Outdoors

Mountain Man

Remembering Fred Beckey

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Perhaps no human is more associated with the untamed allure of the North Cascades than mountaineer Fred Beckey, who died last week at the age of 94.

In the celebratory, life-spanning book Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs, his friends and climbing partners lavished Beckey with true accolades: “The most prolific mountaineer of the last 100 years,” “the undisputed sovereign of American dirtbag climbers,” and “grandfather of the road trip.”

Beckey immigrated to Seattle from Germany with his family in 1925 and began climbing the mountains visible from the city with the Boy Scouts and local mountaineering clubs. He ascended Boulder Peak in the Olympic Mountains by himself at age 13—beginning his life’s trajectory of climbing remote rock—and later achieved the summit of Mt. Olympus with his troop.

Beckey began exploring the North Cascades next, making first ascents up Mount Despair in 1939 and Forbidden Peak in 1940—rugged mountains deemed unclimbable by the local mountaineering club. Over ensuing summers, he pioneered routes up dozens more Cascadian peaks, sometimes with his brother Helmy in tow. Staring out across the sea of peaks, Beckey recounts feeling “a kinship with the noble, almost unbelievable peaks and tumbling glaciers.”

In 1942, the brothers made their way toward Mount Waddington in British Columbia’s Coast Ranges, a dark, sulking massif cloaked in glaciers and surrounded by miles of impenetrable coastal rainforest. After weeks of rain, snow, rockfall and avalanches, the teenagers achieved the summit, only the second humans to stand atop the peak, and the first up the foreboding south-face approach.

The accomplishment shocked the mountaineering community, left to marvel that two unknown, untrained teenagers had not only the skills and mettle, but also the audacity, to attempt such a feat. Beckey’s unorthodox style of climbing bristled the formal establishment: it was quick, improvisational, in small groups and used nontraditional techniques and motley gear.

“I discovered that climbing required making meaningful decisions, practicing the facets of strategy, and a commitment difficult to equal in daily life,” he wrote. “There was a freedom from constraints, and an intensity and happiness after a safe return.”

As his list of mountaineering accomplishments grew, so did his infamy as a couch surfer, womanizer and tramp. Friends rarely knew where in the world Fred was until he stormed into town fired up for his next secret mission in the mountains.

While the ensuing decades would find Beckey asserting his prowess on rock from the Alaska Range to the Tetons, the Sierra Nevada to the desert Southwest, he kept circling back to the endless new challenges in the North Cascades. He lived an authentic life of adventure, hardiness and spontaneity that thousands of mountaineers emulate today.

Beckey’s lasting imprint on the North Cascades is assured. He named peaks in the range, wrote climbing guides widely considered the bibles of Cascadian mountaineering and finished more first ascents than anyone can track.

Next time you’re in the North Cascades, look up. What might at first appear to be a mountain goat may be the spirit of Beckey, continuing his lasting love affair with these mountains.

Dirtbag, the documentary about Fred Beckey, will return to the Pickford Film Center for an encore run in early 2018.  A version of this story was originally published in The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby.

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