Fred Beckey died Monday, and no one who knows anything about climbing would argue against his canonization as the patron saint of dirtbag climbers.
At age 94, Beckey’s climbing career spanned nearly eight decades, and he put up more first ascents than any other North American climber ever. He began climbing at age 13 in Washington. In 1942, he and his brother Helmy, both teenagers, climbed British Columbia’s Mt. Waddington for the peak’s second ascent—and last ascent for the next 35 years. From then on, Beckey went on a relentless, decades-long tear of exploring new routes and new mountains.
Beckey was a legend of climbing because of his unwavering tenacity, his longevity, and his lifelong refusal to do anything but climb. He never had a real job, never had kids, never married, and was a legendary flirt. Instead of buying his own business cards, he simply wrote his contact information on the backs of other people’s business cards. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, one of the pioneering climbers who lived in Camp 4 during Yosemite’s 1960s heyday and resorted to cost-saving measures like eating cat food, claimed that Beckey was the first dirtbag he’d ever met. So legendary was Beckey’s status as a lifelong dirtbag, that climbers were surprised to hear the lesser-known fact that Beckey actually owned a house in Seattle, the city where he grew up after his parents immigrated from Germany in 1925.
Some climbers gradually take on other responsibilities and let climbing fade into the background of their lives, some move on to other passions, and some climbers die in the mountains. Fred Beckey did none of those things. He only climbed. He put up first ascents all over North America, so many that if you picked up a climbing guidebook to the Cascades, Sierras, Wind River Range, or Alaska, you might think “Fred Beckey” was a misprint, or some secret-code placeholder the guidebook author put in there instead of the word “unknown.” It’s not a misprint, simply evidence of a life lived as if on a single mission.
Beckey climbed with literally thousands of partners, some long-term, some very short-term. He was not famous for being overly patient or accommodating toward belay partners. In the words of American Alpine Club CEO Phil Powers, Beckey was “just looking for someone to hold the rope.” Eric Bjornstad famously recounted his first ascent attempt on the South Buttress of Shiprock with Beckey, in which the two spent 23 days trying to climb the peak before a disagreement ended their trip. Bjornstad and his girlfriend hitchhiked from New Mexico back to Seattle, Beckey following them the entire time in his car. Beckey stopped every few hours to heckle them all the way to Oregon, never once offering them a ride. Bjornstad later had a sense of humor about the whole episode, saying it was one of many fallings-out he’d had with Beckey.
Photo by Phil Ament (top)