The Original Dirtbag
October 31, 2017 12:27 AM   Subscribe

"There are old climbers and bold climbers but no old, bold climbers," is probably the most famous climbing proverb. The biggest exception to the rule was legendary climber and author Fred Beckey, who passed away yesterday at age 94.

Born in Germany a couple years before his family emigrated to the United States and settled in Seattle, Beckey began climbing as a Boy Scout at age 13 and continued into his 90s. As a teenager the number and difficulty of his ascents gained him a reputation among the North American climbing community as someone to be respected. Over the years he racked up hundreds of first ascents, more than any other North American climber and likely more than any climber in the world.

Beckey climbed everywhere in the world there were mountains but had a special love for the mountains of Washington State, British Columbia, and Alaska. He wrote a number of guidebooks but the most famous is the Cascade Alpine Guide, a three-volume guide to climbs of hundreds of peaks in the Cascade Mountains often referred to as the "Beckey Bible." Despite his legendary status in the climbing world Beckey never gained the mainstream fame many of his contemporaries did, mostly due to his hermit-like lifestyle and obsession with climbing at the expense of other parts of his life. He's credited as the first American "dirtbag" climber, or one who forgoes careers or relationships to pursue climbing as a lifestyle. This moniker gave the title to a documentary on Beckey's life and climbing exploits that has been touring film festivals.
posted by edeezy (10 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's Request -- frimble

never heard of him but already feel like we're old friends

posted by mannequito at 2:52 AM on October 31, 2017

posted by Flashman at 4:30 AM on October 31, 2017


Fred was a legend.
posted by bumpkin at 5:42 AM on October 31, 2017

Like many (most?) people who've spent a fair share of times in the classic North American climbing areas, I've bumped into him a few times. Each time was a memorable!

I was a university student in Montreal in the 90s when my roommate passed on a phone message. "Fred Beckey called", she told me. Yeah, right. This was a name I'd heard of from hundreds of first ascents and dozens of stories and articles in the American Alpine Journal and various climbing mags. Obviously pulling my leg, but how would my roommate know who Beckey was? As it turns out, he *was* trying to get a hold of me, to see if I could help organize a slideshow for him at McGill. I shuddered a bit when he showed up with three full carousels (my own rule with slide shows was keep it under 30 -- people get tired of your vacation shots!) -- but man, he carried the night.

I next bumped into him some years later climbing near Vegas in Red Rocks canyon. As he had done with me before, he had called up some students at the uni to give a slideshow. They, of course, took him climbing (who wouldn't want to say that they had climbed with Beckey?) and the three of them showed up at the base of a route where we -- two parties of two -- were getting roped up and ready to begin. It was late in the day, our group was a bit inexperienced on the whole, the route was long so I was a bit concerned. Normally the first party to a route gets to start first, but .. it's Fred Beckey! So, of course, we let them have first go.

At this point, Fred was in his early eighties and quite hard of hearing. Anyways, the two young undergraduates quickly climb the first pitch, and Beckey ropes in at the bottom to join them. But he starts the route wrong, doesn't really like the sandstone, breaks a hold, and slips on the first move getting off the ground. Meanwhile we're watching in awe, and also being recruited to yell messages back and forth between Fred and his partners on a ledge a hundred feet up. All of this takes a while.

"Fuck this" he suddenly announces, "I hate Red Rocks. I always have a bad time here. I told myself I'd never climb here again". He unties, swearing the whole while, and then leaves the cliff -- his erstwhile partners yelling down, wondering what's happened. "Where's Fred? What's going on on?". Fred's gone, man. Fred's gone.

Lots more yelling -- they can't believe that they'd just been ditched -- and it takes them a bit of time to get themselves organized and descending back to the ground. The whole rigamarole took an hour or so, so we got started even later than hoped for, got benighted 700 feet or so up the rock, had to rappel in the dark, had our ropes stuck, needed to spend a couple of hours in the dark freeing ropes, and didn't manage to stagger back down to our own cars until 2am or so. All the while knowing exactly who to blame.

Later, living in Squamish B.C., we'd see Fred at the cafe or bar or at the cliff pretty regularly. He lived mostly in Seattle, and like most Seattle climbers, would head up to Squamish. In his late eighties, he was still living the life of a climbing dirtbag, sleeping on the couches (or under the kitchen tables, at one party) of friends or acquaintances, scrounging meals or climbing partners. He an unashamed flirt, and I'd shake my head seeing him chatting up the ladies a third his age at the coffee shop while, out of sight, his hands would be quickly raking in all the free muffin samples into a pocket -- supplementing his lunch for that day's climbing.

