Bill Murray on Crowberry Ridge
There is a region of heart's desire
[These stanzas are from Knight Errantry in Collected Poems of Geoffrey Winthrop Young, published by Methuen &Co. Ltd, London. 1936. The poem has 10 stanzas, of which these are numbers 7, 8, & 10. Bill used stanzas 7, 8,9, & 10 preceding the Acknowledgements in Mountaineering in Scotland and he acknowledged Mr Geoffrey Winthrop Young's permission to reprint them.
GWY was born in 1876 and died in l958. He was "one of the greatest mountaineers that Britain has produced". He lost a leg in the First World War.
Bill introduced me to GWY's poetry, which have had a profound influence on me. Although the Collected Poems of GWY was out of print, I wrote to the publisher and was fortunate in acquiring two copies. I once met GWY at an SMC meeting in Edinburgh.
I still have copies of two other GWY books: Mountain Craft (1920, which was my textbook) and On High Hills (1927). I gave Bill my copy of The Grace of Forgetting (GWY's autobiography).]
A signed photography of W.H. Murray had a special place in my Father's study: the bearded, somewhat ascetic face of an Elder in my Father's congregation. I gave Bill that picture of his Grandfather.
I have several photographs of Bill, including his passport photograph dated June 47 – it was for his first post-War expedition to the Alps. One, with the hood of his anorak over his head, reminds me that Bill spent time at a Benedictine monastery.
I met Bill at the JMCS meet at Kingshouse in 45, a few months after his release from Prisoner-of-War camp. I immediately started climbing with him on weekends through the great winters of 46 and 47. Bill waited for me at Queen Street station with his old Morris eight and gave me a camp-bed at his Mother's house, which was then Bill's home. When Bill and his Mother moved to Loch Goil, my Sister stood in for me and scrubbed the floors. Unfortunately the water came through between the floorboards to the rooms below.
Bill was ten years older than me, and was like an older brother – or like a kindly master with a novice. I was keen to learn, and he to teach. His smiles at my struggles and enthusiasms come through whenever he writes bout our comradeship. Of our week in Glen Affric, before the dam was built, he wrote:
"Having no plates we ate straight out of the pot, keeping pace with each other in spoonfuls. In its detail this way of feeding gives illuminated glimpses into a man's character. A valuable essay could be written on the subject, with a long and learned title."
0 death, where is thy sting? 0 grave, thy victory?
In the summer of 47 I went to Switzerland to spend a year studying Alpine tectonics. On the point of leaving, I learned that Bill was in hospital after a serious accident in the French Alps. I flew from Edinburgh to Basel and made my tortuous way to Gap, where I found Bill and Michael Ward still in blood-soaked clothes. They had been climbing with John Barford on the Ailefroide when they were struck by falling rocks. Bill and Michael had fractured skulls. Michael – with whom I had climbed on Nevis – had no idea who I was. John Barford was dead.
When I visited Bill four years ago in the Vale of Leven hospital, he was gravely ill. He had little strength to speak, but he told me he was going to die. Indeed the doctors thought this very likely. Bill looked on death, and indeed on every eventuality, with a quite extraordinary composure. He knew no fear.
Sitting in a slit-trench at dusk waiting to be overrun by the 15th Panzer Division, Bill systematically destroyed everything of use to the enemy. He came across an address book: every name in it was the name of a mountaineer. He reflected on how much he had learned from these men, and been given by them, and thought how little he had been able to give in return.
Bill wouldn't want us to mourn for him! As an experienced mystic, he was confident that through death he would arrive at a higher level of perception and adoration.
Integer vitae scelerisque purus
The man whose way of life is characterised by moral integrity,
and whose heart is pure,
needs not the weapons of lesser mortals ...
Bill exemplified the truth of Horace's words. He trained himself to develop Purity, Fearlessness, Truthfulness, Selflessness, Humility, and Love of all fellow creatures. Again and again Bill advised us that “Our search for beauty on the mountain has to be a conscious one. ... Wings do not grow of their own accord.”
Describing his first ascent – the Cobbler – he wrote:
“The rock had beauty in it. Always before I had thought of rock as a dull mass. But this rock was the living rock, pale grey and clean as the air itself, with streaks of shiny mica and white crystals of quartz. It was a joy to handle such rock and feel the coarse grain under the fingers. ... From that day I became a mountaineer.”
