THE TELPHONE’S SHRILL RING jarred me from a deep sleep. I was living in Oakland in the ’90s, schlepping into San Francisco’s financial district each morning to drudge away at a grown-up gig after four years of playing wastrel in the Eastern Sierra.
“Uh, yeah, Fred Beckey here.”
“Yeah, right,” I said, figuring someone was playing a joke.
“Yeah, well, I’m heading down to California to climb Mt. Whitney, and yeah, I need a partner for the East Buttress. Andy Selters told me that you climbed it. Can you meet me in Lone Pine on Thursday?”
Me: stricken mute and motionless. The urgency in that voice—the voice—was unmistakable. It was Fred Beckey all right.
Of course, I’d known of him long before I met him. His routes were unavoidable: lines in every major range west of the Mississippi and eight in the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Years earlier, I’d meandered up Outer Space on Snow Creek Wall, the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak and the North Ridge of Mt. Baker, all exquisite Beckey climbs. My neighbor Andy Selters, a mountaineering historian, made a weather-fouled attempt of Nilkantha with Beckey in the Garhwal Himalaya.
Then in the winter of ’95, Beckey visited Selters to persuade him to accompany him on an expedition to China, and Selters invited me to join them on a daytrip to Lee Vining. Beckey, then seventy-two, arrived, hair tousled, clad in well-used Gore-Tex bibs splotched with mystery stains. After a talus-strewn approach—not an easy one—Beckey beetled up a pitch or two of ice on toprope. That evening back at Selters’ place while the pasta boiled, Selters and I groused about the difficulties of making a living in the Eastern Sierra. “Just write a book and call it How to Get Laid in Mammoth,” Beckey opined. Later, after he showered and shaved and positioned a pair of spectacles on his nose, he projected a carousel of slides of his adventures in China, describing the possibilities with a voice that became increasingly mellifluous. The guy had shape-shifted into an Oxford don, right in front of our eyes.
And now he was calling, probably from a phone booth south of Seattle, while I, half-naked, teeth chattering, contemplated the fog that fingered the windowpanes of my little walkup studio. My heart sank. Of course, I wanted to bail on work and climb with one of the most storied alpinists in the modern era. The thing was, I couldn’t afford to be shitcanned by my boss. I explained my predicament, but Beckey didn’t seem to hear. When the woman who would become my life partner propped herself on an elbow and shot me a WTF look, I wanted to tell her what the call meant—how by simply having received it, I felt I’d made my bones. In the end, I apologized to Beckey, disconnected, and slouched back to bed, which is precisely where I belonged during those coffee and donut years, left to wonder what would have happened if I’d hiked with Beckey up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek.
THE PHONE could ring at any hour of any day of any year, and if you were in his makeshift Rolodex—a dog’s breakfast of rubber-banded cards and slips of paper—it eventually would. On the other end of the line: Fred Beckey, wooing friends and strangers to jettison workaday lives and follow him into the mountains, lured by the promise of a first ascent with a living legend. According to a former climbing partner, these calls were not so much invitations as interventions, because an outing with Beckey could and did change lives.
For Beckey, pitching prospective ropemates by phone (and later by email and text), was simply one of the exigencies of his chosen life. Those messages, tendered in staccato monotone or dashed out in all caps, have been silenced by the only detour he took from his fabled career: death. Since his passing on October 30, 2017, at ninety-four, climbers and journalists alike have used “one-of-a-kind” to describe Beckey’s persona and career. Legend has it that his record of North American first ascents numbers in the thousands; others say it is innumerable and will never be equaled again—there are simply too few unclimbed summits of any consequence that remain on the continent. The point is, no one really knows his tally of firsts, although there are clues: the appendix to Beckey’s 1969 book Challenge of the North Cascades contains a list that runs to twenty-three pages—but that inventory, of course, is nearly fifty years stale.
On the day Beckey died, a website editor asked me to pen an obit within ninety minutes. My first call went to Jim McCarthy, who at age eighty-four, has a talent for distilling the careers of America’s legendary mountaineers into a single phrase. Of Beckey, McCarthy said, “He had a passion for seeking the unknown that is probably unparalleled.” Having delivered a perfect sound bite, McCarthy laughed. “I mean, there are more stories about Fred than you could possibly imagine.” He proceeded to relate one. On a summer day in the early Seventies, McCarthy happened upon Beckey and a woman in a full flight attendant’s uniform in a Teton parking lot. Beckey was driving a convertible, and they were headed for an impromptu foray into the Wind Rivers. “Oh my god, I can tell you all of those stories are true,” McCarthy said.
Of course, I had failed the assignment before writing a single word. Doing justice to Beckey’s life would mean venturing deep into the gauzy realm of memory and oral history. And despite my regard for McCarthy’s perspicacity, I knew enough about the plasticity of memory to understand that not every story about Beckey could be true, at least not entirely. But there seemed to be some truth that lurked in the totality of the tales, and whatever it was, it held a clue to Beckey’s psyche and to those of the climbers who’d amassed such an extensive canon. It was thus that I began to think about a phenomenon I’d come to call the “Beckey Effect.” I wasn’t interested in elegizing Beckey, composing yet another recitation of his greatest hits and eccentricities or attempting an end-all profile. Instead, I wanted to explore something still in the process of evolving: how anecdotes about unusual characters trickle through the climbing world for generations, reflecting and perpetuating certain ways of talking about how and why we do what we do. I didn’t have the name for it yet, though I’d soon understand that I was peering into a tradition that many climbers have yet to acknowledge, at least by name: folklore.
Where to begin?
“Normal people do projects, right?” the climbing writer John Long told me. “They work something up; they set their sights on something; there’s a clear beginning, middle, and an end. Beckey was all middle. Who knows when it started. It didn’t end till he died.”
No Shit, There I Was
When we follow the ancient practice of informally transmitting “lore”— wisdom, knowledge, or accepted modes of behavior—by word of mouth and customary example from person to person, we do not concentrate on the form and content of our folklore; instead, we simply listen to information that others tell us and then pass it on…. It works about the same way whether the legendary plot concerns a dragon in a cave or a mouse in a Coke bottle. — Jan Harold Brunvand, “The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings”
CALL US Homo narrans. More than one pundit has proclaimed the canon of mountaineering literature the most distinguished of any athletic pastime. Narrative arc is baked into every adventure of consequence: “No shit, there I was.”
But our written tradition pales to the oral. Despite the lone-human-versus-the-mountain trope of dominant adventure writing, climbing has always been a social pursuit: we’ve long united through clubs (some of which date back to the nineteenth century) and geographic enclaves (think Camp 4 and Hidden Valley Campground), which is to say that climbers have had ample opportunity to do what humans have always done: trade notes and tell stories, especially the kind that mutate and bloat with each telling. In fact, folklore is so ubiquitous that it’s invisible, forming the living cultural tissue of our communities.
The term folklore entered the English lexicon in 1846 when British writer William John Thoms proposed a neologism for the grab-bag of spoken, crafted and sung artifacts that ethnographers had harvested from rural communities since the late seventeenth century. The latter-day folklorist, Alan Dundes, parsed the word into constituent parts. “Lore” stood for the multiple genres of the discipline, from the physical (crafts and dances), to the fictive (fairytales and folktales), to the ones partly based in truth: legends and anecdotes that accrete fictitious elements as they are passed along. The “folk” of folklore is “any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor,” he wrote in Folklore Matters.
By that definition, we’re all members of a Matryoshka doll-like system of groups, each with their own distinctive traditions, starting with our families of origin. Every club, crag, subrange, gym, town, online forum and social media group produces a motherlode of folklore: beta, rumors, slang, apocrypha, songs, doggerel, latrinalia, aphorisms, slander, jokes, nicknames, hazing, sandbagging; group rituals such as Bago riding (catching rides in Joshua Tree on the ass-ends of Winnebagos) and historical rites of passage (e.g. the Harvard Mountaineering Club’s Hearse Traverse); practices of route thieving, brawls, ethical squabbles, forum flaming and online appreciation threads.
