Climbers often take on the characteristics of the mountains and cliffs that they love, or vice versa. Nick Dixon's routes are thin, John Dunne's are large in character and stature and Dawes' are quirky, bold and slightly insane. In mountaineering terms, the extraordinary climbs of Brendan Murphy rank alongside the achievements of the leading stars mentioned yet, like the mountains he climbed, they were relatively unknown to the wider population. Brendan was a legend in his own out-to-lunch time amongst the tight knit group of mountaineers operating away from the 8000m circus, at the very highest levels on steep technical terrain, applying the techniques of Scottish winter and Alpine face to the Himalaya.
Even amongst that small family, Brendan rarely talked of his own achievements. Much of the material for this obituary has come from its other members: Rob Durran (with whom Bren did the first Irish winter ascent of the North face of the Eiger), Dave Wills (first complete winter ascent of Divine Providence and two attempts on the North ridge of Latok), Andy Cave (first ascent of the North face of Changabang) and of course his long standing partner Kate Phillips (with whom he made the first Irish ascent of Ama Dablam).
If he was reticent to talk about his own achievements or difficulties with his peers, amongst strangers he was modest almost to the point of secrecy. Some climbers met him this winter, reading a book in the cafe in Fort William. Asking him what he'd done elicited the response "Oooh, you know - had a good day". Further questioning revealed that this 'good day' involved driving solo from Cambridge overnight, dossing by the roadside, then soloing Minus One and Astral Highway! The following day he soloed Galactic HitchHiker and then drove back to Cambridge.
His steady solid climbing style was ideally suited to the uncertain world of snow & ice climbing, yet he was no slouch as a rock climber either, having incredible strength and stamina "for a mountaineer". He was once established just below the crux of Lord of the Flies when a party arrived to do the Corner. They duly completed the route and abbed off 2 hours later, with Bren still hanging at the crux making absolutely sure the key sideways hex runner was placed to his satisfaction before committing himself (successfully, of course) to the crux in incredibly hot and greasy conditions.
This resistance to poor conditions was a legendary Murphy trait, though it more often applied to extremes of cold and wet than heat. He would simply appear to be unaffected by conditions where the rest of us would be seriously worried about long term survival. During his first winter ascent of the Eiger , the weather conditions went completely pearshaped on the 3rd day. He and Rob Durran pressed on, with Brendan producing brews by holding the stove between his knees inside a bivvy bag. On Ama Dablam, it was his apparent lack of concern at the snowfall and poor visibility which gave Kate the confidence to push on to the summit. To this day, I cannot decide whether he felt the same discomfort, pain and fear as the rest of us in those marginal situations that mountaineering so often presents us. I rather suspect that he did , but his equanimity, calm and positive approach enabled him to stay chilled out in situations that he liked to refer to as "good sport" or "character building".
Whether on the hill or off it, this strength of character made him a unique person to be with, as his semi-detached (from reality) attitude would result in all sorts of excitement. He was so often late in turning up from down south for rock climbing weekends that the phrase "The Late Brendan Murphy" still makes me laugh (when he arrived he would always have a daysack full of lager with him). He frequently ran out of petrol, the last time being on our way back from the Alps at Christmas, yet for Murphy this was just another opportunity to build our characters.
He was always losing things: his wallet and passport falling out of rucksack strapped to the back of a motorbike on the way to catch a flight to Spain, his watch on the floor of a base camp shelter. Every hour it would bleep, followed by a frantic couple of minutes searching in the darkness. Kate tells a classic Murphy story where, after berating her for leaving her wallet in the Grindleford cafe, he then left his trousers in Outside, lost his car keys at Froggatt and then locked both his spare key and his pit in the car. Throughout all these minor epics, he remained totally unfazed, as if he knew that, whatever happened, it would be all OK.
This faith in a positive outcome to problems extended to his dealings with people, and earned him respect from a wider community than just the people with whom he climbed. In all the years that I climbed with Brendan, I never heard him utter a bad word about anyone, even Captain Camembert, the liaison officer from hell on our Gasherbrum 4 trip in 1993. His rapport with the porters and other locals was obvious, evidence of a deep concern for their welfare. He provided many novice climbers at the Cambridge University MC with heaps of encouragement, enthusing them through his own positive approach. Good looking and charismatic, he attracted lots of attention from women, and people of all ages, genders and walks of life found him easy to talk to. Even London yuppies, focused on the complexities of financial dealings in the City found him "almost human - with very nice teeth"
Bren's own finances were remarkably uncomplicated. His tastes were simple and unpretentious, his gear was always well worn and he was happy to live on cheese toasties, coffee and wine. His money went on trips to go climbing, whether by motorbike to the Lakes, by car to Scotland, or by plane to the Himalaya.
It is those very special climbing days which will endure, above all the time we spent together on the North West face of Cerro Kishtwar in autumn 1991. Lost rucksacks, an approach through Ladakh to avoid the unrest in Kashmir, an encounter with a psychotic American trekker in Zanskar, and 17 days of the most technical mixed climbing imaginable in capsule style made this the most enjoyable trip of my life. Throughout the entire expedition, even when we made the desperately difficult decision to turn back on day 15, just 150m from the summit, he retained that perfect blend of determination mixed with calm in the face of adversity.
I am convinced that he retained this inner peace and calm approach even as he was struck by the avalanche that carried him to his death. It is the one comfort that I can take from this appalling loss.
Like artists whose work only becomes valuable after their deaths, Bren's achievements were just starting to be recognised at the time that he left for his second attempt on the North face of Changabang. Climbed in pure alpine stye, it epitomised his approach to mountaineering and the character traits demanded by such an outrageous route, climbed in weather conditions that could only be described as character building. It will remain as a monument to one of the finest mountaineers of the last decade.