OBITUARY : W.H. Murray

Click to follow
The Independent Online
W. H. Murray was a mountaineer, an author and a soldier. The three strands of a full life were deeply intertwined; Murray will probably be best remembered for the ice climbs he made in his native Scotland more than 60 years ago which set the stage for the publication of two books about Britain's high places. His Mountaineering in Scotland (1947) and Undiscovered Scotland (1951) have an honoured place on the bookshelves of many enthusiasts.

The challenging winter climbs marked him out in the mountaineering world as a pioneer. But what prompted Murray to write has a genesis far removed from the Scottish mountains - to a time and a place ruled by sand and heat rather than scree and cold.

The Western Desert was a Second World War battleground for nearly three years before the Allied forces expelled the Axis from North Africa. In June 1942 Rommel's Panzers had Cairo in their sights and were riding high. Early in the war Murray had enlisted in the Highland Light Infantry, at Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow. He was posted to the Middle East and after the fall of Tobruk in June 1942 German tanks fell on the survivors of his badly mauled unit. The two-pounder anti-tank shots bounced off the formidable Panzers like golfballs, confirming the British gun's nickname of "pea-shooter". Murray was taken prisoner by a German tank commander who turned out to be a mountaineer. He was given a greatcoat and food and sent to the rear to begin three years behind barbed wire.

Incarcerated first in Italy, along with thousands of other prisoners of war he was taken to Germany when the Italians abandoned the struggle in 1943. Inactivity was a severe trial for someone so active. Murray began writing to lessen the numbing routine. Paper was in short supply so he used Red Cross lavatory rolls for a first draft, which was confiscated by a German officer who, unlike the Afrika Korps tank commander who captured him, had little time for mountains. A second draft was completed by the time the camps were liberated in May 1945 and two years later Mountaineering in Scotland was published.

Incarceration left its mark on many PoWs, but Bill Murray continued the activity he loved and in 1950 led expeditions to Garhwal and Almora in the Himalayas. He was deputy leader on the reconnaissance of Everest in 1951, but difficulties in acclimatising to the altitude excluded him from the successful assault by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing on the world's highest peak in 1953.

In later life he wrote extensively - guidebooks, works of topography, magazine articles and fiction. He was awarded the Mungo Park Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1953, and appointed OBE in 1966.

Tony Heath

William Hutchison Murray, mountaineer, writer, soldier: born Liverpool 18 March 1913; OBE 1966; books include Mountaineering in Scotland 1947, Undiscovered Scotland 1951, The Story of Everest 1953, Highland Landscape 1962, The Hebrides 1966, Companion Guide to the West Highlands of Scotland 1968, The Curling Companion 1981, Rob Roy MacGregor 1982; married; died 19 March 1996.