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World renowned alpinist and climbing pioneer Fred Beckey dies at age 94

Posted on: November 3, 2017


Fred Beckey in 2012. [Photo] Jerry DodrillFred Beckey in 2012. [Photo] Jerry Dodrill

Fred Beckey, one of the most prolific alpinists the world has ever known, died October 30 at age 94 in Seattle, Washington, while in the caring arms of his close friend and biographer Megan Bond.

Bond told Alpinist that a burial is scheduled for 1 p.m. this Saturday, November 4, at Mountain View Cemetery, just outside Leavenworth.

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"This is a stone's throw to Icicle Canyon, where he spent so much of life climbing and exploring; a gateway to ranges in the North Cascades," she said. "All are welcome. Another memorial will be put on by the Mountaineers in Seattle, date not set."

Beckey's climbing career started at a young age, well before he became a member of Seattle's Mountaineers club in 1939 at age 16, and he climbed nearly to his dying day. Along the way he explored thousands of remarkable first ascents on mountains across the globe—his name is associated with several routes featured in Steve Roper and Allen Steck's Fifty Classic Climbs of North America—and he authored a stack of books, starting in 1949 with A Climber's Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington.

"Fred is without a doubt the most accomplished climber ever to come out of North America, and is among the all-time greats, alongside figures such as Ricardo Cassin, Herman Buhl, Lionel Terray, Walter Bonatti, and Reinhold Messner," renowned alpinist Colin Haley concluded at the end of his speech when he presented Beckey with the Mountaineers' Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.

"If you were to combine all of Alex Honnold's skill and all of Ueli Steck's skill into one super-climber, then had that super-climber continue climbing non-stop until their 80s, then you [would] find a modern equivalent of Fred Beckey," Haley said in his speech.

Beckey is often hailed as the godfather of the climbing-bum lifestyle, because he was so dedicated to his passion that he was perpetually traveling; he often slept on the ground and was notoriously frugal in his living.

"He chose to eschew climbing fame, financial security, marriage, and all other aspects of the 'American dream' in pursuit of climbing, back when it was an unheard of choice," Haley said in his speech.

But his friends Megan Bond and Cameron Burns noted that Beckey did not care for the title.

Bond told Alpinist in an email:

I know Fred mostly never wanted to be considered a "dirtbag".... He actually worked a TON [and] saved every cent—he was not a bum.... He was not only a climber, but an academic in every sense of the word—a scholar of the mountain world: terrain, flora, fauna, geology. He was meticulous in his research, careful with his relationships, protective of wild places, and never wanted to die in the mountains. He out-climbed two generations, and outlived three. He made numerous trips to the Himalaya, many of these in the last 30 years, interested in uncharted landscapes, or at least untrodden.... He didn't smoke, rarely drank, was the king of one-liners. He would become so one-thousand-percent fixated on a topic or project that there was no rest for anyone in his orbit until it was finished and complete; he hated to leave things undone. Most important to him in friendships was loyalty. If someone made a commitment to him to spend time with him and cancelled or didn't follow through, he would continue to be gracious to that person, but the trust would be gone. Time was critical, and not to be wasted. He squeezed more juice out of this life than anyone, and he had no guilt about prioritizing his agenda above all others (except for me, [whom] he always put first).

Megan Bond and Beckey in Ed Cooper's library, 2013. [Photo] Ed CooperMegan Bond and Beckey in Ed Cooper's library, 2013. [Photo] Ed Cooper

A natural born climber

Fred Becky was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1923. His given name was Wolfgang Gottfried Beckey. His brother Helmy was born a couple years later, about the same time the family moved to the United States in 1925.

Beckey is quoted in a tribute on the Mountaineers website: "I was 13 when I climbed Boulder Peak in the Olympic Mountains by myself—and I guess you can say that I never stopped climbing after that. For me, the appeal of climbing has many sources: a longing to escape from the artificial civilized order, a need for self-rejuvenation, a desire to restore my sense of proportion. When you are climbing, you experience freedom from constraints."

During his first year as a member of the Mountaineers, 16-year-old Beckey turned heads as he accomplished his first first-ascents.

The world took notice three years later, in 1942, when 19-year-old Beckey and 17-year-old Helmy made the second ascent of the remote Mt. Waddington in British Colombia.