Not only do climbers receive stories about legends, we also meld our bodies with them. “The climbing heroes are all anchored in actual mountains, rocks, and cracks, and theology. They present amorphous touchstones,” John Long explained. “But the rock, it’s there for all time, and you can mark yourself against what anybody did just by tying in and having at it.” When we climb routes such as El Capitan’s Salathé Wall, we’re slotting ourselves into cracks that transported Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost, similar to a phenomenon that folklorists call ostension or “legend tripping,” the embodiment of the material.
Compelling narratives often grow around vivid protagonists, and we’ve no shortage of those, from lesser-known outliers to famous figures. “A hero is anybody who does something heroic,” said Penn State, Harrisburg folklorist Spencer Green, “but a folk hero is maybe a bit more flawed; they have warts.” I gave Green a rundown of Beckey’s legend: the undying quest, the dirtbag mantle, the late-night phone calls, and so on. Green compared Beckey to a certain shabbily clad nineteenth-century eccentric, John Chapman, aka “Johnny Appleseed,” who walked barefoot from the East Coast clear to Indiana, with a burlap bag slung over a shoulder and a Bible in his hands. The legendary Johnny Appleseed preached Swedenborgian Christianity, and he invited others to join him in his mission of strenuous outdoor toil as he planted apple trees whose fruit, it turns out, was suitable for hard cider only. Along the way, the real Chapman also accumulated large tracts of land: by starting orchards, he claimed ownership of Indigenous territories and resold them to white settlers. But as the myth became honed through repeated tellings, those unseemly details vanished, and the tale became about the storytellers themselves—their desires for a wistful vision of Edenic frontier innocence that never was.
“What counts as wild is very much a human construct,” said Elizabeth Gloyn, a lecturer in Classics at the University of London, for the BBC series Myths and Monsters. “So that question makes it a very fertile place for stories to happen as human cultures work out where those limits are.” Perhaps that’s why so many folktales arise along shear zones between concepts of civilization and wildness; and why Beckey’s calls could seem like invitations to chimerical realms fraught with danger but rich with possibilities. When I posed questions about folk heroes to Supertopo.com, forum member nah000 also called Beckey, “the Johnny Appleseed of climbing.” I invited nah000 to elaborate by email. (nah000 asked to be referred to by username and by the pronouns they/them/their). They responded: “Kind of like Johnny Appleseed, who was seemingly ‘everywhere’ and also ‘nowhere,’ Beckey sightings and experiences were for many people as much myth as they were actual experience.” Beckey was someone whom “people, far and near, at least whispered about while he was still alive.”
And who is to say that Beckey isn’t still out there, an old Steppenwolf hunched over the wheel of a phantom pink T-bird, hellhounding the blue highways, ticking the ultimate list as claims of Elvis-esque sightings arise in Thermopolis, Three Rivers and La Rumorosa?
“Immortality of narrative is dependent on the mortality of beings,” humorist and ecocritic Michael Branch told me one day when I described Beckey’s career. “I mean, that’s how our stories really fill the holes that our lives occupied. Physical death is the first day of the rest of your life if you’re a folk hero.”
Encounters with the Ur-Dirtbag
LIKE MANY, I’ve related my Beckey story on a number of occasions, customizing it, no doubt, to fit the occasion, playing up the good bits, dropping the prosaic parts. Bernadette McDonald, founder of the Banff Centre for Mountain Culture, observed similar reactions at a screening of the movie Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey at the Banff festival in 2017: “There were probably more Beckey stories being told in that room, that evening, than appeared in the entire film. We all felt we needed to have one; we all wanted to be part of the Beckey story.”
What was it about Beckey that made us so eager to swap tales?
“There were lots of climbers before him, but Beckey was the first American climber to devote his life to climbing,” Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard told me by phone a few days after Beckey’s death. “I pretty much learned to stay alive in the mountains from him.” A half-beat later, Chouinard referred to Beckey, as he often has, as the original “dirtbag.”
Simon Fraser University’s Joseph E. Taylor III traces the rehabilitation of the term dirtbag to ad campaigns that Patagonia created in the early 2000s, including some with Beckey well after his climbing days diminished. Selters recalls hearing climbers use the word to describe themselves in the Eighties, while tales of Beckey as “the elder dirtbag gave us some heritage.”
However it happened, the effect was to turn a pejorative term, meaning something less than a hobo, into an honorific—an aspirational lifestyle to which legions of Sprinter-driving #vanlifers lay thievish claim. Megan Bond, Beckey’s dear friend and biographer, explained to me that Beckey detested the word, equating it with bum. “That’s not the Beckey we saw in our home,” said Washington Climbers Coalition co-founder Matt Perkins, who described a well-mannered, well-groomed figure who handled flatware with élan. “That dirtbag was a persona he wanted other climbers to see. Sure, he traveled with a McDonalds coffee cup (for free refills)—he had to stretch his money between jobs—but my theory is that was Fred being aware of his climbing persona, and that was part of his branding.”
“You’ve got to remember that I’m eighty-four. I’m looking at ‘dirtbag’ from a view of more than fifty years ago,” said John Rupley who along with his wife, Ila, were two of Beckey’s frequent climbing companions in the 1960s and 1970s. “And dirtbag never would have come across people’s minds then.” But then Rupley, a tactful man mindful of his words, admitted that he thought Beckey had gone along with the image.
“How would he have done that?” I asked.
“Well for one,” Rupley said, “maybe by holding up that sign that read: ‘Will Belay For Food.’”
This was a nod to the iconic Patagonia ad that featured a wizened Beckey posing as an itinerant on the side of a road, bedecked with rope, helmet and pack. (The photographer, Corey Rich, told me that the idea for the shot was entirely Beckey’s.) Other early American climbers, such as the renowned couple Jan and Herb Conn, traveled the continent on the cheap, sleeping in woods and caves between legions of first ascents. Norman Clyde haunted the Sierra’s far-flung peaks for decades in search of solitude, his worldly possessions dangling from his famous house-size pack.
Yet it was Beckey who became the personification of wish fulfillment nursed by lumpen climbers saddled with flatland desk jobs. The legend was about more than just dirtbaggery; it was about the ends it served and the unshakable longevity of those desires, his intransigence placed in thrall to an eight-decade idée fixe: ascent.
“He lived his life the way he wanted to live it,” says Dave O’Leske, Dirtbag’s director and producer, who shot hundreds of hours of Beckey over a period of ten years. “He had no regrets. Not
being married and having a family. I talked to people during the making of the movie who compared him to famous artists or musicians: he was so passionate about what he did and never strayed.”
Obsession has long been a theme—almost a cliché—in the history of alpinism, but even his peers considered the ferocity of Beckey’s fanaticism to be remarkable. Admirers and critics alike used “indomitable” to describe him. The word harks from the Latin domitare, to tame. When combined with “in” or “not”: untameable. Feral. Beckey was said to have a laudable wolf howl, which he practiced in the field. Most Beckey stories emphasize an imperviousness to social covenants, inclement weather, rough terrain, even the constraints of time. “There was this myth that Fred was on this single great climb, this road trip, that never ended,” Alpinist’s editor-in-chief, Katie Ives, mentioned when we were discussing Beckey’s death. “He was always going to be out there in the wind and snow and rain, always with this black book of secret objectives.”
The Black Book
CONSIDER THAT ELUSIVE black book, another leitmotif in Beckey’s legend, claimed to have been seen by some, dismissed by others as hogwash: a textual Sasquatch, its physical form not nearly as important as its role in the stories. Possessed of it, Beckey was a strategist, a punctilious bucket lister, not some will-o’-the-wisp migrating to wherever the weather suited his clothes. The black book was rumored to contain the details of every alpine prominence Beckey desired. Its dual meaning as a pleasure-seeker’s desk reference also seemed apt: Beckey lore describes him serially wooing potential bedmates in the same manner that he pursued his climbing partners.
In fact, Beckey published at least twelve books, each a testament to his fixation on North American mountains, penned in an erudite and elegant style, with occasional riffs on mist-wreathed summits and changing hues of light and snow. And damn if the stout, dense Climber’s Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington, published in 1949 by the American Alpine Club—the so-called Beckey Bible—doesn’t have the heft of a Gideons’.
