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Tool Users: the Joe Brown Helmet

[This Tool Users story first appeared in Alpinist 51 (Autumn 2015). Joe Brown died on April 15, 2020, at his home in Llanberis, UK. He was 89 years old. In 2011, at age 80, Brown was honored by the Queen Elizabeth II and appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for “services to rock climbing and mountaineering.” More stories about his life can be found here and here.–Ed.]

[Photo] Mike Lorenz

The rock was about half the size of a brick, Joe Brown guesses; it’s hard to be precise when these things hit you in the head. Brown, “The Baron” of British climbing, was on Torre di Valgrande in the crumbling Dolomites, wearing only a cloth cap. Les Brown, who dislodged the rock from the pitch above, climbed down to find Joe stunned, with blood pooling inside his hat. “It suddenly released, and all this blood poured down my face,” Joe recalls. “Les thought he’d done some irreparable damage to me. But in fact it was a minor thing.”

The year was 1960. Climbers had been wearing stiff hats or fishermen’s caps for generations, but hard-shell helmets were rare, particularly in Britain. When rockfall was expected, Brown and his cohort either carried plastic miners’ helmets–cheap but prone to puncturing–or held rucksacks over their heads.

Brown’s ascents of Kangchenjunga (1955) and Muztagh Tower (1956) made national headlines, and in 1965 he appeared live on BBC television, scaling cliffs at Cloggy. But, “being famous didn’t make you well paid,” Brown says. He was still earning minimum wage at the White Hall Centre for Outdoor Pursuits in Derbyshire, building jungle gyms and teaching climbing to schoolchildren. His goal was to open a gear shop in Llanberis, an old slate-mining town in Snowdonia.

Patching the outdoor center’s aging canoes introduced Brown to fiberglass, one of the miraculous new materials–like nylon, polyester and polyethylene plastic– that had emerged from World War II. Brown had seen early fiberglass helmets, such as the bulky Compton Climber, in the Alps and he knew they’d sell in the UK. He convinced the White Hall wardens to let him build fourteen fiberglass boats, and with that experience created his first helmets.

Brown’s design was a simple dome, easily scalable to different sizes, based on the shape of White Hall’s kayaking helmets. Inside, he added a webbing harness, similar to that of a miner’s helmet, and a band of spongy open-cell foam, soon to be replaced by more impact-resistant polystyrene. Brown’s helmet was nearly indestructible–in 1968 the German Alpine Club ranked it first out of sixteen helmets in every test–plus its low sides offered side-impact and rockfall protection. His design remained virtually unchanged for the next three decades.

The Joe Brown Shop opened its doors at a refurbished television store in Llanberis in 1966. Its stock of fifty Joe Brown helmets sold out in about a month. Two years later, Brown had hired a small staff and passed manufacturing over to Mo Anthoine, keeping only a small royalty for the design and the name. As with the Whillans harness or the Chouinard ice axe, the Brown name was part of the helmet’s appeal. Anthoine’s company, Snowdon Mouldings, sold the helmets until its collapse in the mid-1990s.

Climbing helmets took several years to arrive in North America. Steven Schneider, in his 1989 gear guide High Technology, describes how US climbers wore combat- helmet liners, kayaking helmets and leather flying caps well into the 1970s. The Joe Brown was one of the first imports. Barry Blanchard recalls it was the only model available during the late 1970s, when he began climbing in the Canadian Rockies. “For me, it not only provided sound protection, it also served as a totem,” Blanchard says. “I prayed that by wearing Joe Brown’s helmet, I could channel some of the Human Fly’s courage and ability.” Blanchard’s partner, Kevin Doyle, was less enamored with the twenty-ounce, unventilated dome: “It was more like a motorcycle helmet,” he recalls.

Fixated on fast-and-light ascents in the early 1980s, many alpinists chose the French-made Galibier helmets instead; its shallow plastic bowl lacked foam and side-impact protection, but it weighed considerably less, making it a prototype for the lightweight plastic-shell helmets to follow. But the Joe Brown set the standard for its strength and protection, as well as its longevity.

In 2002, near Llanberis, Joe Brown put up another of his more than 600 new routes. Ten years later, he learned that Antiquity (E1 5a) had been retro-bolted, apparently by mistake. At eighty-one, the Baron donned his fiberglass helmet. He cut the bolts off Antiquity, and left the hangers at the Joe Brown Shop for a younger climber to collect.

“My joints took a bit of a hammering,” he says.