Edwin Drummond, who turned climbing into activism, dies at 73
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Edwin Drummond, who turned climbing into activism, dies at 73

  • THE NEW YORK TIMES

    Edwin Drummond smiles while in custody on a New York Police Department boat on May 11, 1980, about 24 hours after he climbed a third of the way up the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to protest the incarceration of Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther who had been sentenced to life in prison. Drummond, a mountaineer and poet who made international headlines by scaling landmarks as a form of protest, died on April 23 at a care facility in Oakland, Calif. He was 73.

  • THE NEW YORK TIMES

    Edwin Drummond, top, and Stephen Rutherford climb a third of the way up the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to protest the incarceration of Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther who had been sentenced to life in prison, on May 10, 1980. Drummond, a mountaineer and poet who made international headlines by scaling landmarks as a form of protest, died on April 23, 2019, at a care facility in Oakland, Calif. He was 73. (D. Gorton/The New York Times)

  • THE NEW YORK TIMES

    Edwin Drummond, top, and Stephen Rutherford climb a third of the way up the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to protest the incarceration of Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther who had been sentenced to life in prison, on May 10, 1980. Drummond, a mountaineer and poet who made international headlines by scaling landmarks as a form of protest, died on April 23 at a care facility in Oakland, Calif. He was 73.

Edwin Drummond, a mountaineer and poet who made international headlines by scaling landmarks like the Statue of Liberty as a form of protest, died April 23 at a care facility in Oakland, California. He was 73.

His son, Haworth Ward-Drummond, said that the cause was pneumonia and that Drummond had had Parkinson’s disease since 1994.

Drummond was already well known in climbing circles as a sort of alpine poet laureate before he decided, in the late 1970s, to use the talents he had honed on European peaks and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park to draw attention to causes he considered important. He faced legal repercussions for climbing various buildings and monuments, which he saw as a small price to pay for battling injustice.

In 1978, he climbed Nelson’s Column in London with Colin Rowe, another mountaineer, to protest apartheid; the next year he climbed Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to protest the incarceration of Elmer G. Pratt, a Black Panther who had been sentenced to life in prison in 1972 after he was convicted of killing a teacher. ( Pratt spent years trying to prove that he was framed before his conviction was vacated in 1997.)

Drummond climbed a third of the way up the Statue of Liberty with Stephen Rutherford, a younger climber, on May 10, 1980, also to draw attention to Pratt’s case. Once the two climbers had ascended, they opened a 25-foot-long banner that said, referring to Pratt by his Panther name: “Liberty was framed. Free Geronimo Pratt.” They spent 24 hours nestled in the furls of Lady Liberty’s tunic, occasionally shouting answers to queries from reporters, then descended and surrendered to authorities.

“As the men, their arms handcuffed behind them, were led away by park rangers, Mr. Drummond said that Mr. Pratt had been framed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” an article in The New York Times said. “He added, ‘This has been a climb for justice.’”

Park Service officials initially accused Drummond and Rutherford of doing so much damage to the statue with pitons and other climbing tools that $80,000 worth of repairs would be necessary. Drummond said that he and Rutherford had used large rubber suction cups to anchor themselves to the statue and had not driven any pitons through its thin copper skin.

Both men were soon released on bail, and the charges against them were eventually reduced to misdemeanors — an indication that whatever damage they caused was considerably less expensive than the initial estimates.

For a climber of Drummond’s caliber, the side of a monument might as well have been a ladder. He soloed the Nose on El Capitan, the 3,000-foot-tall sheer granite cliff that has bedeviled generations of climbers, in 1973, and he tallied challenging first ascents in England, Wales and Northern Europe.

His most daring first ascent was the Arch Wall route up the Troll Wall in Norway, which he climbed in 1972 with Hugh Drummond (no relation). The route took them up the left side of the Troll Wall, the tallest vertical rock face in Europe at about 3,500 feet. Their climb took 20 days, during which they were buffeted by rain and snow, ran out of food and risked hypothermia and frostbite.

Drummond wrote about the Troll Wall climb in “Mirror Mirror,” a piece first published in Ascent magazine in 1973. Like much of his writing about climbing, it thrust readers into the exaltation, affliction, fear and occasional tedium of a long ascent with vivid imagery and imaginative metaphors.

In one passage he describes his colleague’s foot, bloated after days of climbing: “It looked as though, during the night, someone had pumped Hugh’s foot up. His skin transparent as tracing paper, the foot was a mallet of flesh, the toes tiny buds.”

Much of Drummond’s poetry was intimately connected to climbing, and during some readings he cavorted on a 20-foot-tall metal tripod he called a “portable mountain.” His poetry and prose were compiled in several books, including “A Dream of White Horses: Recollections of Life on the Rocks” (1987), a collection named after one of his first ascents, on a cliff in Wales overlooking the sea.

In the opening stanzas of “To Climb or Not To Climb,” the book’s first poem, Drummond compares struggling to climb to language:

If climbing is speaking a fluent body language,

yesterday was all Greek

to me …

Feet stuttered on doorsteps of granite:

a blank face.

Tongue-tied, my fingers

let me down, looking at the ground

as if I’d forgotten my name.

Edwin William Drummond was born May 14, 1945, in Wolverhampton, England, to William and Madeline (Parton) Drummond. His father worked for the post office, and his mother was a domestic worker.

After graduating from high school in Wolverhampton, he studied philosophy at the University of Bristol and began climbing in earnest; he later wrote that his first lines of poetry came to him on one of his first climbs. He supported his climbing and writing with a series of jobs, his son recounted in a tribute on the British Mountaineering Council’s website: “fireman, painter and decorator, lumberjack, steeplejack and teacher from time to time, to almost make a living.”

Drummond’s marriages to Josephine Ward, Grace Davis and Lia Simnacher ended in divorce. He lived in San Francisco for many years before moving to the care facility several years ago.

In addition to his son, from his marriage to Ward, he is survived by two daughters from his third marriage, Fiume Usnick and Areanna Drummond Simnacher, and two grandchildren. A son, Silvan, died before him.

In the early 1990s, Drummond developed his climbing protests into a global effort to raise environmental awareness and call for universal human rights with the assistance of the United Nations. The event, called Climb the World, raised money for both causes and called for people in dozens of countries to climb local hills and mountains in a show of environmental solidarity. Thousands took part.

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