“What’s not nearly as well known about Fred,”said Ed Cooper, his friend, and former rival for first ascents, “is he was a scholar and the equal of the professors at the University of Washington.” Beckey’s magnum opus, Range of Glaciers—a comprehensive history of the exploration of the North Cascades, dating back to the mountain travels of Indigenous people—runs over 500 pages, nearly a fifth of which consists of the index, notes and sources. Of the Cascade Alpine Guide, the triumvirate of books that describes the entire range, nothing as extensive
existed when Beckey wrote them, and nothing compares today.
So, what of the black book?
“There was no black book,” Megan Bond told me. “Another myth.”
Whatever repository held Beckey’s lists, the apocryphal book became the symbolic object that amplified his legend. Paul Bunyan had an axe; Johnny Appleseed had a Bible and a tin-pot hat; and the cautious and calculating Beckey had that little black book, which existed because people wanted it to—a perfect cipher for Beckey’s own mysteries.
And what did Beckey reveal of his own passions?
“For me, the appeal of climbing came from a complex of motives, ranging from a longing to escape from the artificial civilized order and its social and political controls to a need for self-rejuvenation and a desire to restore my sense of proportion,” wrote Beckey in Challenge of the North Cascades. “An adventurous goal helps one discover those essential human qualities—curiosity, patience, fear, alertness, willpower, and bodily energy. I found climbing gave a unique sense of control over one’s destiny. The exaltation one can get in the presence of mountains can be a memorable lesson in humility and an aid to self-realization. Even the freedom from constraint of fear in an uncertain adventure can give a greater appreciation of scenic glories. In action an imaginative climber can find a source of unified sensibility that gives the sport its emotional force and validity.”
Exaltation? Self-realization? Nods to Muir and Maslow? Who was this guy, anyway?
EACH OF US is born into a historical moment, an interregnum between potentials that awaits those capable of reimagining how to bind old with new.
“One way to think about Fred Beckey is that this was an immigrant kid who connected North American climbing to two very different traditions,” said mountaineering historian Kerwin Klein. “The tradition of European all-around mountaineering that included a scholarly understanding of history, plants, and geology, as well as skiing in the winter, wall climbing when it was appropriate, with the older North American tradition of white settler backwoods exploration.”
Born in 1923, Wolfgang Paul Gottfried Beckey was nearly two when his parents left Germany in search of a better life as the Weimar Republic staggered in the aftermath of World War I. Another son, Helmut, nicknamed Helmy, was born two years later. Klaus Beckey, a surgeon, and Marta Maria Beckey, an opera singer, settled the family in West Seattle.
According to Bond, they encouraged their sons to roam the city unaccompanied. The family also camped out, picnicked on nearby Alki Beach and explored the area’s outlying hills.
“He was eccentric, even as a child,” Bond said she’d learned. “He would sit in his room and copy maps out of books, then draw them freehand, and then he began to make maps of the world around him.” Young Fred’s cartographies soon became so detailed and intricate that others were unable to replicate them. Bond ventured that the family was moderately wealthy in Europe, but relocation to the States and the Great Depression took its toll on their fortunes. A year passed before Klaus was licensed to practice medicine—he taught cello in the interim—while Marta Maria raised rabbits and vegetables for the table. The boys spoke German in the house, took piano lessons and attended German school in the evenings. Beckey remained fluent as an adult, but he didn’t let that on; he didn’t reveal much of himself to his climbing partners. “Fred would just change the subject,” said longtime ropemate Bill Pilling of the times he asked about Beckey’s childhood. “He would just blow you off because he was an immigrant kid who was going to work in the anti-intellectual idioms of American culture.”
Early on, Beckey commenced to re-create himself. His mother helped change his name from Wolfgang to Fred after he tired of neighborhood kids’ bullying. At thirteen, he broke free from a family outing on the Olympic Peninsula and scrambled off trail toward distant Boulder Peak. Beckey was triumphant, but his parents enrolled him in the Boy Scouts for his own protection.
“I solemnly believe that a man who hasn’t his heart in climbing will never make a true climber,” he wrote in his diary after hiking up Mt. Si with his new troop. Much later, in 100 Favorite North American Climbs, he recalled a Scouting trip to Mt. Olympus, hobnails on feet and ice axe in hand, as the moment when he “became more aware of the ceaseless interplay of earth-shaping forces and the techniques of ascending a shining, crevassed glacier.” He called it his epiphany climb.
In 1938 Beckey became a junior member of the Seattle Mountaineers. Within a year, he’d fallen in with Lloyd Anderson, the co-founder of REI and a climber who bucked the club’s rule-bound, risk-averse methods. Soon Beckey was the local enfant terrible, a “sixteen-year-old with almost disturbingly fearsome intensity,” as Andy Selters described him in Ways to the Sky, a history of North American mountaineering. Beckey’s first, first ascent: Mt. Despair in 1939, with Anderson and Clint Kelley (who started climbing just two years before), a sharp-sided peak hidden within the North Cascades. Stodgy club elders claimed it couldn’t be done. The adventure foreshadowed Beckey’s entire career: it was remote, it was attractive, and Beckey had ignored a chorus of doubters. During those years, he and Helmy practiced roped skiing on Mt. Rainier’s Nisqually Glacier, got themselves benighted, honed their self- rescue methods, retooled European pitons for Cascadian stone, grokked German alpine journals for safer methods, and sharpened skills on the twenty-foot erratic in north Seattle that Fred called the Glacier Boulder.
By the end of 1939, he stood atop thirty-five summits. Imagine the whippet-thin teenager running his hands against every rock wall, poring over maps, working crap jobs to purchase gear, having already figured out that mountains and nothing else brought him joy. In 1940 Fred, Helmy, Anderson, Jim Crooks and Dave Lind set out deep into the North Cascades for the unclimbed Isosceles Peak, so named for its pyramidal summit.
“We began to feel it was all a mistake,” wrote Beckey of their fourth attempt as they tiptoed through unconsolidated snow in a whiteout. At last, the clouds lifted, and the group smeared up the granitic west ridge to the top of the mountain they renamed Forbidden Peak. That same season, seventeen-year-old Fred and fourteen-year-old Helmy lit out alone for the Northern Pickets, their first exploratory expedition through some of the most foreboding alpine terrain in the country. Still, in 1942, no one deemed them audacious enough to attempt a second ascent of British Columbia’s 13,186-foot Mt. Waddington. Fritz Wiessner, widely known as one of the country’s finest alpinists, employed his entire inventory of skills to succeed on the 2,400-foot south face in 1936. But the Beckey boys prepared for this moment—they’d barnstormed the serrated crest east of Liberty Bell Mountain and made first ascents of seven spires, at least one of which, wrote Beckey, had “a pitch a good deal more difficult than anything encountered on Mt. Waddington.” In his American Alpine Journal account, Beckey downplayed the trials of relaying loads through miles of rain, forests and glaciers; and scratching up verglassed rock, glare ice, rotten rock, snowmelt-drenched slabs, overhanging faces. “No place for one who suffered from acrophobia,” he wrote. And then, just like that, “At 8:30 p.m. the second ascent of Waddington was made.” Beckey called it “our summer’s adventure.”
Photos of the boys splashed across newspapers. But what of Erik Larsen, who accompanied the expedition? According to Beckey’s AAJ article, an unnamed “third member of [the] party” fell ill during the first week. Larsen was left on the coast to find his own way home: a detail often unmentioned in the Beckey lore.
When Beckey Became Beckey
“ONE THING IS maybe inevitable, but maybe a shame,” Colin Haley told me a week or so after Beckey’s death. (The thirty-three-year-old alpinist was just eighteen in 2003 when he joined Beckey for the older man’s last significant alpine climb: Adamant Mountain.) “I don’t think Fred will get anywhere near as much recognition as his climbing accomplishments really deserve. There’s such a large difference in time between when he was in his prime to the present, that most modern climbers have no conception of how impressive the things he did were. A story about somebody climbing 5.9 back in the 1940s just seems like, oh, whatever. The reality is that Fred Beckey’s equivalent today would be climbing M13, 5.14c, and new routes on 8000-meter peaks.” Often, it’s only the humorous Beckey yarns that get passed on—the ones about the opportunistic, parsimonious and odiferous alpinist liberating sugar and ketchup packets from fast-food joints, dipping crackers into cat food, and mowing down party buffets.
