Fabled Pacific Northwest mountaineer Fred Beckey was -- partially due to his eccentric lone-wolf lifestyle and reticence to engage in self-promotion -- a virtual unknown to to the general public. But within certain mountain-climbing (and backpacking) circles the name "Beckey" has for more than half a century been uttered in both reverential tones and scornful terms. Beckey was a gifted pathfinder who reveled in taking uncharted routes, specializing in first ascents (e.g. conquering previously unconquered peaks), and authoring climbing guidebooks that are considered the bibles of the genre. A veteran of the U.S. Army's pioneering World War II ski patrol, the 10th Mountain Division, and a member of the International Himalayan Expedition in 1955, Beckey remained an avid climber in his eighties. As a historian of the natural environment, as a lecturer, and as a popularizer of the wilds, he directly increased the public's appreciation for the environment. The man's cranky nature and background as a roving rogue, however, carved out a controversial reputation.
Seattle is the home of a climbing club called The Mountaineers that was formed in 1906 and which subsequently became a model for many other similar American organizations. In the beginning though, members "were self-taught and generally unfamiliar with the most recent developments in climbing technique in Europe" (Skoog). One younger member, Wolf Bauer, became frustrated that the old-timers weren't very open to sharing their knowledge and he so he acquired some German how-to books and studied up. By 1933 he was skilled enough to convince the Seattle Area Council of the Boy Scouts to allow him to offer climbing instruction to their Explorer Scouts -- and prior to heading out to the wilds, he took his students to a remarkable boulder near his home in Northeast Seattle's Wedgwood neighborhood.
Still extant (at 28th Avenue NE and NE 72nd Street) the “Big Rock” or “Wedgwood Rock” is, geologically speaking, an erratic -- a large boulder (19 feet high and 75 feet in circumference) deposited by the Vashon Glacier 14,000 years ago. It remains unique to its surroundings. Even when primeval forests covered the area, the big rock was an attention-getter: the ancient paths of local native tribes crossed at the imposing landmark, and even in the town's early decades settlers discovered that it made for an interesting picnic-hike destination. By the time the Mountaineers and the Scouts had mastered it, they had established nearly a dozen different "routes" up the boulder. Today, climbing the rock is forbidden by a specific City Ordinance (12A.54.010 of the Seattle Municipal Code) but it remains a natural oddity in an otherwise nondescript neighborhood where even the normally straight and linear street and sidewalk grid was necessarily bent around the behemoth. The Big Rock would have a big effect on the life of a young Fred Beckey.
Growing Up Climbing
Friedrich Wolfgang Beckey was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, on January 14, 1923, to Klaus H. Beckey (a medical doctor) and Marta Maria Beckey (an opera singer). In 1925 the family -- including brother Helmut "Helmy" Beckey -- emigrated to the United States and settled into a residence (5821 Phinney Avenue) in Seattle. Initially Klaus, a cellist, was listed in the city directory as a teacher at the American College of Music (3422 1/2 Fremont Avenue), but by 1926 he was noted as a doctor based at 5819 Phinney Avenue. Finally, in 1927, his physician's practice was based in Room 312 of the L. C. Smith Building (506 2nd Avenue) and their new home was (in today's numbering system) at 7152 Woodside Place SW in West Seattle.
It was as a teenager that Beckey "rejected the life of a city intellectual for the pursuit of wild things" (Brick). In 1939 (and after Bauer had moved on), Beckey (as a member of the Boy Scouts, Troop 288) began studying under The Mountaineers' Lloyd Anderson -- a co-founder of the Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) outdoor gear empire. He learned climbing techniques at the Wedgwood Rock, over in the Olympic Mountains, and then up in the North Cascades. In 1939 he (and Anderson and Clint Kelley) surprised the climbing community when the made ther first ascent of Mount Despair -- a peak deemed unclimbable by The Mountaineers. The following year Beckey graduated from The Mountaineers course and "immediately began making history on unclimbed peaks and routes throughout the Northwest" (Skoog).
