Friday, 31 January 2014

No Ordinary Man

Harold Drasdo these days
I drove out of Sheffield, absently noting the supplicatory paw marks on West Side Story and a lone sentinel perched atop Buttonhook. The serried buttresses of Stanage were drenched with shadow. So many shared images linking us to the core of things. My thoughts wandered across the Donegal and Connemara highlands of 40 years ago, a time that, but for a few, is time out of mind. And thus to the man whom I was driving to meet, an enigmatic figure who has always intrigued me, a man, heaven help us, almost old enough to be my father.

Harold Drasdo was born in 1930. He has climbed for over 50 years. A former Bradford Boy and habitué of Wall End Barn, he is of the Brown-Whillans generation. His route, North Crag Eliminate, is one of the great Lake District Extremes. With Bob Downes, he made the second ascent of Spillikin Ridge, then the hardest and most famous route in Ireland. In the Lakes, he wrote the 1959 Eastern Crags guide and in Wales the guide to Lliwedd. His monograph Education and the Mountain Centres was an early and important critique of the Outdoor Education movement. With Michael Tobias, he co-edited The Mountain Spirit, an eclectic array of essays on aesthetic, cultural and spiritual responses to mountains. Now he has produced The Ordinary Route, part autobiography, part polemic. What are we to make of him, of it?

The first thing that must be said is that The Ordinary Route is very, very good indeed. Drasdo is a wordsmith who takes his craft seriously. Not for him the verbal pyrotechnic, the slipshod metaphor, the populist sentiment. Keep at it for 50 years and you too may learn to write like this. And yet Drasdo has previously been panned by the critics and resolutely condemned to literary extinction. Remain part of the awkward brigade and you too will merit the throwaway verdict of history!

Harold Drasdo leading the first ascent of Left Aisle on Arenig Fawr-14/5/96.

Time and time again The Ordinary Route reveals Drasdo as a consummate master of the felicitous phrase. Traditional guidebooks are sacred books, linking armchair and crag. Maps induce a dreamlike pleasure, are a poem without beginning or end. The remote fastness of Ogden Clough, archetypal grit outcrop, is a neat little arrangement of rocks, rimming its tight ravine. The cascades of Sour Milk Gill thunder powerfully and creamily down the slabs opposite Seathwaite Farm. The sing-songs of his post-war travelling companions are the poetry of the poor. Girls a little older than himself and tantalisingly inaccessible, defeat the austerity of rationing to make style out of rags.

At Gorphwysfa, the resting place, he has his conversion. Beneath him, the Llanberis Pass is shafted through with evening light and drenched with astonishing colours: golds, greens, purples, black. Three men stride abreast, sturdy booted figures in worn clothes, two carrying coiled ropes over their shoulders. He senses the justice of their claim to this place. All around him, the hills recline in sensuous invitation. He is 17 and he has wasted his life. For the next half-century, climbing will be a consuming passion.

Characteristically Drasdo is diffident, indeed almost dismissive, about what must have been a precocious climbing ability. The then highly serious North Crag Eliminate, done with an underfed, streetwise 14-year-old called Dennis Gray, is seemingly flawed by the necessary abseil removal of a loose block. A slip from the sloping finishing hold of Short Circuit at Ilkley costs him the first ascent of arguably the most technical route in the country. A casual exploration on Dove Crag anticipates the sustained seriousness of Mordor. At Kilnsey, with the swell of field surging against the cliff, he makes a futuristic ascent. Gallows Route is very nearly aptly named. Yet only with his gargantuan routes in the Poisoned Glen is there a sense of enduring satisfaction.

 Jac Codi Baw, The Amphitheatre, Arenig Fawr -1st ascent 29/7/97
 The rite of passage of the ferry crossing returns him to a land impregnated with Yeatsian lyricism and the beautifully cadenced speech of the far west, an empty, depopulated land where the hills are robed with mystery. Drasdo and his companions fall deeply, blindly, helplessly under the spell of Donegal. Forever afterwards, the valley of his dreams will bear a confused resemblance to the Poisoned Glen, redolent with a haunting sense of unrealised possibilities. 

The concomitant to mountaineering is companionship upon the hills. Such companionship may be real or vicarious. The famous, the unknown and the half-forgotten flit wraithlike through Drasdo’s pages. Abraham, Westmorland, Kelly, Dolphin, Greenwood, Marshall, Austin, Brown, Harris, Anthoine, make a curve like an arrowflight, spanning a century and more. To Irish climbers, the names of AndrĂ© Kopczynski, Ruth Ohrtmann, Peter Kenny, Frank Winder and Betty Healy are no whit less hallowed.

A young HD on Eagle Crag in Grisedale
Drasdo’s Lliwedd travails compel him to follow in the nail marks of Archer Thompson and Menlove Edwards, both of whom terminated sad, desperate lives through self-poisoning. He knows well that man’s days are as grass; for many, climbing is a fire which will burn out; the futility of retracing the past inexorably impales one upon a spear of grief.

And yet ultimately all of this is as nothing when set against mountaineering’s epiphanies. Middlefell Buttress is frescoed with rondels of bright green lichen. Empty, mysterious foothills bar the way to Arcadia. The sacred monastery of Saint Catherine, with one of the most eminent collections of ancient manuscripts on earth, stares out across a great and terrible wilderness, the land-bridge between Africa and Asia. Montserrat yields a perfect echo, an ineffable melody, Donegal a double moonbow, its immaculate white arches high and complete. By Gibraltar, a tangle of jet black snakes basks in the sun. At Corrour Bothy, after struggling through seemingly endless snowdrifts in the Lairig Ghru, exhausted mountaineers sink into deep dry beds of soft heather. In the Rifugio Lavaredo there is supper by candlelight, with sheet lightning flashing outside. An unruffled sea stretches across to Wicklow Head, while behind, the tiny but shapely hills of Lleyn lead up to the Rivals and above and beyond them to the mysterious heights of Eryri. The remote and uninhabited head of Glen Barra calls to us across space and time. There is a day on the Ordinary Route on the Idwal Slabs when, magnificently, huge soft snowflakes fall vertically in an absolute stillness and one is unexpectedly swept with happiness.

In her evocative Western Interlude, written about Glen Inagh in Connemara, published in the Ronnie Wathen edited Irish Mountaineering 1958/59 and quoted by Drasdo, Brighid Hardiman glimpsed a psychic frontier:
‘The mountains were quiet and unchanged, affected neither by our coming nor our going and I wished that there was some part of them that would miss us as we would miss them. But they were the ones who laid claim and remained untouched...’

With The Ordinary Route, Drasdo reveals the quotidian as strange and numinous. He spirits us across Brighid Hardiman’s psychic frontier. One of the Wild Geese has finally come home. 
HD and JA after climbing Tony Moulam's Widdershins above Ogwen Cottage.
©  Mick Ward, 1997
Previously published in Climber, August 1997 and Irish Mountaineering Club Newsletter Number 3, Autumn 1998