For the Beckey boys in 1942, however, Waddington was a watershed. Helmy climbed for a few more years, but never with the same passion. By the 1950s, Helmy drifted away from the sport, trading Seattle for Munich and a career in opera. Meanwhile, during World War II, Fred went to Colorado to train Europe-bound soldiers in mountain warfare. Released from the army, he got a business degree at the University of Washington, found jobs in sales and applied his innate entrepreneurial skills to climbing: researching new objectives ceaselessly, mustering personnel and taking responsibility for nearly every detail. During the years most talked about in the Beckey canon—1946, 1954, 1961 and 1963—as Bond told me, he became the peripatetic character we know today.
1946: Beckey, Bob Craig and Clifford Schmidtke chipped holds in enameled ice below enormous cornices. Just before summiting the treble-peaked Kates Needle, they looked to the west, where “the sinister pylon of Devils Thumb appeared to defy humanity.” Beckey’s AAJ account shows his evolution into a cautious climber, but a tenacious one. Because of storms and avalanche hazards, they retreated three times on Devils Thumb (known to the Tlingit as Taalkhunaxhk’u Shaa). Finally, the skies turned crystalline, and after a 3 a.m. start, they lunched on a summit that would go unvisited for another twenty-four years. Stretched out before them for 200 miles, a nimbus of summits, glaciers and rock spines jutted above ice fields and forests.
Characteristically, Beckey was already making plans. He nearly lost his life the following summer in an avalanche on Serra II, his 1,500-foot downslope tumble stopped only when the rope snagged on a horn of ice. Another man on his team died. If Beckey was rattled by the accident, he didn’t let it slow him down for long. Within days, he was climbing again.
1954: an Alaska Alpine Club team invited Beckey to handle the technical rock pitches on Denali’s unclimbed northwest buttress. “Not being involved with a serious romance at the time, I decided affirmatively rather quickly,” he wrote in Mt. McKinley: Icy Crown of North America. The expedition was an ordeal: minus 25-degree temperatures, altitude sickness, crumbling schist and icy granite; frost that covered faces and sleeping bags; four stormbound days with five team members in one small tent. They made the top of the 19,470-foot North Peak, took aim at the higher south summit, but were pinioned by storms and retreated. Back in Fairbanks, Beckey and his new teammate Henry Meybohm happened into Heinrich Harrer of Eiger Nordwand fame. The three joined forces and flew to the upper Yanert Glacier to approach the unclimbed Mt. Deborah, moving at night to surmount the icefalls—which Beckey compared to a “frozen hurricane,” borrowing the poet Lord Byron’s description of an Alpine glacier. From the south ridge, they sighted a half-mile of a “razor-like edge, almost scalloplike in its profusion of humps and pinnacles,” Beckey recalled in the AAJ. They crawled along the corniced line to the summit, ready to jump to the opposite side if anyone fell through.
Less than a fortnight later, pilot Don Sheldon set the trio down on the Kahiltna. They committed themselves wholly to the west ridge of the unclimbed Begguya (Mt. Hunter) based on the advice of the great alpinist and photographer Bradford Washburn; no reconnaissance necessary.
Beckey already understood that Alaskan mountaineering involved exquisite attention to timing to avoid the dangers of cornices and avalanches. Climbing through the arctic twilight, they hacked “bucket belay stances” in snow-skiffed ice and plunged through névé, continually sinking to their knees, Beckey wrote. After a five-day campaign, they greeted the morning sun on the 14,573-foot summit: “Hunter had been climbed!”
The culmination of this Alaskan trifecta sealed Beckey’s reputation as one of the continent’s most accomplished alpinists. His willingness to go light and fast on Alaskan giants set a standard for future generations. He was similarly stripping down his life. During the next nine years, he found himself indentured to jobs for a few sluggish seasons.
By ’59, however, he was working out the lifestyle for which he’d become famous: defying consumer traps, devising long-distance calling hacks t avoid charges, and dining on supermarket samples. Beckey’s childhood coincided with the Great Depression and his youth with World War II. But he reached his prime in the booming post-war years, when he could live decently on scraps cast off by a prosperous society. Thanks to the maturation of the ski and outdoor industry, technological advances rendered mountain craft easier. New roads built into the North Cascades enabled weekend forays, while mining camps deep in the Coast Range made it possible for him to wangle rides on buses, helicopters and planes to access remote terrain.
Meanwhile, Beat Generation writers formulated a philosophy that turned characters such as Beckey into role models for young middle-class men keen to flee a world of sprawling Levittowns and kindred burbs. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—a blueprint for American wanderlust—was published the same year that the Ford Motor Company stamped out Beckey’s ’57 pink Thunderbird, which became such a key character in the folklore. In 1958 Kerouac’s Dharma Bums appeared, a book that climbing historian Maurice Isserman invokes in Continental Divide as prescient of lifestyle aspirations to come. Kerouac envisioned Divide as prescient of lifestyle aspirations to come. Kerouac envisioned “thousands, or even millions of young Americans wandering around” and “refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway, such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least fancy new cars…. Wandering around with rucksacks, going up into the mountains to pray.”
By the time he was thirty-five, Beckey already seemed like a climbing version of a Kerouac hero—“an icon to look up to,” as Chouinard called him. In ’61 Beckey and a twenty-three-year-old Chouinard completed what Selters describes as one of this era’s landmark seasons, adding two more routes to the Fifty Classic Climbs list. For the first one, they drove off in Beckey’s pink Thunderbird to join Dan Doody on the unclimbed 4,000-foot North Face of Mt. Edith Cavell, one of the first forays onto a Canadian Nordwand. Strafed by rockfall, they angled toward a vertical rib they deemed a safer path—and looked down in horror as a chunk of the ice cliff collapsed onto their route. Beckey moved so smoothly across a verglas-coated gully that he seemed to be gliding. “When I came across, I fully realized how great a lead this was,” Chouinard wrote. He awoke the next morning singing. Later that day, Chouinard’s fingernails dug into the soft dirt on the summit while his feet skated on wet rock. Eighty feet up with nothing between him and his belayer, he traversed to a patch of snow and manteled to the top. “Never have I felt so happy as that day on the summit with my friends,” Chouinard recalled.
Their next stop in the Selkirks, the north face of Mt. Sir Donald, was on Beckey’s list almost from the beginning. With only one axe and minimal bivouac gear, he and Chouinard made the summit in just five hours.
Back down, they pointed the Thunderbird toward the rutted, deadfall-strewn road that led to the Bugaboo Group. It was Beckey’s third trip to these then-secluded granite spires; he’d fixated on the “architectural loveliness” of the unclimbed west buttress of South Howser Tower, a giant wall that few other mountaineers, if any, had seen. They carried a full set of Chouinard’s chrome-moly pins, from knifeblades to bong-bongs, and on the first day, they managed a full fourteen pitches—despite an encounter with a “snafflehound” (Beckey’s lifelong antagonists: Columbian ground squirrels or alpine Rodents of Unusual Size) that chewed partway through a fixed rope and nearly sent them falling to their deaths.
After another day of pounding pins and jamming body parts into crack-riven rock, they drank the last of their water on the summit, and Beckey yodeled. In his famous 1963 manifesto, “Modern Yosemite Climbing,” Chouinard cited the west buttress of South Howser as one of the “great ascents [that] have already been done in other areas as a direct result of Yosemite climbers and techniques.”
1963: Beckey’s fortieth year. He’d been climbing for more than half his life, yet he was about to piece together the most impressive string of first ascents of his career, a campaign prompted, some think, by Norman Dyhrenfurth’s refusal to give him a spot on that year’s American Mt. Everest Expedition. Eight years earlier, Beckey joined Dyhrenfurth’s International Lhotse Expedition, a large team of Swiss, Austrian, American and Sherpa climbers. As the story goes, heavy winds and snow engulfed Beckey and the group’s doctor, Bruno Spirig, on the upper mountain, and Spirig fell ill. The two men retreated to Camp 4, which contained a few tattered tents but no sleeping bags or other supplies. When Dyhrenfurth glassed the scene from far below, he saw a lone figure descending: Beckey decided he needed help to evacuate Spirig, who had collapsed in a tent.
