Book review: The Hard Years – Joe Brown

History has always been important to me. Knowing how countries became the places they are today, uncovering the mysteries of past lives, and realising that in most things little changes with time but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unusually however, I knew incredibly little about the history of climbing, despite being involved in the activity for over a decade. Moving in with my mountain-man of a boyfriend, I wasn’t surprised to find a whole bookcase emerge in our living room filled entirely with climbing-related books, guides, maps, and autobiographies. When it was established that I knew precious little about Britain’s mountain past, I was immediately given a pile of ‘homework’ – 6 or 7 publications that were key to unlocking the history of climbing in this country.

I’d read Jerry Moffatt’s Revelations last year of my own accord, and closed it feeling motivated and psyched to train hard and become the climber I could be. To be honest, I didn’t actually change my habits at all, but it’s important for anyone involved in a physical activity to fill your mind with people who have done it and succeeded, if only to remind you that it is worthwhile. Similarly, Lynn Hill’s Climbing Free encouraged me that it was okay to not enjoy spending weeks in freezing conditions on dangerous mountains – being interested solely in sport climbing is just as valid, and Lynn became an exceptional climber by sticking to what she enjoyed.

So upon opening Joe Brown’s The Hard Years I was looking forward to going back to where climbing began in the UK, pre- and post-war culture changing people’s mentalities but ultimately leading to the freedom to explore the mountains close to us. My first impression of the book was – and not necessarily negatively – that it was evident Joe had had little or no help in writing it, and as such the style of writing itself was incredibly simplistic. However, who says that an autobiography needs to be great ‘literature’? Particularly in the sporting world, the emphasis is on the activity not the ability to write – portraying the complexities and emotions without over complicating the sensations. Seeing as the book was also first published in 1967, I told my editorial brain to be quiet and enjoy the stories between the pages.

Joe Brown’s is a remarkable story – starting out as a young lad from Manchester, wearing hobnail boots and with nothing to guide him but a slightly bored sense adventure. It’s exciting to think that the ever-growing sport of climbing started from such humble origins, where technical products were long from being invented, and men went out with washing lines in a vague attempt at safety, mindful only of the next hidden crag and newly formed route. Reading the difficulty levels of the climbs they attempted with today’s mind set is a little odd – the routes they tried of the Severe grade would now easily be considered straight forward beginner routes. But back in the day they were at the cutting edge of what was and wasn’t possible, and present an important part of British history.

Discovering the evolution of my passion into the multi-faceted, complex sport it is today, and the humble way Brown along with many other climbers from the beginning refer to their ground breaking first ascents, makes me truly appreciate the ease with which I can enjoy the crags now. These men who went out despite the rain, tried out the first developments in equipment, and saved the pennies in order to explore what Europe had to offer, and risked everything they knew in the name of adventure.

From these quiet tales, Joe Brown became one of Britain’s best pioneering mountaineers, putting up almost all of the hardest first ascents this country has to offer, then venturing to the Alps, and then onto the Himalayas. His book treats us to the day-to-day lives of the first Rock and Ice group, as well as revealing the dramatic reality of serious altitude climbing. He has become a household name in the climbing world, and his small climbing shop that he began in Wales is now a highly successful chain of expertise and first-rate equipment. To go back to where it all started, a boy called Joe who just wanted to get outside, makes the journey all the more worthwhile when I return to the crags.


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