Fred Beckey: Mountaineer and Author (1923-2017)

“Man used to put himself on the line all the time. Nowadays we’re protected by the police, fire, everything. There’s not much adventure left. Unless you look for it.” — Fred Beckey

Perhaps no living human is more associated with the untamed allure of the North Cascades— a blend of fear, awe, agony and ecstasy— than mountaineer Fred Beckey.

In the celebratory, life-spanning book Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs, his friends and climbing partners from the last seven decades lavish Beckey with accolades: “The most prolific mountaineer of the last 100 years,” “the undisputed sovereign of American dirtbag climbers” and “grandfather of the road trip.” These claims would be unbearably rich were they not actually true.

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 thirteen, beginning his life’s trajectory of climbing remote rock—and later achieved the summit of Mount 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 the 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 towards 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 two teenagers achieved the summit, only the second humans to stand atop the peak, and the first up the foreboding south face approach.

Mt. Waddington from the north, by John Scurlock

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. While not exactly antagonistic, 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—in the summer of 1954, he conquered Mts McKinley, Hunter and Deborah in Alaska, a feat referred to as his Triple Crown of First Ascents—so did his infamy as a couch surfer, womanizer and tramp. Friends rarely knew where in the world Fred was until he stormed in to 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 has lived an authentic life of adventure, hardiness and spontaneity that thousands of mountaineers emulate today.

“Fred has done more first ascents than any other human has, or ever will,” remarks Yvonne Choinnard, one of Beckey’s early climbing partners who went on to found the Patagonia clothing company. “He is the essence of climbing. He’s never done it for money or for fame. Fred climbs for the joy of it.”

Beckey’s lasting imprint on the North Cascades is assured. He has named peaks in the range, written climbing guides widely considered the bibles of Cascadian mountaineering, published an exhaustively-researched tome on early exploration of “the American Alps” and done more first ascents than he, or anyone else, can track.

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

Originally published in The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby, The Mountaineers 2014.

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