In the 1956 AAJ, Dyhrenfurth reported his side of the radio conversation that took place after Beckey reached Camp 3: “I reproach him for having left Spirig all alone up there, without sleeping-bags or air mattress! None of us can understand this.” The following day, Beckey climbed back up with Dyhrenfurth and other teammates to rescue Spirig, who recovered. But after reading Dyhrenfurth’s censure of him, “Fred felt like he had been punched in the gut,” Bond told me. Several years later, Dyhrenfurth, citing the Spirig incident, denied Beckey’s application for the Everest team. “Fred never stood up for himself,” Bond recalled. “He just let it go.”
So, while some of his former partners were making their way into the Solu Khumbu and on to mountaineering fame, Beckey embarked on his berserker season: forty-one forays into eleven ranges, including at least twenty new routes, two first free ascents and four first winter ascents. In August he returned to British Columbia with Steve Marts and Eric Bjørnstad for another go at the 3,000-foot northeast buttress of Slesse, a climb Beckey had scouted in the Fifties and attempted earlier that summer with Marts. Beckey surmised it was “possibly the most magnificent rock wall in the Cascades.” He refused to tell Bjørnstad where they were headed until they passed the last outpost with a telephone—for fear that Bjørnstad might let slip the destination during a call home. In addition to Beckey’s famous secrecy, the successful climb, as Bjørnstad described it in the AAJ, contained other now-typical elements of a Beckey story: a near crushing by falling ice blocks; a fight with snafflehounds; delicate, unprotected moves above thousands of feet of air.
The story was already part of the burgeoning folklore. A plane crashed on the peak in 1956, and tales spread of treasure seekers who hunted for a wealthy passenger’s wallet. Rumors sparked that Beckey found and invested the cash, using it as the secret source of funding for his lifestyle—an allegation that Beckey firmly denied.
EXAMINE THE PROVENANCE of any narrative (including this one), and you soon become dizzied by the abundance of omitted details. Documentarists, authors and screenwriters, loath to see audiences yawn, have learned to accentuate the kind of conflict that drives story arcs, making ellipses of detours and byways. Once codified and advertised, the boiled-down version becomes mass media. Folklore continues to morph as it circulates, although its tales, too, frequently become sensationalized, morsels of fact blended with the implausible, rearranged to suit the context of the telling.
By 1964, Beckey could have traded alpinism for apple farming, his place in the North American pantheon assured. Instead, he climbed for another fifty years with successive generations of companions, sharing his secret objectives with those he deemed worthy. All along, the legend swelled. The best storytellers—and there are many among his profusion of partners—inhabit the Beckey character, mimicking his voice and vocal tics; but their delivery makes obvious why so many say that the value of a Beckey trip had little to do with a summit. Among them, Bill Pilling
“He was persuasive and persistent. And you’d be saying, well, I’ll figure out somehow how to pay the rent. I’m not sure how I’ll pay the electric bill, but I’ll deal with that later. And then you’d be in the car and driving all night and sleeping by the side of the road and then you’d wake up on some beautiful peaceful morning and climb this wonderful mountain. You’d kind of come back transformed. And then, of course, you’d have to pick up the pieces….
“For someone who was interested in doing first ascents, which I was, he taught you how to find them. He also knew what it meant to really be engaged with a mountain project. It’s not just, well, maybe we’ll do this and maybe we’ll do that. It’s no—you’re going to know the creeks, where the drainages are, what the surrounding peaks are; you’re going to know what the access is; you’re going to know what time of year the best conditions are. And remember—this is all before the Internet. Along the way you might collect information about the Indian tribes in the area and how
“When you went climbing with him you knew he meant business. That was a great education as a mountaineer: Fred would do absolutely everything possible to make the trip happen and to get to the top. That isn’t to say he was incautious or unsafe. I went to British Columbia with him once, and he had forgotten his pants. So he went into this logging town in Blue River and just started knocking on doors asking for a pair of pants. And he got one.
“The climb didn’t come off because it was too hot, so we switched to another thing up in the Cariboos, Mt. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and we flew in just before sunset in the helicopter and got dropped off on the glacier. It was May. It didn’t freeze that night, and there are big cornices at the top of the face. We get up about 500 feet, and Fred says, “Hey, wha, whadya think about these snow conditions, huh?” So I said, ‘Well, it’s kind of bad, Fred.’ And then we get up further, and he says, ‘Huh. Whadya think about this snow?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s kind of deep and wet.’ And I’m thinking, God, it is really kind of bad. Anyway, we get up to this point where there’s this gully that comes out from behind a corner, and I was just thinking, ‘Well, you know, around the corner…’ when up from below I hear, ‘You know, it’s not going to be any different around the corner! So what do you think about this snow?’ And I’m thinking yeah, if I were here with one of my young friends, we’d probably dodge from rockband to rockband, I guess, but dang, there are these big cornices up there, too. So I began to think Fred has spent a lot of time on things like this, and he’s still alive. And he says, ‘Whadya think? Think we ought to go down? So I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I think we should go down.’
“So we go down 800 feet and walk across the glacier and get up on a rise. It’s about seven or eight in the morning, and we’re sitting there eating our lunch food for lack of anything better to do. Suddenly there’s this huge rumble from the upper part of the face, and from right behind the corner, this huge wet snow avalanche bursts out of this gully, and it spreads out across the whole face we climbed, wipes out our tracks all the way into the glacier. And Fred says ‘Wow. Whadya think about that? Yeah. Geez. I don’t know. I mean, how would a really good alpine climber have done this—someone like Jeff Lowe? What would he have done? How do you make something like that safe?’ I’m sitting there, ‘God, Fred, I don’t know what you would have done. Start at midnight?’
“And that was that. He was probably about sixty at that point, and I was in my twenties. So he sort of used the Socratic method on me. “Whadya think?”
Beckey knew exactly what he himself thought, of course. What he might not have understood was why.
The Attraction of Uncertainty
THE SINGULARITY OF Beckey’s persona has compelled some to psychoanalyze him or interrogate his mental state. In a 1992 profile for Outside, Jon Krakauer interviewed one of Beckey’s closest climbing partners, Eric Bjørnstad, who went so far as to suggest that Beckey had savant syndrome (i.e. a mental condition of significantly above average ability in one exclusive area). That theory seems far-fetched, but who am I, or who is anyone else to know who or what he really was?
After listening to Pilling spin a string of Beckey stories, I suggested that he and Beckey appeared to be close friends. “Well, as close to anyone could get to Fred,” said Pilling. “He was a man of his generation. The public and the private self, there was some distance there.” Beckey revealed little of the psychological impulses or demons that motivated him; according to many of his climbing acquaintances, Beckey didn’t “do” feelings. “Fred would just change the subject,” said Pilling. “Or say, ‘Uh, who knows?’”
But while Beckey could be famously inscrutable in person, in print he metamorphosed into a highly articulate man of letters who called a “hillock of ancient moraine…a perfect site for a Rhine castle” and who offered hints of a rich interior life, both imaginative and spiritual. In Challenge of the North Cascades, he described watching the remote Twin Spires (aka: “Mox Peaks”) emerge from a mist of clouds and snow. It was 1940, and the mountains were not even on the map. “What was the force that impelled me?” he asked. “Something complex and indefinable, the attraction of uncertainty. Perhaps the answer lay in…the distant glimmer of high snowfields.”
Note the word impelled: Beckey wasn’t simply drawn to the mountains; something drove him there. Later, Megan Bond described Beckey as “Buddha-like” after being in mountains for days on end. “Peace would just ooze out of his pores.” Other accounts of Beckey, such as Tim Egan’s stories in The Good Rain or the movie Dirtbag, have dwelled upon Beckey’s passion for past girlfriends, offering Romantic, even sentimental interpretations and hinting that he opened up his hidden self to them. Some of Beckey’s friends have suggested that he, in fact, regretted not marrying. Perhaps Bond, who knows him well, will provide more answers in her upcoming biography.
