A Dream of White Horses. Edwin Drummond. Diadem Books, Cheshire (England), 1987. 224 pages, black-and-white photographs. £10.95.
Once in a while something happens that takes your breath away. A stunning physical attraction, a taste of exquisitely prepared food, a blend of classical stringed instruments, an unclimbed route of heroic proportions, a plunge into ice-cold waters, hot sex. Ed Drummond’s A Dream of White Horses is all of these, and more.
Combining previously published pieces with new work, this collection of autobiographical writings reduces the readers to grains of sand on a beach, alternately pounded by the passion of Drummond’s high tide and caressed by his ebb. There aren’t many works of which this can be said, especially in climbing literature.
These are “autobiographical writings” in the broadest sense. Drummond’s work isn’t easily categorized by the genre, except for the poetry. The autobiographical nature of the pieces is unquestionable, but so too is the strength of the fictional character. Even the essays are unmistakably Drummond. Fictohagiography?
White Horses is divided into three parts, “Mirror, Mirror,” “Terrorist Minerals” and “Do they Reach.” Amalgamated loosely in chronological order, they reveal the development of Drummond as person, climber and writer.
“Mirror, Mirror” asks a lot of questions. The opening poem, “The Heretic,” rejects man-made, organized religion and, by association, organized climbing. Yet, it acknowledges the existence of inner spirit and possibility of omniscience. The next piece, “Proud,” briefly details Drummond’s early years, the confusion of adolescence and sexuality, spreading one’s wings through various activities and testing the waters of a religious calling. Other pieces recount some of his climbing exploits.
“Terrorist Minerals” includes material from Drummond’s family life and his struggles to free his hostage self from the rocks which held him. Perhaps, in a way, some of the pieces are an apology for his obsession with vertical events that led him up, up and away so many times. The middle part contains poignant observations about the difficult life of a climber.
The end part, “Do they Reach?,” is named after a line from his poetry performance’s title piece, “Between a Rock and a Soft Place,” where Drummond ponders several questions, whose literal application and metaphor is whether his ropes reach the ground.
When Ed Drummond’s work first appeared in America, climbing was in its modem infancy. Hard aid was still as popular as free climbing, 5.11 was the limit and our sport was about to undergo an incredible transformation. Drummond was there, part of it, taking the lead. He put up several true horror shows. His prose from that time, most of which is in “Mirror, Mirror,” reflected the upheaval climbing was experiencing. Brash, direct, vibrant with image and word, that’s Drummond’s early writing.
Take “Great Wall.” Written about the fifth ascent of Cloggy’s Great Wall, it is a masterpiece. Cloggy glooms dark and grey above a misty, cold valley. It’s always wet. The Great Wall, a blank slab in the middle, has always been a British climber’s Grail. Peter Crew’s ascent of it was a giant step; it was talked of for months. Drummond manages in two short pages vividly to relive his ascent.
Abruptly, Drummond more or less disappeared from the limelight in the mid seventies. It was over this time that the material for “Terrorist Minerals” is taken. Having left Britain for California, he took up residence in the Bay area. What a change from quiet England! The multiple distractions and opportunities in California were pursued with gusto. Although he continued to climb, it is clear from these pieces that there were personal crises to be dealt with, that relationships with his family were frequently rockier than his sport. Most of the writing is about climbing, and yet some of the best is not. The constant in Drummond’s family life is his devotion to a seldom seen son, Haworth. At the end of “A Grace Period,” the last piece in this section, Drummond has just left a tumultuous expedition to Makalu in which team members spent much time and energy examining their climbing motives and personal values.
Throughout the last section, Drummond devotes his pen almost exclusively to answering human questions. The first piece, “Nelson Mandela’s Column,” pertains to one of his protest climbs. He spent much time during his U.S. habitation climbing buildings and monuments to protest social ills. In this piece, he climbs Nelson’s Column, centerpiece of Trafalgar Square, to protest Barclay Bank’s involvement in South Africa. As he clearly becomes more concerned about the world condition, one wonders if this heretofore wild and seemingly irresponsible person has taken on some semblance of responsibility to others.
“Jimlove Menwords” deals with human frailties and the need for climbers to address issues beyond simple climbing ethics. Drummond’s view is that Jim Perrin’s biography of Menlove Edwards missed the central element in Menlove’s miserably lonely life and death: that Menlove wasn’t driven by society to suicide. Drummond believes that glorifying Menlove as Perrin does is a disservice both to the man and ourselves because it places value on introspection and emotional avoidance rather than on the nurturing posture that Drummond feels should be the real goal of life. This is a major change from the earlier Drummond. The ultimate lay-it-on-the-line soloist now calls for human interaction and responsibility!
Poetry is the perfect medium for Drummond to work in, for he is good at capturing the essence of activity and feeling. Try reading his work aloud. The words vibrate with rhythm and excitement and elicit aural connections that work less well when read silently.
My copy of A Dream of White Horses is already thumbworn. This is literature that I will read again and again because the writing is challenging, exciting and the most consistently excellent climbing literature I know. Finishing the book is like coming up for air at the end of a long dream. Grab a copy, settle in and enjoy.