Bill knew that I, too, loved rock. Of one of the many climbs we made while Bill was writing the Rock Climbing Guide to Glencoe, he said:
“ I looked up and confess to a twinge of conscience at encouraging Mclntyre to face as leader the dire troubles in front. But I need not have worried. He is a geologist. Rock in any shape or form, at whatever angle, is the delight of his heart. ... If he were ever about to fall off an overhang he would, just before parting company with the rock, draw his tongue over the surface to bring out the colour. I have observed him do this at other times and feel quite confident he would do it then.”
A fellow Prisoner-of-War encouraged Bill in meditation, which Bill continued to practice for the rest of his life. He also contributed two breath-taking articles to the SMC Journal: The Evidence of Things not Seen in 1946 and The Approach Route to Beauty in 1948.
“May it not be possible”, he wrote,“by some practical method to help one's mind to grow in awareness of beauty, to develop that faculty of perception which we frustrate and stunt if we do not exercise? The answer is that growth may be given to the spiritual faculty as simply as growth and health are given to the body – by awakening it from slumber, and providing nourishment and then by giving hard exercise. In this work there is no static position; one goes on, or one drops back. Therefore, and above all – persist.”
My mind fills with memories of being on mountains with Bill. A storm on the Matterhom, and climbing SC Gully (joined by Tilman) were notable occasions. Another classic climb was Crowberry Gully jointly with Bill Murray and Bill Mackenzie. But there were two supreme days – or rather nights. The first was a winter camp on the summit of Bidean nam Bian, when on a moonlit night we found ourselves above the clouds.
"... at my feet
Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.
A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
All over this still ocean and beyond,
Far, far beyond, the solid vapours stretched,
In headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes,
Into the main Atlantic."
"Are not the mountains, waves and skies a part
Of me and of my soul, as I of them?"
[Lord Byron Childe Harold's Pilgrimage 3:75]
“The most acutely difficult expedition to achieve on mountains in this country”. Bill wrote, “is a moonlight climb in winter. ... The problem is to combine leisure with a full moon, a hard frost, and a clear sky. ... Success needs patience, long and persistent patience. ... But at last the record frost of February 47 brought the long-sought opportunity.“
In Undiscovered Scotland Bill described how we traversed the Aonach Eagach ridge from east to west, then from west to east, and waited on the summit of Meall Dearg for the dawn. For Bill “Corrie and mountain are the natural altars of the earth, to be used as such before one goes.”
I was privileged to share the experience with him. Wearing our padded flying suits, we sat down facing east.
“We fell still. We drove from our heads every thought of self and simply observed the scene detachedly, allowing it, and nothing else, to flow into us.” ... “We knew, as surely as men know anything on earth, that the implacable hunter had drawn close. ... One's ear caught the ringing of His footstep; and one's eye, gleams like the flashing of a shield.”
In The Evidence of Things not Seen, Bill wrote:
“Unlike the Lady of Shalott I failed to break the spell and gaze straight upon the ultimate reality; yet the hills that night were big with it; its signs unmistakable. It is this that mountaineers style the mystery of hills. Put more broadly, it is the mystery of me universe, where the forms of man or mountain may be likened to veils that reveal its being and yet mask the true essence.” “Something in that night cried out to us: that the world was full of a Divine splendour, which must be sought within oneself before it might be found without: that our task was to see and know. From the deeps of the earth to the uttermost star above, the whole creation had throbbed with a full and new life; its music one song of honour to the beautiful; its Word, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory ...”
“Sunrise opened the final movement. ... The act of adoration had begun, for this was the sun's hour of morning song. In that we shared; for we could say to ourselves: We had stood as sure stars stand, and moved as the moon moves, loving the world."
The "world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil
[Gerard Manley Hopkins God's Grandeur]
“We had set out in search for adventure and we had found beauty. Thus we had found them both in their fuller sense; for in the architecture of hill and sky, as in great art and music, there is an everlasting harmony with which our own being had this night been made one. What more may we fairly ask of mountains?”
“The truth is that in getting to know mountains a man gets to know himself. That is why men truly live when they climb.”
Bill concluded this account with these words:
“We came down in the forenoon to a point about a thousand feet above the Glencoe road. We found a patch of sun-bathed turf, on which we curled up side by side. There kept running through my head, between waking and sleeping, a recently read verse:”
Thou shouldst die as he dies,
For whom none sheddeth tears;
Filling thine eyes
And fulfilling thine ears
With the brilliance ... the bloom
and the beauty ...
This is precisely what Bill Murray did.
And it's his wish for us.