Climber who stayed calm
IN THE armoury of the modern mountaineer, along with physical endurance and bloody-mindedness, the ability to remain calm is obligatory. Brendan Murphy, who has died aged 33 in an avalanche in India after one of the most remarkable efforts in British mountaineering history, had all three qualities but never allowed his ambition or drive to intervene in the more serious business of having fun and staying friends.
Born in Dublin, he grew up in Cornwall and then London. He began to take a strong interest in climbing at Cambridge where he read Engineering and where he first met two climbing partners who would have a great influence on his life, Robert Durran who shared his first Himalayan expedition to Pakistan in 1985, and the leading female alpinist Kate Phillips who later became his partner.
Brendan's mountaineering progress began while studying for his doctorate at Loughborough University. There he met Jerry Gore, an enthusiastic ex-Marine who with his equally dedicated friends provided impetus for Brendan's climbing career. In 1989, with Durran, Brendan climbed the north wall of the Eiger in winter, finishing in atrocious conditions.
While climbing the Eiger in winter is never routine, it had been done before - although not by an Irishman. However Divine Providence, a steep and desperate rock line on the Eckpfeiler Buttress of Mont Blanc, was still considered perhaps the hardest route in the Western Alps when Brendan and the blunt and ambitious New Zealander Dave Wills made the first winter ascent to the summit over five days at Christmas 1992.
But it was in the brilliant other-world of the Himalaya that Brendan's ability reached its full expression. Technically gifted and with an innate mountain sense, he eschewed the freakish side-show of Everest and the other 8,000-metre peaks in favour of long, sustained and difficult routes on mountains the public had not heard of. He also preferred to climb in what he felt was the purest style possible for his objectives.
Such rigorous standards inevitably meant failure. In 1991, he went to India with Andy Perkins to attempt a desperate new route on Cerro Kistwar, up terrain so uniformly steep that they carried a platform with them to sleep on. After 15 days of slog, short on food, wet, cold and lashed by spindrift they elected to descend despite being only 150 metres from the summit, finding the correct balance between ambition and survival.
There were successes to compensate. He climbed Ama Dablam with Kate Phillips and never lost his enthusiasm for rock and ice climbing. On one occasion he drove alone from London to Fort William and Ben Nevis, walked to the foot of his north-east buttress, and set off on his lone climb up the routes Astral Highway and Minus One - objectives which would be the lifetime ambition for most good climbers, with a rope and a partner to hold it. Friends he met in the pub that evening asked him what he had done. "Had a good day," was the reply. In a recent interview he rated the Cuillin Ridge of Skye as his best climb with its aesthetic ideal of "mountains, sea, sunshine and stars".
Brendan was superbly self-effacing. In 1992 he sent me a note asking if I could put a paragraph in a climbing magazine I was editing, if it was not too much trouble, about a forthcoming expedition he was sharing to the South Ridge of Gasherbrum IV which would be particularly expensive. Compared to the commercial slickness behind many modern expeditions, the cheerful amateurism of Brendan and his friends was a blessed relief.
On the hill he was determined, long-suffering and supportive and revelled in difficulties he would term "character building". Those who climbed with him compared Brendan to the British alpinist from the late 1970s Dick Renshaw, who shared Brendan's slight figure and Celtic good looks. Both men worked hard to help their partner in circumstances when self-preservation seems completely justifiable.
Brendan's last climb illustrated his abilities to the utmost. Changabang is one of the most spectacular mountains in the world and its north face remained one of the greatest challenges. Brendan and Andy Cave endured 10 days of bitter cold, poor weather and spindrift and still managed to reach the summit on June 1 despite running out of food. It was Brendan's best success of his climbing career.
Close behind them were Mick Fowler and Steve Sustad, who, after reaching the top of the vast face, fell 200 feet down the other side but stopped in soft snow before falling the length of the mountain to certain death. The two parties joined forces to help the injured Sustad descend.
During the long trip down, Fowler shouted up to his friends that the line he was on was too steep for the injured Sustad to manage. Brendan didn't hesitate. Climbing to one side to set up another abseil rope on a more gentle incline, an avalanche suddenly swept down and carried him for at least 500 metres. His body remains on the mountain.
Brendan Murphy, climber, born August 24, 1963; died June 3, 1997
Copyright 1997, The Guardian