Great alpine pioneers are regarded as romantic, philosophical figures who scour the world looking for the next great challenge. They wax poetic about the importance of climbing, the beauty of the high hills, and the pursuit of human endeavor before comfortably hanging up their boots to print a memoir and speak fondly about their adventures.
And then there’s Fred.
A Dirtbag to This Day
To say that Fred Beckey is a Northwest icon is a severe understatement. He’s the last of a generation of legends, with more first ascents to his name then any other living American climber. At the age of 92, when most have long donated their shoes and ropes to be hung in a museum, he can still be found from Joshua Tree to Leavenworth, climbing one of the hundreds of routes that bear his name. In 2013, at the age of 89, he made his first trip to climb in the Italian Dolomites.
Fred is the original dirtbag, still living out of the back of his car, which was once nearly stolen while he was sleeping in the backseat. His list of partners reads like a hall of fame of American climbing: Kor, Chouinard, Robbins, and Bjornstad among the giants who have held Fred’s rope.
Fred’s Climbing Technique
A Beckey route has a certain character. It involves a long approach across loose talus, thin, difficult-to-protect splitters, gaping chimneys, and mind-bending exposure that establishes the most direct line to the summit. Among Fred’s numerous first ascents across Washington and Alaska, he established the Beckey-Chouinard on South Howser Tower in the Bugaboos, the Northwest Buttress of Denali, the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart, and numerous first ascents in his beloved North Cascades, including the West Ridge on Forbidden Peak and the Liberty Crack at Washington Pass.
Prior to World War II, Beckey’s first ascents were established before the invention of modern climbing technique. In his formative years, when the North Cascades were an untamed wilderness of serrated, unclimbed peaks, Fred and his brother Helmut utilized a little more than a manilla rope and homemade pitons; forging across dense Northwestern forests for days in what now takes modern climbers mere hours to approach.
After serving with the 10th Mountain Division in the war, Beckey returned to the Washington climbing community and found himself at odds with the Mountaineers, the Seattle institution who frowned upon his unorthodox style. In post-war years, he ascended the East Ridge of Alaska’s Devils Thumb, and accomplished first ascents on Mt. Shuksan, Liberty Bell Tower, and Mt. Baker. In the 1950s, when Americans obsessed over the Himalayas and rock climbing was a fringe sport that was considered training for mountaineering, Fred was more interested in climbing North American alpine rock towers than joining major expeditions to Nepal and Pakistan.
His Climbing Legend
In the 1960s, Beckey, now becoming one of America’s most well-known climbers, solidified his legend with a handful of stunning ascents in the Bugaboos and the Canadian Rockies, including his famous ascent of South Howser Tower with his apprentice, Yvon Chouinard, and a bold ascent on the mammoth Northwest Buttress of Slesse Mountain.
During the age of gentlemen climbers and romantic mountaineers, Beckey and Eric Bjornstad stand before Shiprock Tower in New Mexico wearing full gear and holding a sign that read “Absolutely No Rock Climbing”. The iconic image encompasses everything that Fred stands for: rebellion, freedom, and a penchant for daring to go where few others would imagine. Beckey rarely plans his climbs far in advance. He’s known for thinking up a trip and calling up his partners in the middle of the night to make it happen. Today he prefers to climb with others a quarter his age, such as his recent trip to Italy with Colin Haley. Now much more cautious, he acts as a statesman and a mentor to the Seattle climbing community.
Never married and with no children, Fred still sticks to his ideals, living a life of simplicity over settling down. While his body doesn’t allow for climbing as hard as he used to, he travels from Joshua Tree to the Italian Dolomites, still leading 5.7 pitches in a shredded pair of jeans and old tennis shoes. Beyond his exploits as a climber, Beckey is an established author, mountaineering historian, and surveyor, publishing a guide to his 100 Favorite Climbs, and a survey detailing hundreds of climbing routes across the Cascades.
Fred Beckey is a climber driven by passion rather than impressing brands and sponsors. For many who identify with the dirtbag lifestyle Beckey is an idol of a life dedicated to his sport. “In the pantheon of climbing legends, he’s the man,” says alpinist Conrad Anker; “He never got the big, famous peaks, he never did Everest. But just that unrelenting drive to do new routes—that’s what puts him on top in my book.”
To learn more about Fred be on the lookout for this upcoming film, Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey set to be released later in 2017.