A Portrait of a Climber: Fred Beckey

Climb anywhere in North America and you’ll probably come across the name “Beckey.” Maybe you’ll find it in your guidebook, following the words “first” and “ascent.” Or maybe it’s in the by-line of that very guidebook. You might even come across the Mount Beckey in Alaska.

One of my first alpine climbs was on Liberty Bell mountain in the North Cascades in Washington State, a local classic. I climbed the southwest face, more commonly referred to as the Beckey Route. Rock climbing in Utah, I came across his name in the histories of the famous desert towers. The name followed me to the Tetons, as well, where many routes were first climbed by Beckey.

Who is this Beckey guy? I can’t escape him. He’s like one of those light spots that cheap film cameras used to get – no matter where in the world you were, there would be a familiar burst of brightness in the same place in all your pictures, following you like a ghost.

Much like a ghost, Beckey’s life is a mixture of fact, conjecture and myth. He shows up at climbing events around Seattle, where he lives, to give talks and show pictures of his climbing accomplishments. Almost 90 years old, Beckey’s now a hunched old man, but amazingly he still gets out to climb. Around the Pacific Northwest climbing community, he’s almost an urban legend: a man who began climbing in the 1930′s and never stopped, whose life monomaniacally revolves around mountains, at the expense of nearly everything else.

But he’s more than just a climbing bum. Throughout his long and unique life, Beckey has inhabited many different roles.

The Pioneer
Beckey’s main claim to fame: having more first ascents than probably any climber on earth – ever. (The stats are a little hazy, partly because Beckey himself doesn’t keep exhaustive records of his first ascents.) And no one is likely to break that record, because there probably aren’t enough virgin mountains in the world left to climb.

In 1936, when he was just 16, Beckey made his first splash in the climbing community, achieving the first ascent (along with his brother and friend) of Mount Despair in Washington State. Previously The Mountaineers, the local mountaineering association, deemed the mountain unclimable. Much of the rest of his personal narrative unfolds like this: the impossible becomes possible once Beckey showed us how.

In 1963, an American expedition was being organized for the first American ascent of Mount Everest. Beckey, one of the most qualified American climbers at the time, was famously snubbed. (Most people attribute it to his cantankerous personality and showboating, renegade approach to climbing.) Beckey’s response: he went on a reign of mountaineering terror, bagging over 40 first ascents in that year alone. “He took that (Everest) rejection really badly,” said one of his friends.

What’s the psychology of it?” he asked himself in a recent interview about his insatiable hunger for first ascents. “I suppose that beneath it all there’s a certain amount of ego. I suppose: vanity.”

If the number of first ascents mattered to him once, it doesn’t now that he’s old. (At least, he says that it doesn’t.) When asked in a recent interview whether he possessed the record for most first ascents, he said, “I don’t care… I don’t want to claim that, and I really don’t care.”

The Dirtbag
Fred Beckey is the platonic ideal of the dirtbag climber. In the Pacific Northwest, where both he and I live, stories of his dirtbaggery take on a Chuck Norris Facts level of hyperbole: Dude, I heard Beckey rode his bike to Alaska to climb and ate nothing but rice and dumpster-dived bagels. No, I heard that he saves money by braiding his own climbing rope out of Mountain Goat hair. Word has it that he keeps a McDonald’s coffee cup in his car, so he can receive free refills on his long road trips. While scouring the world for more mountains to climb, he surfs on a vast network of couches of friends and acquaintances.

His refusal to cater to his fame and celebrity has endeared him to the climbing community, but at the expense of his making less money. He isn’t sponsored by the big clothing companies, although in one interview he admits to receiving fee swag: “Patagonia gave me some free clothes for the picture on their catalog, but I’ve got so many clothes now. I’ve got about five jackets like this! I mean, how many can you wear?”

This image is summed up best in a photograph that Patagonia took for their catalog in 2004: an old, disheveled man holding a sign that says, Will Belay for Food.

