British climbing legend Joe Brown was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for “services to rock climbing and mountaineering.” The CBE is a division of the British honours system, which recognizes significant achievement, personal bravery, and service to the country.
The eighty year-old Brown is considered one of the greatest British climbers of the 20th century. Brown’s climbing career began in the Peak District of northern England in the 1940’s. With makeshift gear and minimal climbing knowledge, Brown assembled a small group of climbers and began establishing new routes. Over the next two decades Brown climbed compulsively, establishing so many routes that he later remarked “at one stage I remember doing what I thought was the first ascent of something and as I got near the top I realized that it wasn’t the first ascent: I’d done it before and I could remember how it finished.” Soon he was making regular trips to the Alps, where he continued to pull off major ascents for a climber of relatively little notoriety. In 1954 Brown and Don Whillans climbed the West face of the Dru, a high profile route at the time, and the world of professional alpinism began to take notice.
His big break came when he returned from the Alps in 1954, and was met with a telegram from Sir Charles, asking him to take part in an expedition to Kanchenjunga. At 8586m, it is the world’s third highest peak, and was the highest unclimbed mountain at the time. Brown acclimatized well at camp 4, so he and George Band were selected to make the summit bid on May 25th, 1955. The pair was successful, largely due to Brown’s ability to lead an overhanging crack on the final wall (another party bypassed this crux the following day). The ascent of Kanchenjunga cemented Brown as one of the strongest climbers in the world, and placed him at the forefront of British alpinism.
Brown spent over fifty years establishing some of the world’s hardest routes, yet his climbing ethic and vision for alpinism are equally lasting gifts to the sport. In a time when siege-style expeditions were the norm, Brown preferred climbing with a small group of close-knit friends. When many climbers didn’t think twice about hammering in as many pitons as necessary, Brown had a self-imposed limit of two pieces of protection per pitch. His low-key approach to climbing, was described as unique for its time. It was Brown’s respect for the mountain and insatiable appetite for adventure that helped usher in future generations of style-conscious climbers. Through his actions and words, Brown showed that the climbing experience in itself is at the core of his service to the sport.
“Anyone who does new routes will agree, you just can’t beat it. There have been lots of occasions when I’ve been sorry to get to the top, because it’s finished, and it’s been so fantastic you don’t want it to stop.” -Joe Brown.