Published January 2, 2017
Some people might consider a cruise to a faraway destination an adventure. But to Fred Beckey, “It’s no adventure at all.” That is, “Unless somebody bombs the ship,” he says.
Beckey has a high bar for excitement, given his decades of record-setting mountaineering. Aside from grand adventures, he’s also picked up a number of epithets in his career: Grandfather of the road trip. Climbing’s living encyclopedia. A mythical character. Totally obsessive.
And at 93 years old, Beckey hasn’t changed a bit. Based in Seattle, he’s constantly focused on his next excursion and doesn’t have much regard for reminiscing about past triumphs. When filmmaker Dave O’Leske approached Beckey with the idea of making a documentary about him, O’Leske says, the response was basically, “No one cares about any of that.”
But lots of people, particularly serious climbers, do care. They’ve come to know Beckey the same way O’Leske, who is also a climber, did: Through campfire legends and the many detailed guidebooks Beckey wrote.
Born in Germany, Beckey came to the U.S. as a toddler and grew up in Seattle. By the time he was 13, he’d completed four first ascents of peaks in the Cascades.
Six years later, in 1942, he and his younger brother achieved a stunning second ascent of British Columbia’s Mount Waddington. The teenagers’ feat “set the North American climbing community on its ear,” writes Barry Blanchard in the introduction to Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs. “A knockout punch; boys undercutting the foundations of men.”
After graduating from the University of Washington, Beckey made climbing his life. He worked temporary jobs while tramping from place to place, ascending peaks everywhere from Canada to Alaska, the Himalayas to China.
“There’s a good feeling about it,” Beckey says of climbing in O’Leske’s documentary. “Different than going to work every day, [where] you don’t feel any better after the end of the day. At least, I don’t.” While there’s no official record of how many first ascents Beckey has pulled off, it’s said to be in the hundreds. Never married, he was known for running through girlfriends the way he accumulated ascents.
Yvon Chouinard, who went on to found the clothing company Patagonia, remembered a summer of ‘61 climbing with Beckey in Washington and Canada. They stole ketchup packets, defied a park warden, hopped freight cars, and conquered peaks. “Perhaps I’m alive today because of what he taught me,” Chouinard says in an audio essay about his “alpine apprenticeship” with the “sensei.”
O’Leske has spent more than a decade climbing with Beckey and slowly gaining enough of his trust to film. The result, due in early 2017, is called Dirtbag, slang for someone who turns mountaineering into a nomadic lifestyle. He was struck by how Beckey, with a seemingly photographic memory for climbs, could recall minute details from routes he’d traversed years ago.
“I think his legacy is really his sharing the love of the mountains through his writing and introducing these ranges to people,” O’Leske says.
Beckey, who has been known to head over to a friend’s house at night and pitch camp in the driveway, can no longer drive and gets frustrated as age limits his mobility, O’Leske says: “I think he spends a lot of his time just trying to figure out how the hell to get out of Seattle … His whole life, he’s been planning the next thing. He’s still doing that, but he’s reliant on other people to make it happen.”
These days, a network of friends and climbers take him on excursions—O’Leske recently went with him up to Squamish, British Columbia, where Beckey wanted to take on a climb that was beyond his body’s ability at this stage. His single-minded pursuit of now-impossible climbs is “delusional, in a way, but also inspirational,” O’Leske says, noting that people would stop in their tracks to see Beckey slowly but doggedly trekking on routes that are difficult by any measure.
The mentality that drove him to accomplish so much clearly hasn’t left him. When asked on camera whether he’s done everything he wanted to do, Beckey replies, “Never. No. None. I’ve just scratched the surface.”
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