"The climb was of comparable difficulty to the Eiger's north face [first climbed in 1938], but in very remote wilderness, not above the hotels and telescopes of Kleine Scheidegg—At the time it was one of most difficult climbs in the world, and the route still today has been climbed fewer than ten times," Haley said in his 2015 speech. ".... The modern equivalent would be two students from Garfield High School going to Pakistan over summer break and climbing a new route in alpine style on the West Face of Gasherbrum IV."

Though Helmy did not follow Fred's lifelong climbing pursuit and moved back to Germany in recent years, Bond said the two brothers remained close.

"Helmy adored Fred," she said.

Beckey climbing in British Columbia, ca. 1958. [Photo] Ed CooperBeckey climbing in British Columbia, ca. 1958. [Photo] Ed Cooper

A climbing legacy

In a tribute on Climbing.com, Cameron Burns noted:

[Beckey's] record of first ascents is probably not the biggest list tendered by a climber—just look at Harvey Carter with the 5,000-plus he's reputed to have established. Rather, it's the caliber of Beckey's climbs that stands out. Big, long, steep, tough—and often remarkably enjoyable. And, more often than not, Beckey's climbs—at least when he did them—came with a devilish barrel of logistical demons like complicated access, and finding reliable (and sometimes willing) partners, time, and money.

An interactive map designed by Michael Skaug is based on Beckey's records in the American Alpine Journal and shows at a glance just how prolific Beckey was.

Burns wrote:

Beckey wrote 22 feature articles and hundreds of firsthand reports for the American Alpine Journal. As AAJ editor Dougald MacDonald noted in 2014, "No climber in the 88-year history of the AAJ has written more reports or had more climbs cited in these pages than Fred Beckey."

Indeed, Beckey was educated and put his knowledge to use after graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in business administration in 1949—the same year he published his first guidebook.

Burns recalled:

...His was a keen intellect. In 1997, he stayed at my home for 10 days, and grunted out something that sounded like: "I need to send an email to Lindsay Griffin [a British editor]." I set him up with my computer, and after an hour and a half, came back into my office to read some of the most commanding and interesting language ever written about mountains and geology anywhere. It was, literally, unbelievable. "Send it, will ya?" he grunted. "I'm hungry."

Clint Helander, another friend of Beckey's, and who is a third of the man's age, told Alpinist in an email:

I never heard Fred address his mortality or physical decline. Even in his 90s, Fred wanted to go to remote corners of Alaska to tackle massive peaks that he had annotated 30, 40 or 50 years prior. His withering, 90-year-old body could no longer keep up with his ageless mind and aspirations. The closest I ever heard him come to admitting that he was slowing down was a few years ago when he was prodding me for information on some peaks in Alaska's Revelation mountains. I asked if he was planning a trip. "I don't know about this year, I'm getting pretty ancient," he said. "Maybe next year." I found his drive and focus to be incredibly genuine and inspiring. It went beyond desire. It was something completely unique. Fred Beckey deserves to be regarded as one of the greatest explorers of all time.

On SuperTopo.com, John Long, a prolific author and climbing pioneer, wrote, "There will never be another Fred Beckey. No words."

A documentary about Beckey's life, titled "Dirtbag; The Legend of Fred Beckey," is currently screening on a film tour. A biography by Megan Bond is expected to be published by the Mountaineers in the not too-distant future.

Fred Beckey, belayed by Les McDonald, climbs in British Columbia. Mt Garibaldi (2678m) is in the background, August 10, 1958. [Photo] Ed CooperFred Beckey, belayed by Les McDonald, climbs in British Columbia. Mt Garibaldi (2678m) is in the background, August 10, 1958. [Photo] Ed Cooper

Fred

The following story by James P. Sweeney first appeared in Alpinist 23 and has since been revised for his short story collection, The List, published in 2011.

It's almost ten, Lover's Leap is still in the shade, and Fred Beckey sleeps in the back of his red Subaru wagon. It must have been after two last night when I heard him pull into the campground. Now, a dirty window frames his craggy face, poking from a sleeping bag.

Fred's been climbing for nearly "sixty-five years," more than anyone, and tomorrow he'll leave for another partner and another climb. Four months ago today he asked me to climb The Line. He's writing a guide to his one hundred favorite climbs. He hasn't climbed The Line, but he's sure it will make his book.

Swathes of golden light and purple mountain shadows fill the valley. A squirrel chitters on a giant deadfall. Two blue jays poke at the ground next to the picnic table. I hear moving water. Out on the highway a truck shifts gears. The sky could not be bluer. One more cup of coffee and I'll wake Fred.

