Climbing legend Joe Brown is dead

Joe Brown (1930-2020)

The mountaineering scene mourns the loss of one of their greats. Joe Brown passed away peacefully at the age of 89 in his home in the village of Llanberis, Wales. In his eventful climbing career Brown opened more than 1,000 new rock climbing routes. Joe became known worldwide when he and George Band (1929-2011) made the first ascent of the 8,586-meter-high Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain on earth, on 25 May 1955.

The Human Fly

On the top of Kangchenjunga (in 1955)

Joe Brown was born in 1930 in Manchester, as the youngest of seven children in a working class family. When Joe was eight months old, his father died after a ship accident. The children had to contribute to the family’s upkeep at an early age. At the age of 14, Joe was apprenticed to a plumber. At that time he started climbing with friends, even in winter in the Snowdonia National Park in northwest Wales.

In 1951, Brown formed a powerful rope team with Don Whillans (who first climbed Annapurna South Face with Dougal Haston in 1970). In the steep rock faces near Chamonix, the duo achieved numerous spectacular climbs. Joe was nicknamed “The Human Fly” in the scene and was then considered one of the best British rock climbers.

The summit is unimportant

So it was hardly surprising that, in 1954, expedition leader Charles Evens sent a telegram to Brown asking him to join his team on Kangchenjunga. Joe acclimatized well and was selected with George Band for the summit attempt. In the summit wall Joe climbed a difficult overhanging crack, which was circumvented during later ascents. A few meters below the highest point, Brown and Band stopped – out of respect for the people in the Indian state of Sikkim, for whom the summit of Kangchenjunga is a holy place.

In 2012, Joe was asked in an interview with the magazine “Trail” whether he had not considered climbing to the very top. “No. There wasn’t even a temptation,” Brown replied. “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.”

First ascents of granite giants in the Karakoram

Mustagh Tower in the Karakoram

In 1956, one year after the success on Kangchenjunga, Joe achieved another milestone. In the Karakoram in Pakistan, he and his fellow countrymen John Hartog, Tom Patey and Ian McNaught-Davies achieved the first ascent of the 7,276-meter-high Mustagh Tower, which many had previously thought to be unclimbable. Brown and McNaught-Davies reached the west summit, one day later Hartog and Patey the main summit which is a few meters higher. Twenty years later, in 1976, Joe was also part of the successful team on the 6,251-meter-high Nameless Tower, one of the Trango Towers, on which he had failed the year before. After Mo Anthoine and Martin Boysen had first climbed the granite giant via the Southwest Face, Brown and Malcolm Howell also reached the summit one day later.

Double for Robert de Niro

For 35 years, Brown has been on expeditions, whether in Asia, North and South America or Africa. Twice – in 1986 and 1998 – he tried to climb Mount Everest, both times the expeditions on the Tibetan north side of the mountain failed due to bad weather. Joe also earned money as a climbing double in Hollywood movie, for example in 1986 for Robert de Niro in the movie “The Mission” about a Jesuit missionary in South America.

“That was fantastic”

Joe during the Kangchenjunga expedition

Brown was even knighted. Since 2011 he was allowed to call himself “Commander of the Order of the British Empire”. But Joe did not like to be the center of attention. “I hate the public eye. It interferes with your life,” Brown said in 2012 in one of the rare interviews he gave. “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.”

Joe loved to be out in nature, in his shop selling climbing equipment (e.g. fiberglass helmets he had created himself) or at home with his wife Valerie and their two daughters Helen and Zoe. “I don’t even like going in cafes. I like eating at home,” said Joe Brown. “I have some peculiarities. But I still look back on my life and think: that was fantastic.”