The Writer
It’s difficult to describe Beckey’s impact on Northwest Climbing culture. He wrote the definitive guidebook to the North Cascades, the three Cascade Alpine Guide. The first edition was published in 1973 (a precursor to this work, Climber’s Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington, was published in 1949) and the third edition of the third volume was published in 2009. It’s still a classic, on the bookshelf of every serious climber in The Pacific Northwest.

When Northwest climbers plan their trips, we talk as if Beckey was a member of our party: Beckey says to bring an ice ax. Beckey says it’s a pretty easy scramble.

Experienced readers of Beckey know to take his route descriptions with a grain of salt. An “obvious gulley” in Beckey might not be so obvious to someone else. A couple of times, I’ve been flummoxed trying to parse his descriptions, confusions that have sent me on wild goose chases across the hills, looking for a small climber trail.

And to Beckey the mountaineering badass, some easy, low fifth class moves with your hands aren’t always so easy. Like a great novelist or poet, Beckey teaches you how to read him. After a while, you come to understand what a mountain looks like when Beckey describes it as an “open book” or a “knife’s edge.”

Various writers resort to superlatives to describe his language. The Times says his prose is“a stirring amalgam of technical analysis, historical insight, geographical research and a sense of wonderment.”

One writer, in a wonderful essay about Beckey’s influence, writes “In homes all over the Northwest and beyond, climbers spend far too much time interpreting the word according to Beckey. And sometimes the word was good. It is no wonder that the Climber’s Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains and later the Cascade Alpine Guide have been dubbed “Beckey’s Bible.” It’s true: the books even look like a bible with their blank, marbled covers and rolling-paper-thin pages.

I’ve always thought of Beckey’s descriptions as a strange combination of precision – bordering on the obsessiveness of an Analytic Philosopher who’s futilely raging against language’s obscurity – with lyricism. Sometimes it’s hard to know if he’s being precise or poetical.

The Old Man
In 2013, Beckey will be 90 years old. Amazingly, he continues to climb. Here’s a video of him climbing five years ago. His body is a lean mess of knotted wires, but he still gets the job done.

An acquaintance of Beckey sums him up best: “He’s like the Peter Pan of climbing.” He’s never been married, never had a mortgage, and besides climbing, he’s never had a career – nothing to slow down his climbing. If climbing is a young man’s game, then Beckey has never grown up. Even as an old man, he’s still living the lifestyle of all the 20-something climbing bums out there.

The Prophet
We all want an answer to the ultimate question that climbers are tasked to answer: Why would anyone in their right minds ever climb a mountain? After a lifetime of climbing, Beckey is surprisingly inarticulate on this subject. In one interview, Beckey doesn’t know how to answer the question. “I don’t even know why people climb. I can’t figure it out. It’s a lot easier to play tennis or golf, bicycle; a lot less stress, not dangerous, doesn’t have the risk, doesn’t have the suffering. Climbing’s got a lot of suffering, a lot of it.” Even the beauty of mountains can be seen from a hiking trail, he says, obviating the need to reach the summit.

Maybe these answers are dodges, just Beckey being coy, but I doubt it. “It’s hard to find exact reasons why you do things,” he says.

Some climbers and outdoor heads go outdoors to lose themselves in nature; Beckey, it seems, climbs mountains to find himself. In another interview, he says “You’re trusting nature, you’re risking your ability against nature. You see a reflection of yourself in nature.”

Steve Costie, executive director of the Mountaineers, which publishes Beckey’s guidebooks, had this to say “If Thoreau and Emerson describe the transcendental American theme, then Beckey — after Ahab, akin to Kerouac — describes the oddly manic drive to scale and map and detail the wilderness in a modern way…Almost adversarial; never transcendental.” 
Nowadays we’re protected by the police, fire, everything,” Beckey says. “There’s not much adventure left. Unless you look for it.” He’s still looking.

By Sean Sullivan