I met Fred twelve years ago in Alaska, where he's been climbing since 1946. He called, we went to an Anchorage coffee shop, and he showed me pictures of an unclimbed granite minaret, north of the Neacola Mountains in the southwestern Alaska Range. We never got to the minaret and Fred and I haven't had much luck in the mountains. We got into an argument two years ago on Thunder Mountain. I was pissed but we still met at the coffee shop, and last winter I climbed and skied with him in British Columbia.

Fred is hunched, his pants are hitched up, and his hair's disheveled when he crawls from the Subaru. "Can't complain about the weather," he smirks. Seems impossible to get a straight answer to where he was yesterday. Maybe Portland, because he said he was on Highway 5. Can't be sure.

I feed him coffee and cereal at the picnic table. He sits cross-legged and talks about a woman we both know. "She's a pain in the ass," he says. "Yes, she is," I say. Twice, he heads for the outhouse.

"Let's go," I tell him. Fred's seventy nine, The Line is three pitches. The parking lot fills with climbers while Fred fiddles with highly secretive papers in FedEx cardboard envelopes: notes, phone numbers, pictures, future climbs. I get the climbing rack together. Fred says, "You have too big of a rack." I take off a few cams. Then he asks if I have enough.

Fred wanders off to talk with some dudes from Tahoe and it's afternoon before we leave for the climb. Sauntering through the open forest, Fred pivots his head and swings his arms slowly, taking everything in. He stops and stares at the cliff. A couple tags along as far as some big boulders, and two friendly young guys follow us to the base of Lover's Leap. They're going to climb next to us so they can hang with Fred.

Fred's ready; he holds the green rope with just enough slack. "On belay," he says. I pose at the crux; he takes lots of pictures. I'd love to have my picture in his book. Once I'm at the anchor, he yells "Off belay" twice, and waits until I pull hard before he starts climbing.

Fred's straight up on the balls of his feet. His back is not hunched anymore. He lie-backs and finger jams. The wall's steep; I look right down at him. "Up rope," Fred says. He's at the crux. "I got you, Fred." I pull tight. Three more times: "Up rope." The lanky kid from Berkeley on the other route takes pictures. The sun feels good. Fred's past the crux. "Barely made the move," I hear him say.

Fred lie-backs, stems, jams up to me, then clips his blue-and-white daisy chain to the belay. I throw a clove hitch in his end of the rope, clip it, and snug it up. Sometimes he doesn't seem to hear anything, but when we had our argument, six months later he repeated what I said, word for word.

"You guys are moving fast," says one of the guys at a belay to our right. Their camera is out. Fred's pushed right up against me. The skin is lighter in the deep creases on his face. He leans out and looks up. White hair flows from his big nose and ears. There's still a little brown on his head, but his sideburns are completely white. "Nice lead," he tells me. "You put in lots of gear." "I don't want to die," I say. "I don't want to die either," he says. The next pitch goes fast: horizontal dikes protruding from the stone makes the climbing easy. I tell the kid climbing next to me, "We got ninety years of climbing experience on you guys." Fred sings up the rock and says, "Up rope."

The last pitch is 5.7, but it's steep, so I keep the rope tight. The young guys' route has merged with ours. Maybe Fred's tired, because he leaves some gear for them to take out.

Sunlight creeps through the forest. The young guys give us our gear and head down. We sit for a while and don't say anything. Across the valley, the mountainside blazes yellow and there's a waterfall. The descent trail winds east through the forest and down a slab. Johnny and Chris, two friends of ours from British Columbia, hike up to greet us. "Fred's sure smiling," Chris says. "Look at him, he's dancing down the trail. Did you guys have a good climb?"

Beckey, center, MacDonald, right, both legendary climbers, sip Canadian Club whiskey after a climb, ca. 1958. Man at left is unidentified. [Photo] Ed CooperBeckey, center, MacDonald, right, both legendary climbers, sip Canadian Club whiskey after a climb, ca. 1958. Man at left is unidentified. [Photo] Ed Cooper

Helander wrote a story about Fred Beckey and a first ascent in the Revelations that was published in the 2015 American Alpine Journal and can be found here. Beckey authored a story for Alpinist in 2007 about his 1963 first ascent of the Northeast Buttress of Mt. Slesse with Steve Marts and Eric Bjornstad that can be found here.

Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.
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