In his spare time Beckey also attended the University of Washington -- "where he scaled the brick walls of the of the gothic campus buildings in tennis shoes" -- and he "skied, played some football and ran cross-country, but directed most of his energy to the fulfillment of two passions: mountains and women" (Egan, 74). As a means of being gainfully employed, Beckey drove a delivery truck on weekends and during the summers -- and he succeeded in earning a degree in business administration. Upon graduation Beckey initially wanted to become a cartographer -- his map-making skills were considerable -- but, instead, fell into a series of jobs related to the print industry: first he worked for a year selling advertising space for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and then hired on as a sales rep with Seattle's Craftsman Press print shop.
Beckey began taking on evermore challenging climbs -- usually with a partner or small groups of pals -- and along the way had a major realization: many mountain peaks had yet to be scaled by man. This was still a true frontier where a man could make his mark in history. It was in 1940 that the Beckey boys -- along with fellow Mountaineers (Anderson, Dave Lind, and Jim Crooks) -- scored the first ascent of the North Cascades' forbidding Forbidden Peak. Then in 1942 Beckey made the second known ascent of British Columbia, Canada's Mount Waddington.
But more adventures awaited: when World War II broke out, Beckey enlisted and served in the 10th Mountain Division's Mountain Training Group, based at Camp Hale in Colorado. It was while there that he joined 32 other soldiers in the historic Trooper Traverse -- a daring wintertime crossing of the alpine highlands, from Leadville to Aspen, in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. "Their four day trip, on skis in the highest mountains in the Rockies, was an audacious statement of skill, poise, [and] rugged self-reliance." The author of a book about that adventure correctly noted "the immense influence [that] the 10th Mountain Division had on the ski and outdoor industry in America when they returned from the war" (Dawson).
Climbing and Writing
"From his first expeditions in the North Cascades," as The New York Times put it, "Beckey cast himself as a renegade. Defined by defiance, he ascended peaks termed unclimbable by the Mountaineers." It was little surprise, then, when The Mountaineers turned Beckey down in the late-1940s when he inquired if they would like to publish his first guidebook. Luckily for him, the American Alpine Club responded more positively and -- after he paid them a fee -- a few thousand copies of the Climber's Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington were printed and Beckey began his career as an author.
By this time Beckey had become "the best-known climber in the West -- and arguably in America -- at least among the odd circle of European immigrants and loners who spent time in the mountains. But he'd also picked up a reputation as arrogant, dangerously careless, a youthful fireball who would soon burn out" (Egan, p. 77). Thus, some of The Mountaineers never quite came around to accepting him. With "their lives staked on trust and cooperation," they "grew wary of his gruff manner, his outlier reputation, his intransigence. He was labeled a showboat, a womanizer and worse. When his partners were hurt or killed on expeditions ... Beckey was criticized," and when the American Everest Expedition was assembled in 1963 "no one invited Beckey" (Brick).
From day one, Beckey had hiked to the beat of a different drummer -- off-trail, up dry streambeds, bush-whacking through traditionally impassable routes. In 1951 Beckey himself wrote an essay for the Leavenworth Echo which explained that the "mountaineering art has advanced so much recently that there is virtually nothing left in the 'unclimbable' class." That daring perspective was one that apparently grated on some of his peers who though it was irresponsible. While for many other climbers "big peak alpine expeditions were all the rage" he "preferred to climb with as small a group as possible, while also rebelling against the height factor that so many had come to know as the greatest challenge. While others were putting in plans to summit Everest, Beckey would be ticking off first-ascents in the Cascades, Alaska, Colorado, and more. His numbers soon started to add up and people started to notice that Fred Beckey was his own man and was going to do things his own way. In a sense, he had become a rebel of mountaineering" (Xtremeadventurer.com).
For all the griping and verbal sniping Beckey sustained over time -- including jealously malicious whispers that some of his scaling feats were suspect -- he also won legions of friends and admirers. One longtime climbing companion called him "an elemental force" whose "ability to move rapidly over difficult terrain was awesome. He understands weather and mountain conditions better than anyone I have known. ... His intelligent sensitivity, not often spoken of, is evident in his writing. Fred's mixture of tenacity and boldness tempered by caution and backed by experience, has led to his great success and his survival" (Rupley).
The dangers of mountain climbing are always present -- team members on at least two of Beckey's expeditions perished -- and more than once he fell into crevasses. Once on Mt. Saint Elias he managed to climb his own way out, but another on Mt. Forresta was a close encounter with death because falling snow packed him in tight and only the efforts of fellow climber who went down in and dug the deeply chilled man out saved his life. Mountaineers are, by definition, brave people and Beckey didn't pretend to be fearless: "Crevasses scare me more than anything else. You never really know" (Stoller).