A lot of us who climb or have climbed semi-seriously enough to get into the lifestyle -- living on nothing, stretching dollars, sleeping under boulders under the cliffs -- know that we're unlikely to do it for very long. Jobs, careers, romantic partners who want the luxury of a tent or something more filling than soup made from ketchup packs (thanks Fred, for passing that gem on to me)... we get older, a bit more comfortable. Two decades past my twenties, I barely tie into a rope anymore; rose gardening in the prairies is my adrenaline sport. It's rare to see someone keep getting after it in the way that precludes this kind of steady living and socialization say, into their forties. Beckey kept living it almost to the very end. He camped out on Alaskan glaciers chasing first ascents well into his late eighties. He lived on his charm, the odd slideshow, and the books he wrote (mountaineering guidebooks, not really a lucrative source) and just kept tying in, long after he couldn't hear his climbing partner yell 'on belay'.


Fred's gone, man.
posted by bumpkin at 6:17 AM on October 31, 2017 [54 favorites]

bumpkin, thanks so much for that story. That's just awesome.

I never met Fred, but I know people who have, and his name is legend. So great. Sad to hear he's gone, but he lived a full life.
posted by suelac at 8:37 AM on October 31, 2017

The loss of a legend. But even legends make mistakes, Red Rocks climbing is awesome.
posted by misterpatrick at 9:40 AM on October 31, 2017

fred the legend
posted by Mikefueled at 11:22 AM on October 31, 2017

bumpkin, great story, flagged as fantastic.
posted by martin q blank at 12:25 PM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ok, I have a lot of respect for Fred Beckey, although I'm not sure if his womazing would stand up to scrutiny in this modern era, but here's my Fred Beckey story, it's not a climbing story, but I have to get it off my chest.

Five years ago I was taking my wife and two year old son up to the Bugaboos on our wedding anniversary (there's a glacier named Anniversary Glacier and I thought it would be fitting). On the approach we kept crossing paths with people who were excited to tell us that a climbing legend was staying up at the hut. We get to the hut and there is Fred Beckey, 88 years of age and a partner in his 40s, fresh off a climb and chatting at a table.

The hut holds 30 and it's just the five of us, a couple of European climbers, and a BC Parks custodian. We settle in. Fred is deaf as a doorknob, but when I say hi to him the response I get is "I didn't come all the way up here to hang out with a god damn kid," referring to my son who is waddling in the kitchen. Thus began 24 hours of tension in the Conrad Kain hut.

We did our best to stay out of Fred's hair, the European group were awesome, and the next day we went out for a hike, but when we came back the custodian, who had been super deferential to Fred, came back with a long list of terms and conditions if we wanted to stay. He prefixed it all with "I'm not kicking you out of the hut, but..."

I'd been up to that hut before when there were a half dozen kids. There's two floors of bunks, and the Alpine Club of Canada doesn't have any rules saying no kids or "climbers only" huts, but we didn't feel welcome after that, so we packed our gear, and headed out, my 30lbs son on my back.

That was a long hike out. To make things worse, I dislocated my son's elbow (nursemaid's elbow) while pulling him out of the carrier at the trailhead, it's over an hour of logging road and another 45 minutes after that to get to the nearest hospital. It took a long time before my wife felt welcome at an alpine hut, and we don't ever mention Fred around the house even though he'd pop into Banff for the festival.

Anyways, that's my Fred Beckey story. That Beckey-Chouinard route on the South Howser is something to behold, 2000ft of straight up, and Fred is a legend, but man, dirtbags...

posted by furtive at 1:38 PM on October 31, 2017 [9 favorites]

Beckey gave a slide show for my college climbing club when he was in his early 70s, which seemed amazingly old to me at the time. We took him out to a campus bar after; I remember him hitting on a twenty-something waitress. The next day a couple of guys took him up the local ten pitch granite long route, and then he was gone to the next thing, in and out of our lives in 36 hours. I hadn't thought about him in years until seeing this obit, but I guess that was his life for a long, long time.
posted by kovacs at 5:20 PM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

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