For now, anecdotes and gossip fill the lacunae between private and public, known and unknown. “A magnum opus of a creative effort,” Tom Hornbein said about Dirtbag when I asked him what he’d thought of it. Hornbein, a member of the 1963 American Everest team, partnered with Beckey on climbs in the 1950s. “It captures the historical essence of what the world thinks it knows about Fred but leaves unplumbed that which I suspect we may never know: What makes Fred tick?”
Five Times the Length of a Lifetime
“SO I’M GONNA have to live five times the length of my lifetime to even come close to all these climbs that I wanna do,” Beckey told his frequent companion Rick Clements. For decades, as Beckey seemed singularly inured to the advancing years, his apparent physical immortality became another part of his legend. When asked about his age, Beckey acted as if he couldn’t hear (later in life he
became truly hard of hearing) or he outright lied to climbing partners, lovers, maybe even to himself. Longtime friend Alex Bertulis told of how Beckey joined him and his kids on the North Cascades’ Ingalls Peak in the Seventies. “Since the age spread was rather extreme (from 7 to 60), I decided to note the ages of each climber,” Bertulis recalled, in an anecdote he presented to Beckey on his eighty-sixth birthday.
“I am not sixty!” Beckey declaimed, and he rubbed a hole in the paper with the eraser stub. (Beckey was then fifty-nine and a half.) He had years of strong climbing left in him, but it wasn’t long before friends noticed him slowing down. In the ’92 Outside profile, Krakauer quoted Beckey’s former girlfriend Sybil Goman. “I think Fred is starting to feel his mortality,” Goman said. “His activity level has dropped by an order of magnitude over the last few years. Because he’s less active, I also think Fred is feeling his loneliness for the first time.”
Still, Beckey hustled partners and threw himself into the fray. “The word delusional would pop up all the time, but so would the word inspirational,” said Dave O’Leske, whose footage of the older Beckey showed him defeated on several alpine objectives. “Failure. That’s what made him so strong. He’d just keep going back and going back and never gave up until the end.” In
2015 a judge suspended Beckey’s license. Beckey drove anyway. Matt Perkins collected him in Canmore after Beckey road-tripped to the Canadian Rockies, found himself too weak to climb, and landed in a hospital. Stooped, arthritic, barely able to walk, he tottered back to the stone. Once on vertical ground, he became mobile again. “I did a climb with him four years ago,” Chouinard told me. “As soon as he touched the rock—boom—he was up. He wasn’t meant to be a human anymore—he was back to being a chimpanzee.”
Toward the end, suffering from congestive heart failure and COPD, Beckey seemed content enough to be in the mountains in the company of other climbers. A few weeks before he died, he car-camped with Bond and her husband, Walter Friesen, in Icicle Creek Canyon (where Beckey was later buried). “He was so happy to see these buttresses and climbing areas where he spent a lot of his youth,” said Bond. This was Beckey’s last trip, and he knew it.
A RAINY DECEMBER night, 2017. Forty or so of Beckey’s acquaintances emerged from a bone-chilling Seattle mist to gather at Bond’s house, across from the waters of Salmon Bay and the Ballard Locks. It was here that Beckey lived the final months of his life, wheelchair-bound, occupying a ground-floor bedroom.
John and Ila Rupley were up from Tucson. Douglas McCarty of the Dirty Sox Club and Gray Thompson were in from Montana. I met several members of Beckey’s “A Team,” the core group that cared for him in his decline and consisted of Matt Perkins, Geoff Georges, Mike Duffy, Walter Friesen, Sarah DeRosier, Duane Morrison and Ambrose Bittner. And Megan Bond, of course. In 2006 Bond had emailed Beckey for beta about tracking down chert quarries in the North Cascades.
Beckey never received that query, and he later left her a nasty voicemail message. Then one day, Bond noticed him standing in the gutter outside of a Seattle shop on a wet November day. “He didn’t look good,” Bond said. “I kinda looked at him, and he looked at me, and he and he goes, ‘I know you. You are a climber.’ And I said, ‘You don’t know me. But I’ve
been looking for you.’”
Beckey couldn’t have known then that he’d just met his guardian angel, but that’s what Bond became over the next eleven years. “Without [Megan and Walter], the end of Fred’s life would have been tragic,” Rupley informed the crowd at the public memorial the next afternoon. The event’s organizers set out hundreds of chairs in The Mountaineers’ clubhouse; Washington senator Maria Cantwell occupied one of them. The epithet “dirtbag” was missing from the eulogies. “The best thing I can think of to describe Fred Beckey,” said the Canadian alpinist Don Serl from the
dais, “are the words: ‘Fred Beckey.’”
After explaining that Beckey was an opera buff, Perkins cued a recording of Pavarotti belting out “Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep),” an aria about the search for a man’s secret, with consequences of life or death at stake.
“I’m curious, how many people here have climbed with Fred Beckey?” Perkins asked. Half the hands in the room went up.
“How many people used his guidebooks?“ Laughter. Most hands went up.
“OK, one more: how many of you got lost using his guidebooks?” Uproarious laughter. Same number of hands.
Weeks before, I’d heard another nebulous Beckey story from a fellow climber. In 2000 Rick Clements and Beckey were on the summit of Mt. Louis in the Canadian Rockies when Clements was struck by lightning.
“He got zapped and like was doing the dead fish and shit, and Fred’s all I’m fucking out of here, took the gear, and rapped off,” claimed the source, who preferred to remain anonymous. In 100 Favorite North American Climbs, however, Beckey said he’d resuscitated Clements with the help of a nearby couple. Now Clements was sitting in front of me. “He’s the one who was hit by lightning,” his wife, Lisa, said. Clements appeared to be in good health. I told him so.
“Still here. It took me a year to recover, and I’m still dealing with some things.”
I asked him what happened.
Beckey was seventy-seven when they climbed Mt. Louis, Clements recalled. “In certain areas, he was dead slow, but get on steep snow and ice and he would just blow you away.”
On this day Beckey was dawdling, taking notes for the book. Fortunately, the weather was fine…until it wasn’t. A major storm was brewing out of view, and it caught them as Clements was bringing Beckey up the last pitch. “Fred got shocked before I did,” Clements said. The last thing Clements remembers hearing was a high-pitched screech. Beckey wondered why the rope had stalled, and he eventually scrambled up to find Clements, unconscious. “He figured I was dead, and I might have been, too,” Clements said. “He was pretty scared, and I don’t blame him for wanting to bail. But he didn’t. The next thing I remember was seeing the silhouette of the summit, and there’s a cross on the top of Mt. Louis.” Clements sustained a direct strike to the head, but after an Australian couple performed CPR, he recovered sufficiently to rappel the route with help from them and Beckey. “Fred was always a hero of mine before I met him,” said Clements. “Some of the highlights of my life were climbing with him. It was just like living a Walt Disney movie, really. There were lots of challenges, but that was just part of the trail. Certainly gonna miss him.”