In addition to his countless pioneering climbs in Washington, Beckey (and his brother Helmy) also put up new routes Alaska, British Columbia, California, Colorado, and Wyoming. In addition to summiting the nearby Mount Rainier five times, Beckey would also go as far as Europe and south China to get his kicks. The year of 1954 saw the ever-ambitious Beckey mounting separate expeditions to scale three Alaskan peaks: Mount McKinley, Mount Deborah, and Mount Hunter -- a feat that got the mountaineering world chattering and even complaining about his aggressive outer style and inner drive. But it was that manic "drive, born of a wanderlust once characterized as recklessness" which eventually " fermented into a sort of sublime seeking. It appeared most vividly in his guidebook prose, a stirring amalgam of technical analysis, historical insight, geographical research and a sense of wonderment" (Brick).
A Few First Ascents
There is the distinct possibility that over the past three-quarters of a century Beckey hiked and climbed (and snow-skied) more than anyone else in world history. His track record of those hundreds of famous first ascents (which he often did with just one to three pals) is impressive as can be seen from this very select listing:
1940 (Forbidden Peak, North Cascades)
1945 (Price Glacier, Mount Shuksan, North Cascades),
1946 (Nooksack Tower, North Cascades)
1946 (Liberty Bell, North Cascades)
1947 (North Peak, Liberty Bell, North Cascades),
1948 (North Ridge of Mount Baker, North Cascades)
1959 (Yocum Ridge, Mount Hood, Oregon)
1961 (Beckey-Chouinard Route on South Howser Tower, Canada)
1963 (Complete North Ridge, Mount Stuart, North Cascades)
1968 (South Face, Cathedral Peak, North Cascades)
1970 (Beckey's Spire, Arizona)
1996 (Mount Beckey, Alaska)
For decades Beckey's pace was unrelentingly frenetic; eventually the impetus to tick more first ascents off his wish-list lost a bit of the old fire. "When you get down to it," Beckey said in 2007, "I think it stems from there being a limited number of climbs that can be done. So maybe people are a little bit jealous, they want to climb some route that nobody’s done yet. But in the mountains, like in the Cascades for example, there are so many routes left to do. ... I actually haven’t done a new route for at least three or four years. ... I’ve gotten to the point where I’m just as happy doing a good, traditional climb" (Stoller).
While plenty of his climbing mates have enjoyed sharing expeditions with him, Beckey did have his own fiercely competitive and territorial side as well. One young climber recalled his first encounter with the man: "I was 16 years old, sitting at the kitchen table when the phone rang, and to my complete amazement the caller announced himself ... 'Hello, this is Fred Beckeeeey ...' Fred was already a legend; why was he calling me? He got right to the point: he had designs on the new route my friends and I were planning to attempt on Alaska's Mt. Fairweather, a mountain that rises 15,000 from the sea. He began his planning first, he said, so we should go elsewhere! We wouldn't [change plans]: we had too much invested in this, our first mountaineering adventure. Instead, he chose a different route, and our groups crossed paths on our way in to the mountain" (Stoller).
Newbies weren't the only climbers to get aggravated by his ways: "As he got older ... Beckey's quirkiness began to wear on his friends and climbing partners. Before, he wouldn't tell anyone what projects (i.e. first ascents) were on his tick list. Then he'd call and essentially tell you to quit your job, leave your wife for a few weeks, and come with him to some secret, undisclosed peak. And ... during the last few decades he's repeatedly attached himself to others' expeditions where, in truth, he has no business going" (Miller, December 2008).
No Pain No Gain
Though fondly regarded as a climbing bum's climbing bum, Beckey -- as seldom as necessary -- picked up work here and there (in addition to receiving royalty income from book sales). But money never held much fascination for him:
"I’ve never thought about it. ... I guess you have your choice of trying to make money or getting involved with adventure. ... I’ve sort of figured that if I work, don’t play games, and apportion my free time, then I’ll have enough to go climbing, or skiing, or whatever I want to do. It doesn’t always work that way. ... Most people get married and by the time they’re thirty they’ve got a couple of kids, and then they’re strapped down. Then they have to work. ... Right or wrong, I had more flexibility. It just worked out that way" (Stoller).
