Surely one of the greatest characters ever to grace the British climbing scene, the ‘poet-climber’ Ed Drummond has combined philosophy, talent and a greatly individual approach to leave a physical and literary legacy that can be matched by few.
Born in Wolverhampton in 1945, Drummond found a typically unique and self-directed route into mainstream climbing, and while never becoming one of the established elite, he moved easily through their ranks, maintaining always a slight separation, due to a differing underlying ethos. Still, his canon of first ascents rival many a hard man’s. Beginning with groundbreaking routes on Avon Gorge such as The Equator and Krapp’s Last Tape, then in the Peak District where his routes such as Banana Finger and The Asp are rightly heralded as classics.
In North Wales, his The Moon and A Dream of White Horses are among the greatest climbs in the country. His masterpieces, however, The Long Hope Route on Hoy in 1970, and The Arch Wall on the Troll Wall in 1972, remain dark challenges - hard, committing and untameable. Drummond left the UK in 1992, moving to San Francisco. He is currently in the UK on a lecture tour.
I started climbing because of hunger.
My parents would lock me out after school, so to get to the pantry I had to climb up a ladder, traverse along a little ledge, mantelshelf onto the window ledge, then squeeze through the window. I could be in and out in five minutes.
The Wrekin in Wellingborough was the first hill to inspire me.
There was an automated beacon on top, and it moved me to write my first poetry. A line from that poem still thrills me, “One lone aircraft tracks.” The thought that through language you can register something, can track real presence.
I had a primitive attraction to climb the first mountain I saw.
I’d been youth hostelling in North Wales with my friend John Varty when we saw Cadair Idris. We set off directly up it, but the cloud came down. My companion began to cry. But I found within me a way, not only of getting to the top, but of speaking to John so that he too was able to carry on. That was very empowering.
I got turned back from Tower Ridge.
I’d found a book in school that said Tower Ridge was the longest climb in Britain, to me that also meant the hardest. I had to climb it, so at Easter myself and a Pentecostal preacher - who was abusing me - made our way there. We had sixty feet of Sisal rope, and all we knew was that it was above a hut. We got up to the top of the Douglas Boulder and met two climbers wearing crampons who told us to go back down. The preacher was wearing a black mac, his street trousers and a pair of Wellingtons. I was in my little shorts.
When I realised that I was going to live, the feeling was incredible.
I fell off the front of Pontesbury Hill. It had only just been top-roped for the first time and I naively decided to do it. At the top, I couldn’t pull over, and eventually fell, smacked into the ground and kept bouncing. I was sure that I was dying, that I had crossed some line. But no - it showed me that no life was worthless, that my spirit could never be killed off. It was like having a million volts passed through my body.
I didn’t want to bother with all the climbs that qualify you to do the hardest routes.
I wanted to tap in to a developing sense that you can trust the universe, that you can trust yourself. I went to Cloggy with Ken Wilson, and when I saw Great Wall, I told him that I was going to climb it the following day. I’d only been climbing for a year, I had no right to climb this route. I should have been out of my depth.
I learned to ask for help on North America Wall on El Capitan.
I was attempting to make the first solo of this route and after fourteen days, and three pitches from the summit, I got trapped in a terrible storm. My portaledge slowly filled with meltwater. Then eventually, I farted, and it was cold air that came out of me. Deep inside the furnace had been turned off, and I was going to die. Then a rescuer appeared and they brought me back to the top. It felt like I’d been brought back from the brink.
Writing is an attempt to map the unknown.
To go a little further into the labyrinth. Even whilst climbing I’d wander off between climbs and write. Climbing often inspired me, and I tried to write in such a way that the reader could see themselves in the act. To find situations where the act reflected something of me, but also, hopefully, something of them.
I see Parkinson’s Disease as a beginning, not the end.
I have always valued my health, but having done so much, I didn’t feel aggrieved when it was diagnosed. I was a tree. I grew, and I cast my shadow. And now it’s time to wind down, and that in itself brings a whole new set of challenges and interests. It has made me focus on getting things right. You don’t get to repeat any day. It’s like making a will. I want to be as open and as authentic as I can about it with anyone who will listen. I want to engage with it, to touch it and feel it with accuracy.
I don’t want to go to bed with any secrets.
I want to have shared what I have felt and what I have seen, accurately, honestly, with my friends and my peers, anyone who will listen. Climbing and writing aren’t necessarily isolated self-indulgences. They must be communicated.