The Black Book, Part II
IT TURNS OUT that folk heroes own real estate. Beckey did. The modest single-story house, now vacant and awaiting its fate, sits on a quiet street in Seattle’s Maple Leaf district. Salmon clapboard siding contrasts with the emerald patch of soggy turf and stunted conifer in his front yard. It’s the kind of property a realtor might describe as a good “starter home,” although in Seattle’s thriving real estate market it’s pushing high triple digits, according to an online real estate site, Zillow. (Beckey acquired the home more than a decade ago when it would have had roughly half this current market value.) A dewy spider’s web swings from the side-view mirror of his Subaru. An untamed rhododendron sprawls across the walkway. Wooden handrails line the passage to the front door. A small hutch in the living room entry holds about fifty books: Die Malerei in Deutschland, 1900–1918; Lady Chatterley’s Lover; Les Misérables; Harvard Classics with works by Plato, Epictetus, Cicero and Pliny; Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Discoverers; and a hardcover edition of William Nickerson’s How I Turned $1,000 into Three Million in Real Estate in My Spare Time, among others. Testimonials are arrayed on a console table: The Mountaineers Lifetime Achievement Award (2015), the American Alpine Club’s Robert and Miriam Underhill Award (2011), the American Alpine Club Gold Medal (2015), the Outdoor Industry Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2013), the Hall of Mountaineering Excellence Award (2011). Around the house: black and white photographs of North American peaks, including several of Mt. Waddington taken by Helmy in 1942. A 1910 New York Times Sunday Magazine article on the first ascent of Denali’s North Peak by the members of the Sourdough Expedition. An old oatmeal-colored carpet. A tray of half-burned scented candles. Phone numbers of Beckey’s friends scotch-taped onto the wall near the kitchen. On Beckey’s refrigerator, a membership card to the Dirty Sox Club, a Dee Molenaar watercolor-postcard of Mt. Jefferson, and a cutout of Mr. Quaker Oats advertising a 1982 Beckey-led expedition to China’s Hengduan Mountains. Inside a cabinet, a set of coffee mugs pilfered from Tim Hortons, the Canadian donut chain (Toujours Frais).
I entered Beckey’s office, the sanctum sanctorum where he would have spent countless hours in this inner keep researching, writing, communicating. I found more photos taped to the walls: a young Beckey, Harrer and Meybohm atop Begguya; and an elderly Beckey adorned in a tux, a South Tahoe go-go dancer on either arm, part of a staged photo shoot from the 2007 Tahoe Adventure Film Festival, during which the alpinist received a Golden Camalot Award. Arranged around the room and in the hall closet in a fashion that would have made sense only to Beckey: dictionaries, thesauri, alpine journals dating back to the early twentieth century. A melee of shipping folders purloined from Kinko’s and labeled by climbing region: “Bugaboos,” “B.C. Coast,” “Joshua Tree,” and so on. Here was Beckey’s trove; his black book if there ever was one.
Bond told me that Beckey organized his life and brain spatially, not temporally, which she found fascinating—but frustrating as a biographer. She might ask him when he’d done a particular climb, and he’d routinely get it wrong, sometimes by decades. “But, he could tell you who his partners were; he could tell you all about the approach, what gear was used, what length rope to bring, nearly every pitch and handhold. Trying to bring him back to a particular year was difficult because he was so timeless in the way he approached anything.” With Bond’s permission—she is the keeper of the Beckey archive—I plucked a sheaf of notes, magazine articles and topos from a polyethylene shipping envelope marked “Sirra + Yosemite.” It didn’t take long to locate what I’d hoped to find: on the topmost sheet, in Beckey’s longhand were names of peaks all along the vast range, from Lone Pine to Bridgeport and beyond, some of them redacted, presumably the ones he’d climbed. Some that weren’t scratched out: Big Bird Eagle (11602′)—east face—(east of BB Lake. Also possible to do right half of wide wall nearby higher up from lake—prob. need 30 irons IV); Extra Needle—outside edge, no. side, starts in gully (Allow 2 days). It was as if I could see Beckey’s mind at work. A couple more pages in, I found a yellowed, forty-seven-year-old piece of ruled notebook paper with the title “Charlotte Dome,” upon which Beckey had sketched everything an alpinist would need to know to approach, climb and descend the peak, including a detailed topo, likely drawn in the midst of the first ascent of a route that made the Fifty Classic Climbs. Farther in, a Dave Nettle topo of Mt. Whitney’s East Buttress.
Later, I sat on Beckey’s couch. Bond pulled up a chair. I wanted to know if Fred was as impoverished as he often appeared. She launched into an explanation of Beckey economics, a formula that involved a cunning kind of calculus. Let’s call it the McDonald’s Coffee Cup Theory of Wealth Preservation: “So if someone’s gonna charge you a dime for a coffee cup, that’s 10 percent of your dollar, so you hold onto that…. And Fred used to say compound interest was so important.” Beckey, she explained, was equally covetous of his time. “I mean you’ve got 1,440 minutes in any given day, and how are you going to use those minutes?” I observed that Beckey sounded pretty savvy.
“Oh absolutely. But, I think he’s made more of his money by not spending his money. It’s not how much you make, it’s how much you keep.”
“So Fred had means?”
“I mean was he more comfortable than he let on?”
“I would just say that Fred had learned to live frugally so he didn’t need a whole lot.”
I asked her about Fred’s decline.
“He was scared of dying,” she said.
“How did he die?” I asked.
“In my arms,” she said.
Another hour passed, and I was starting to feel ridiculous. Here I was, in Beckey’s home, speaking to the woman who’d shared his last moments of life. Bond, age fifty-nine, is passionate and persuasive, and I’d begun to view Beckey as a thrifty, capable, complex, sometimes irritating, and yet also endearing and attentive senior citizen besotted wit the mountains of North America. And Bond was obviously devoted to Beckey. And the effect of all that—uh, well, geez—love—was that it swiped away the legend as effortlessly as I might have that old orb weaver’s web hanging on Beckey’s Subaru with a brush of my hand.
Here was a kitchen with drawers full of silverware and photographs of mountains on the walls. A computer in the office, and paper, paper everywhere. No picaresque irony, no chorus of strangers’ laughter at the eccentric behavior of an elder clad in thrift-store clothing, looking to the world like a homeless man—the joke being on those strangers because lo, here was a “badass” in disguise. Our ur-dirtbag. Now, in Beckey’s home, I thought I’d glimpsed the person I’d come to see. Beckey.
Making the Unconscious, Conscious
WEEKS LATER, I thought of the famous line from the John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The protagonist, played by James Stewart, is a tenderfoot, a pacifist attorney challenged to a duel by the title character, a Western outlaw. Stewart, who shares the affection of the female protagonist with John Wayne, hides during the duel and fires the bullet that kills Valance, but the town’s citizenry—and Stewart himself—believe that Stewart’s shot was the fatal one. Afterward, Stewart is nominated to represent the territory, but ashamed of killing a man, he refuses. Wayne confronts Stewart, reveals that it was his own bullet that killed Valance, and encourages Stewart to say nothing and accept his new role. Many years pass, and the Wayne character dies. Stewart, now a famous politician, confesses the truth to a newspaper editor after the funeral. The editor decides not to reveal the legend as fraud.
“This is the West, sir,” he says, as he takes the notes from a young journalist, tears them in half and places them in a pot-bellied stove. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
That line, grown legendary itself, can be interpreted several ways. On the one hand, it’s an indictment of mass media. On another, it’s a testament to the power of story, regardless of its truth. A legend serves the needs of the people who create it and pass it along—and often those of the folk heroes themselves. The myths of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, were embellished by a lumber industry marketeer. Davy Crockett narrated his autobiography to a ghostwriter because he knew it would sell. Samuel Clemens of Hartford, Connecticut, famously amplified his own frontier hero, Mark Twain, to promote tickets for his one-man shows.
John Rupley’s son, Eric, an anthropological archaeologist at the Santa Fe Institute, described an XY chart explaining how the dirtbag theme waxed as Beckey’s climbing career waned. Many of Beckey’s champions observe that he didn’t self-promote, and it’s true that his name graced no labels of gear or clothing. But if Beckey sometimes colluded with various myths about his persona, the renown also helped sell slideshow tickets and fund his remaining adventures. A folk hero ultimately has little custody of his own legend. “How many ‘I-got-a-call-from-Fred-Beckey stories are there now that are technically stories that belong to the person who got the call, not to the guy who made the call?” Utah State folklorist Lynne McNeill asked me. As community members recycle stories, she explained, the details that don’t serve them are leveled, and those that reinforce the group’s values are sharpened. The transmission process itself can be like a reinforcing loop so that the sharp bits become even sharper and the leveled parts fade into a kind of shadow narrative. “But I feel that the best stories allow for surface-level discussion that [supports] the undercurrent discussion,” she added. “Imagine a big group of people hanging out, everyone’s talking about this guy, talking about his bizarre life, how colorful he is, and then maybe at a quieter point in the evening, people are like, ‘Hey, did you guys know this, though? Because that’s rough.’”
