“What’s the highest non-volcanic peak in the state?” quizzed my friend, Dallas, on the long drive home from Washington’s North Cascades. “What’s the elevation of Mount Johannesberg and how many routes are on its north face?” he pressed playfully, glancing at Fred Beckey’s three-volume guidebook-slash-opus to the range.
Back then, about 20 years ago, Beckey’s Cascade Alpine Guide had replaced the Bible as my holy text, my sacred scripture. I had practically memorized every one of its thousand or so pages as I daydreamed my way out of high school, my dorm room, my broken marriage.
If “the Beckey guides” (as climbers call them) were my Bible, then Beckey himself was like a god. He was living the most prolific and exploratory mountain climbing career of all time.
On Oct. 30, Fred Beckey passed away at his home in Seattle. He was 94 years old.
“Fred is without a doubt the most accomplished climber ever to come out of North America,” alpinist Colin Haley is quoted as saying in a recent tribute on alpinist.com.
In 1993, I stood atop McMillan Spire in an isolated corner of the North Cascades. My quads burned and shoulders ached. Dense brush and barbs of devil’s club had scratched and torn my bleeding limbs. Rising high above the next valley over — days away on foot — I could see Mount Despair. It was probably the most remote mountain I had ever laid eyes on.
Beckey made its first ascent in 1939, as a 15-year-old. It was his first new route among thousands.
“No exact numbers exist, but most American climbers agree that Beckey has climbed more new routes than anyone in the world,” wrote Cam Burns in a 1994 profile of Beckey for the U.K.’s Mountain Review.
“But the significance of Beckey routes isn’t the quantity, it’s the quality,” continued Burns. “All Beckey’s routes are long, impressive, and very worth-while.”
Fred Beckey is pictured in 2012 “as he finished munching down a huge handful of peanut M&Ms,” said photographer Jerry Dodrill, of jerrydodrill.com. (Jerry Dodrill / Courtesy Photo)
In 1942, Beckey, then 19, and his brother, Helmy, then 17, leapt to the forefront of North American climbing by making the second ascent of western Canada’s Mount Waddington — a peak that required a 200-mile wilderness approach and that had denied its first 15 attempts. At the time, this climb ranked among the most difficult in the world.
Beckey never married nor had children. He was the archetypal climbing bum, devoting himself wholly to the mountains. He pinched pennies, slept on the ground and never stayed in one place for long.
“Fred was always a poor climber, living out of his car, eating out of cans,” said frequent climbing partner Eric Bjornstad.
A coffee break between book signings at Mountainfilm in Telluride in May. “He’d probably signed about 100 books and had a couple hundred to go,” said his friend, Cam Burns. (Cameron M. Burns / Courtesy Photo)
“The thing that stands out about Beckey is his lifetime of dedication to a single pursuit, without any real expectation of fame or monetary reward,” said Dougald MacDonald, editor of the annual publication, the American Alpine Journal (AAJ). “It’s very rare to find such purity of purpose.”
Beckey’s mountain expertise reached well beyond climbing to include exhaustive knowledge of flora, fauna, history and geology. He penned numerous books in addition to his three-volume “Bible,” and between 1942 and 2013, the AAJ published more than 700 articles by or about Beckey.
“Even when he got into his 70s, he was still very determined,” wrote Burns in an email. “It was clear that his body knew what to do. He moved, and I’m not kidding, like a cat, up the rock.”
It’s impossible to overstate Beckey’s achievements throughout his 80 years in the mountains. To climb a fraction of his first ascents — even 1 percent — would amount to an extraordinary climbing career today.
Yet MacDonald noted that while Beckey’s résumé of classic new routes is unparalleled, they would have been climbed by someone else, eventually.
“His real legacy,” MacDonald asserts, “is showing it’s possible to find meaning and fulfillment in climbing throughout a long life.”
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org
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