I started climbing as a schoolboy in Sheffield in the 1940s. Without an entry into the real climbing world, I just climbed with friends and only entertained the idea of joining a club in my wildest dreams. Someone had told me that -amongst other things- those aspiring to membership of the Peak C.C. had to lead a 'severe' under the scrutiny of the committee. As was usual in those days, my progress was slow, but I eventually felt comfortable leading most of the better known (there was no guide book) V.Diffs on Stanage and the other edges. Severes were another matter altogether; only for ‘tigers’ (and people good enough to join clubs!).
Moving to university in Birmingham, I found that a newcomer of V.Diff standard was welcomed into the mountaineering club with open arms and for the introductory meet, I was assigned to lead a beginner up a route on the east face of Tryfan.
After a while I met Eric Byne, himself a native of Sheffield, and a deep and enduring friendship developed. I was always welcome at his home and was privileged to read the original script of the book which he had just started writing on the history of walking and climbing in The Peak. On each visit there was new material and it wouldn’t be too far from the truth to say that I read the book as it was written. I thought it was wonderful and, with Eric, looked forward to the day when it would be published. Sadly, that never happened; it was before its time and publishers thought it was far too bulky to risk their money on it. ‘High Peak’ was eventually published, in co-authorship with Geoff Sutton, but the book was much shorter than the original and I felt that the narrative did not flow in the same way as in the larger work. The book was, of course, very successful and copies fetch a high price nowadays but I still feel sad at the thought of what might have been; there was something of Eric in the original script which was lost in the editing. It was through Eric that I became a weekend instructor at White Hall and became involved in guide book work, first as the author of the chapter on Agden Rocher in ‘Recent Developments’ and later, with Dave Gregory, the revision of The Burbage Edges.
I climbed regularly throughout the 1950s, improving steadily, but it was a partnership with Dave Gregory, from 1957 onwards, which led to ascents of routes in the highest grades. A brief swan song with Peter Crew, Barrie Ingle and Mike Owen just prior to the glorious late summer and autumn of 1959, was followed by a new job, marriage, a young family and the end of sustained and serious climbing.
My devotion to mountains was shared by the family and we also took up orienteering , as did others such as Pete Livesey, Eric Langmuir and Geoff Oliver. Geoff and I were members of the same club and part of a three man relay team which won a British Championship in the 1980s. My orienteering achievements were, however, totally eclipsed by those of my son Andrew.
The Ox. Slim Sorrell gives his neck muscles a work out balancing Joe Brown and Pete Cargill:G Kitchin collection©
It was a dull September evening 1951 and the light was already failing when I arrived in Ambleside after an eventful two-day journey from the Western Highlands, left to hitch-hike whilst the other two went by bike. The last bus up Langdale had already gone but that was an eventuality for which provision had been made. I telephoned The Old Dungeon Ghyll and asked if Joe was in the bar. A short wait and I was instructed, in the curious, Arabicised form of English which Joe had led us into over the last year or so, to set off walking and he would be with me as soon as possible.
It was dark by the time I reached Clappersgate and night, but steady rain was making the walking anything but pleasant. My spirits rose a little later when a single headlight appeared ahead of me. I shaded my eyes from the glare, but still couldn't see whether it was Joe or not. However, the machine braked hard and swung round to halt by my side. Soon we were roaring along the bumpy road and I was wondering how Pete had withstood the buffetings of Amelia's unsprung rear end all the way from Kintail; maybe I hadn't drawn the short straw in the travel stakes after all. The journey was mercifully short, however, the hotel bar a bright, dry haven in which I was introduced, first to Sid Cross, then to his draught Younger's No. 3.
Later... much later- for closing time was a very flexible concept in Sid's mind- we made our way up the short stretch of road to Wall End Barn, our abode for the next few days. At that time the barn was a pleasant enough place as barns went, with plenty of clean straw, and inhabited, almost exclusively, by people who went there because they wanted to climb. Later, of course, it degenerated in almost every respect and was finally closed down by officialdom which, for once, seemed to have good cause for its actions.
We were awoken very early by an infallible alarm in the form of "Zeke" Myers, who stood, half hidden behind the dazzling light of his torch, jangling a great handful of coins in the deep right-hand pocket of his baggy trousers, close to the ear of each sleeping climber in turn. A sleepy: "What d'you want?" would be met by a boisterous: "Me brass!" and Zeke didn't move until the precious shilling was handed over. There was no credit at the barn, no advance payments either, and if you were up and away early enough you could have a free night. Few made it, however, Zeke was an early riser.
For Pete and me, it was our first visit to Langdale, and our ambition was to climb on Gimmer, inspired by the photograph of Oliverson's in 'Climbing in Britain', further reinforced by the urgings of our friend, Brian, who insisted that it was: "Just like being in an aeroplane. " We set off un unpromising weather which gradually deteriorated and put paid to our plans. We compensated by climbing Harrison Stickle before the full force of the storm drove us back to shelter of the barn.
The following day saw no movement but, although we were confined to the barn, it was spent most profitably. Some time previously, we had discovered that the fine, clean sand which floored the Stanage Cave at that time, rapidly swallowed up any coins etc. that fell from the pockets of the regular week-enders.