If the dirtbag idea ripened during the go-go Eighties, then the dirt- bag’s crude, simple, untamed vagabondism might have represented an escape hatch from that “greed is good” era for those in a position to take it. And the Beckey folklore might have particularly appealed to white, middle-class men, privileged enough to daydream about flight, but pinned to a profession and confused by shifts in gender roles since the Seventies. As Alan Dundes wrote in Interpreting Folklore, “Folklore furnishes a socially sanctioned outlet for cultural pressure points and individual anxieties….
By analyzing the folklore of a group such as men, then, we may well succeed in the laudable goal of making the unconscious conscious.” If a folk hero enacts the underlying fantasies of a community, what does Beckey’s legend say about this one? Who does it include and who does it exclude? Who does it embrace, who gets marginalized, and what remains in the shadows or is entirely forgotten?
The Public Ownership of Fred Beckey
THE DAY AFTER Fred Beckey died in her arms, I asked Megan Bond what the mainstream media obituaries weren’t getting right about the man.
Plenty, she told me, and reeled off a few. He wasn’t about conquest. He wasn’t a loner; in fact, he was exceptionally social. He wasn’t a risk-taker; he was one of the safest climbers she knew.
What else, I wondered.
“He didn’t set out to be a teacher,” Bond said, “but we all can learn a mighty lesson from the way he’s lived his life. It’s not about the climbs.”
“Then what’s it about?” I asked.
“It’s about the life.”
This I came to find interesting for several reasons. First, Beckey’s example undoubtedly inspired many to imagine the possibility of devoting a life to one’s passion for climbing or anything else, shucking modernity’s dross, and whittling their possessions to the bone. At the same time, many of the people I interviewed for this piece described Beckey’s lifestyle as so beyond the pale they couldn’t see themselves emulating it.
“I couldn’t imagine doing that much hiking and traveling and living so bleakly and so on the cusp, even then,” John Long told me. “That would’ve killed anybody else.”
Similarly, there’s a scene in Dirtbag when Jim McCarthy says, “You know you damn well wouldn’t want your kid to grow up to be Fred Beckey.”
Beckey was known to treat some partners poorly. “You know, he was funny at times, but he was a pain in the ass; his usual Fred thing,” Andy Selters told me, echoing the kind of story I’d heard from others. The Fred thing often involved a difference of opinions, nitpicking, slovenly manners and dust-ups.
“We always heard about how Fred would drum up climbers and then ditch them. Especially if they weren’t any good,” Rick Clements said.
“Is that true?” I asked.
“Oh it’s true, for sure.”
“Ditch them out in the field, or ditch them…?”
“Usually after the route, especially if they didn’t perform that well. You’re let off at the side of the road and make your way home.”
Bond referred me to a thread on the NWHikers.net forum, and I looked it up: “RIP Fred Beckey.” The thread began with a nod to Beckey’s glorious career (wrote contour5: “I think it would be a fitting and appropriate tribute if we were to rename the entire N Cascades geological complex the ‘Beckey Range,’ and change NCNP to Dirtbag National Park”), and then the discussion turned into a referendum on whether Beckey objectified women. A forum member called “radka” wrote, “His climbing pursuits and explorations are as legendary as his sexism and lack of respect for women. #itscomplicated.” (When contacted for further comment, “radka” refused to talk about specific actions.)
Bond, who rarely takes part in online discussions, intervened. “He had a great mental repository of many women’s climbing accomplishments throughout history, of which he was quite impressed,” she wrote.
“He was an incorrigible flirt, but as he was also quite benign over the last two decades, he provided good and fun informal laughs to women who responded to his charms, or sought out his company.”
Bertulis told me that Beckey himself had dreamed up the slogan, “Beware of Beckey: He’ll steal your women, he’ll steal your climbs” and printed it onto T-shirts that he distributed to friends as a joke. But when Dirtbag made the rounds of various venues this autumn, I wondered how many moviegoers were discomfited by the animated montage of Beckey approaching women in a bar as if they were peaks, complete with cartoon images of wigs superimposed on summits. While his reputation as a womanizer was once, to some, a piquant element of Beckey stories, it appeared to have outlived its cultural time—even, perhaps, to Beckey.
Of the photo shoot of Beckey with the Tahoe go-go dancers (later published in the Summer 2008 edition of Alpinist), Bond told me, “He loved a fun, good, sparkly evening. They put him in the tuxedo…. And they took pictures, and he was laughing and going along with it…. But when the picture came in the mail, he was very distressed by it. And he said, ‘I don’t even know these women.’” Beckey was trying to shed his “playboy” image, she insisted, his concepts of gender issues had evolved. Beckey had transformed again…or he hadn’t.
I gradually came to view Bond as Fred’s apologist, and told her so.
“Yeah, I probably am,” she said. “I can’t control his legacy. It’s way bigger than me. It’s way bigger than him. It’s been embellished; it’s been fabricated; it’s exploded on the Internet. I mean, I remember one time reading on one of the climbers’ boards that someone had said they just saw Fred Beckey drive by that afternoon in the Subaru wagon; he was swerving all over I-5. And Fred was not even in the country.”
When Bond learned that I’d be using Beckey as a point of departure for climbing’s folkloric tradition, she wrote in an email, “I have often been dismayed over the years by what I have termed “The Public Ownership of Fred Beckey.” Sitting in Fred’s living room, I asked why.
“This intersects absolutely with the idea of folklore,” she said, offering her own opinion of the oral tradition surrounding her friend. “Because folklore is community ownership. Folklore does latch on to the concept that the group owns the story, the group creates the story. And so to the extent that someone identifies with being part of that group, they get to own the person and they own their own story, or they own their own interpretation of the story. So the community ownership of Fred Beckey comes out of that creative legacy. We see that happening in Dirtbag. That is escalating the story. It’s helping to elevate Fred into that folklore status.”
The beauty and bane of folklore lies within its plasticity and portability, its open-endedness, which allow us to yoke our own micro-narratives to the legend. With time, the accumulation of story upon story creates something of a flywheel effect until the legend develops a momentum of its own. “The community’s always changing and morphing,” John Long told me. “If the community as a whole recognizes attributes that resonate with them, then they’re going to look for a poster boy.”
And what happens to a folk hero as its former audience radically alters? Will Beckey effectively live five times the length of his very long life? Will he be remembered for his keen mind or for the Appleseed-like legend; the scores of people he moved, or the scores he alienated? Since that dinner at Selters’ house long ago, I’d noticed that Beckey tended to adapt to please others. Beckey was a shape-shifter, a Zelig, adopting the traits of those around him.
Beckey’s gone now. He’s left us his climbs and his words, along with a legend that occupies a liminal zone between fact and fantasy, human and animal, cultured and profane; and a welter of mind-bending paradoxes: insatiability and extreme frugality; coarseness and elegance; cautiousness and impatience; vulgarity and charm; brazenness and sensitivity; loutish-
ness and learnedness; the cringeworthy and the poignant.
“Beckey was among, not of; that’s the way I’d put it,” historian Joseph E. Taylor III told me. Perhaps Don Serl said it best: there is no other way to categorize the man than as “Fred Beckey.”
And what of the dirtbag, the image that Beckey seemed at once to nurture and loathe? The dirtbag, Taylor says, “is beginning to fade as a keystone species as the landscape changes” citing the evolving professionalization of the sport.
As the demographics of the climbing population in America grow more diverse, folk heroes of the future will likely come from narratives once farther out in the margins, from people who don’t yet see themselves or their values represented in the dominant lore. In some ways, the most immortal part of the Beckey legend might be the way it reflects the sheer indomitability and transformative power of myth, of climbers’ own desires for it—and our complicity in its creation. As we grow more aware of our role as collectors and transmitters of oral traditions, we’ll understand how we shape them, and how they, in turn, shape us.
Much of the Beckey legend has been printed. The folklore lives on. It’s in our hands now. Same as it ever was.
A longtime habitué of the Sierra, Brad Rassler edits on online environmental magazine, Sustainable Play, and enjoys writing about the science and sociology of adventure. At home in the foothills of Nevada’s Carson Range, he and his partner, Jane Grossman, raise neither children nor chickens.