started like so many of the Rock and Ice stories in good humour, as a joke, but developed. Morty had been behaving particularly badly in Joe’s eyes, failing on the odd route, crashing motor bikes, doing untold physical damage in many of the Club’s rough games to the other participants. And so by the summer of 1958 he had run up a spectacular deficit in brews to be made, and because of this he decided to go on strike and refused to make any more cups of tea.
This could only lead on to one thing: a physical challenge. I talked this over with Morty and he felt the time had come to challenge the master! I was incredulous at first, Joe was quite a wrestler and he loved to tackle such as Slim Sorrell (his original climbing partner) in a friendly bout on occasion. But what Morty was suggesting was something different, in trying to wrestle with Joe, he would easily beat him in a real set to. ‘No he won’t’ declared Morty grinning ‘because you are going to help me’ ‘You have got to be kidding’ was my reaction. ‘I am not a fighter, I have never physically been in such a set too in my life’ I advised.
‘You bloody big girl!’ Morty responded. ‘Alright I’ll take him on by myself!’
This put me on the spot. I knew Morty would have no chance against Joe, although pound for pound he was the strongest physically amongst us, but he was also the smallest. He was no match for a hardened street fighter like Joe, who had grown up in Ardwick and Longsight, and of necessity had been dealing with the local heavies in those deprived areas of Manchester from an early age. Morty then was in reality still a boy, and on his own he had no real chance of besting Joe. This for me was a moral dilemma, rather like the last war.
‘O.K, I’ll help, but we need a fighting strategy’. This was hammered out between us, and we agreed that Morty would face up to Joe head on, whilst I crept around behind him. I consulted with Slim Sorrel beforehand, who was something of an expert in unarmed combat because of his position in the police, and he taught me an unbreakable strangle-hold, which if I could affix around an opponents neck, meant certain surrender. After which Morty and I decided we were ready for the fray. Morty then duly refused to carry out his task of making brews and offered to wrestle Joe instead. I was present when this happened, and I was included in the challenge. The master laughingly accepted our challenge.
'Joe limbering up before our wrestle' DG: Grochan Field, Llanberis Pass. In the background,Dennis Gray's A 40 van.Photo-Doug Verity
We were camping under Clogwyn y Grochan in the Llanberis Pass. This was in an age of wild camping……. anywhere. A beautiful green sward, it served as a campsite, a cricket and football pitch and now it was to have a wrestling ring. Gleefully the rest of the Rock and Ice present marked out a ring with stones. There was a referee, Les Wright, a genial giant who could have physically sorted out any other member of the club if he had been so inclined, and it was agreed that it was to be a no holds barred contest! This meant it was no use crying about a spot of blood or even such as the odd fracture. These lads were tough and played it hard. I realised we had to be absolutely ruthless; otherwise we would get short shrift from Joe.
As I lined up with Morty I was shaking with fright, but my younger companion seemed to be not so concerned. Les clapped his hands and the action started, and Morty closed in punching out like an automaton. It was all that Joe could do to hold him off, and I realised that our agreed tactics were working, so I danced round behind our adversary, but he then realised the danger and lashed out at me with his feet. But Morty kept on advancing forward in a flurry of punches, oblivious to Joe’s counter blows. It was again as much as the latter could do to hold him off, and though if he been on his own Morty would soon have had to give it best, it enabled me to get in behind Brown and the next minute I had him by the throat, and began to apply pressure using the stranglehold Slim had taught me.
He thrashed about wildly, but could not shake me off, and Morty just kept on coming forward at him. I put on more and more pressure, and at that moment I should have stopped, but something I have never been able to explain just kept me on squeezing. Suddenly we both fell down, with Joe on top of me, his back pinning me to the ground, unable to see anything, I just kept squeezing with all my might. He thrashed around, and tried to break loose, and then Morty was on top of him and both of them were lashing out at each other. ‘Let go, let go’ my inner voice was commanding, but I felt I could not and just kept applying pressure. Suddenly I felt Joe go, limp and then I did let go.
He had lapsed into unconsciousness, and fear welled up inside me about what had happened. I was by then so sorry for our actions, Joe was the greatest man either of us had ever known, we were truly fond of him but that was not the kind of sentiment working class lads ever let themselves show to one another, and now we had killed him! Or so I thought. Les and the rest of the Club then broke it up and pulled Morty and I off of Joe, who was lying comatose with a purple face, and a bruised neck.
We were all of us very concerned and relieved when a few minutes later he sat up gasping and choking. ‘You bloody little swine’ was all he could gasp out, but there was a tinge of admiration in his rasping voice. A strong arm then grabbed my shoulder and at the same time the same thing happened to Morty. It was Whillans! ‘What’s wrong Don?’ I stuttered. ‘Just hang on a tick’ he told us, ‘I’ll lace up me boots’ then he bent down to do this. ‘Why?’ we wanted to know.
Joe under Cloggy: Painting Keith Bowen.Image KB
‘Tha’s done for him’ he told us, ‘Tha better have a doo at me next!’ he said. ‘No way’ we both chorused. I began to run away, but became conscious that the Villain was on my heels, and trying to catch me. Why had he not gone after Morty, I wondered as I ran off up the Pass? He was not as good a runner as I, but I realise now he had seen something that he understood, someone had acted in an unreasonably aggressive manner, and that I was the culprit. And I needed teaching a lesson. Fortunately, for me, I was a faster runner than Don, and he could not catch me, but his voice is still with me now as I write this, for he stopped and hurled after me the following epithet. ‘You’re a bloody Slippery Jim’ ‘A bloody Slippery Jim’ he cried.
An abridged version of this article first appeared in High
Keith Bowen Artist website