Application of logic led us to sift through the barn's carpet of hay and our efforts were well rewarded before it was time for our evening meal and the nightly visit to the ODG. It was still pouring when we made our way down the road, and we sat in the bar, sipping our No. 3, hoping for better weather on the morrow. We had been there for some time when there was a minor commotion as two saturated objects burst into the bar and stood, dripping water onto the floor for a few moments before dumping their huge commando rucsacs and peeling off their sodden ex-army anoraks. One was tall, his companion much shorter, and I thought I remembered him from a meeting a couple of years previously on Gardom's Edge. They pushed past our table to the bar where the shorter one ordered two shandies and a packet of Park Drive. "Isn't that Joe Brown?" I asked Joe rather loudly. He shrugged, but the taller one looked at me, put a finger to his lips, and motioned me to silence. Their order delivered, he led the way over to our table and sat down.
The author leads Jankers Crack at Froggat: G Kitchin collection
He was "Slim" Sorrell and his companion was, indeed Joe. They had finally run for cover after several days of appalling weather, camped in upper Eskdale. I had not met Slim before, and my earlier acquaintance with Joe had been somewhat perfunctory, but I rapidly came to like both of them immensely although they were very different in character. Then, as now, Joe was the most modest of men, quiet and unassuming, especially in public or in large groups, although he would talk freely and interestingly in the right company, especially about climbing. Slim was much more outgoing and never seemed to run out of steam, his conversation fuelled by a wide and varied range of interests. Singing was a popular activity in the bar at that time, and Slim's own composition, the Cloggy version of 'The Streets of Laredo', became part of the regular repertoir. Slim had no conceit for himself, but he was obviously very proud of his association with Joe, whose exploits he recounted in graphic detail, especially the recent tour de force on Diglyph. His subsequent death, in appalling circumstances, came as a great shock to those who had known him.
The next morning we witnessed, for the first time, what proved to be a standard ritual. Slim was up and dressed soon after Zeke's round, trying to roust Joe out, first by persuasion, next with insults, and finally with cup after cup of tea until, at least, the pressure of fluid drove him out of the barn. He exited clad only in his army shirt, but this was a perfectly respectable procedure for, as all ex-servicemen will know, there were only two sizes of Army shirt, waist-length and below the knee; Joe's was the latter. Once Joe was up and breakfasted, however, the roles were reversed. Joe was now keen to be out and on to the crag, whilst Slim found excuse after excuse to delay the departure. Eventually Slim capitulated and we were on our way to Raven Crag with Kneewrecker Chimney as the objective. It was an education just to watch Joe at work, and he inspired confidence through his own performance. He climbed the crux without using his knee on the excruciating hold. When my turn came, I was as pleased as Punch that I was able to do the same, then, a few minutes later, I felt very smug as Pete suffered the traditional agony. After lunch we went up to White Ghyll to try Gordian Knot. Although the rain had stopped the wind was up to gale force and Joe found the crux exposed to the worst of it. Here he showed that his incredible ability was allied to sound judgement and retired to the relative shelter of White Ghyll Chimney, leaving Gordian Kott for a calmer day. On the way down the screen after the climb Joe turned a large boulder onto his ankle which affected his climbing for the rest of the week. Not that it mattered much, for the weather was bad again the next day and we amused ourselves finding new uses for the huge central door post from the barn which, we discovered, was removable. Firstly, Slim, who fancied himself as something of a strong man, claimed that if we hung it from his neck using a length of chain, he could support the weight of Joe and Pete, sitting on either end. The matter was put to the test and his only real problem was keeping them in balance without holding the post with his hands. After that we just put one end of the pole on the ground and tried to layback up it whilst keeping it in balance. We made valiant efforst but only Joe managed it to the top, in spite of his injured ankle.
Joe Brown-with injured ankle-lay-backs up a balanced pole at the barn: G Kitchin collection©
We expected quite an influx at the weekend but few came except Peter Greenwood and a very young Dennis Gray who went out and braved the conditions on Gimmer - they did Hyphen and Whit's End if my memory serves me correctly. An eighteen year old friend of Joe's breezed in, full of brash self-confidence, drank some tea, and vanished again, as quickly as he had come. Don who? Very soon the whole climbing world knew who!
Sunday was my last day and it dawned just as unmpromisingly as the rest. A mid-afternoon improvement tempted me out, however, and I set out alone, at three o'clock, aiming to reach Scafell Pike. I toiled up Rosser Ghyll, something I had been warned never to do, but my efforts were well rewarded, for the weather cleared up completely as I passed above Angle Tarn and gave a magnificent evening. From the Pike I looked longingly towards Scafell; reluctantly I decided that it was too late and turned to retrace my steps. I made the most of what time I had by returning over Esk Pike and Bow Fell as the shadows steadily lengthened. I had the mountains to myself, and I paused several times, savouring the atmosphere of total peace. I was tempted to linger, but time was pressing and I hurried on down The Band towards Stood End where the lamps were lit long before I reached it.
Wall End Barn 1951.Figures in front of the barn include Joe Brown,Dennis Gray,Pete Cargill and Pete Greenwood: G Kitchin Collection©
Working Class Heroes: Wall End Barn,early 50's: Neville Drasdo Collection©
First published in High July87.My thanks to George for the new images used to illustrate the on-line version of his original article and thanks to Neville Drasdo.