At one point Beckey relocated to Los Angeles where, for four years, he worked during the week as a print shop rep and hiked and climbed in the Sierra Mountains on weekends. Then when the company was bought out, he moved to Portland where for two years he, under the sponsorship of the Oregon Historical Society, conducted research on the early history of the Cascades -- including much time spent at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and various other major libraries -- that eventually saw publication as the 2003 book, A Range of Glaciers: The Exploration and Survey of the Northern Cascade Range.
Another interesting anecdote -- that reveals a bit about Beckey's general employability -- is the one provided by Washington's longtime Commissioner of Public Lands, Brian J. Boyle, in a letter to a newspaper editor: "Your article about Fred Beckey was a nice reminder of his curmudgeonly self. Years ago, I hired Fred to advise cartographers in Washington State's Department of Natural Resources, at a time when Fred was in a 'rough patch.' I was, like many others, in thrall of his exploits and wanted to help him and have him help us. Fred has not a whisker of bureaucratic tendencies and simply could not get along with state employees. I think we accomplished what he and I wanted, but we created some pain in the process. It was worth it" (Boyle).
Still Seeking Adventure
Beckey, a lifelong bachelor who was featured on the cover of Patagonia catalogs, remained on-the-go even into his octogenarian years. In early 2010 he was in the midst of planning a series of climbs in Canada. In 2008 a New York Times reporter visited Beckey at his home in Northeast Seattle and the aging climbing icon expounded on the challenges faced by successful climbers:
"You’ve got to be physically pretty strong to be any good at it at all. You’ve got to have a hard-core mental attitude. You’ve got to have the right mantra. You’ve got to have dedication, a sense of security, safety and sensitivity with your partners, and a good sense of balance. It’s a combination of many, many things. You need to have the capability or desire to accept a certain amount of risk. A lot of it is maybe spiritual, not a religious type, but you have to have an affinity with the outdoors. ... You’re putting yourself on the line. 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” (Brick).
Asked about how he'd ever got interested in climbing, Beckey said: "
Oh, I don’t know. Just sort of got into it by accident living in Seattle. ... It’s hard to find exact reasons why you do things. I don’t even know why people climb. I can’t figure it out. It’s a lot easier to play tennis or golf, bicycle; a lot less stress, not dangerous, doesn’t have the risk, doesn’t have the suffering. Climbing’s got a lot of suffering, a lot of it." So, why risk life and limb doing it? It's about "risking your ability against nature. You see a reflection of yourself in nature" (Stoller).
In addition to appreciating all of the priceless technical information provided in Beckey's books -- which are absolute classics of mountaineering literature -- his fans also marvel over the man's way with the written word. His powers of observation, judgment, and terse use of descriptive language are quite entertaining. The three-volume Cascade Alpine Guide set (which were all updated in new editions during the first decade of the twenty-first century) includes such winning lines those describing the following places (and geologic formations): Mt. Garfield ("A hazardous enigma"), Kangaroo Ridge ("A bizarre museum of breathtaking rock sculpture"), Gilbraltar Rock ("A frowning battlement"), Prusik Peak ("A route of purity on marvelous granite"), Mt Goode ("Elegant and unmistakable"), and Silver Star Mountain ("Gables of rock strike and dip in seemingly planned directions, each in some manner imitating the others in a repetitive scheme"). A select listing of Beckey's best books might include the following:
Climber's Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington, 1949
Climber's Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington, revised, 1953
Guide to Leavenworth Rock-Climbing Areas, 1965
A Climbers Guide to the Coastal Ranges of British Columbia, 1968
Challenge of the North Cascades, 1969
Cascade Alpine Guide: Columbia River to Stevens Pass, 1973
Cascade Alpine Guide: Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass, 1973
Darrington and Index Rock Climbing Guide, 1976
Cascade Alpine Guide: Rainy Pass to Fraser River, 1981
Mountains of North America, 1982
The Bugaboos: An Alpine History, 1987
Mount McKinley: Icy Crown of North America, 1993
Challenge of the North Cascades (2nd edition), 1996
Range of Glaciers, 2003
A Rare Form of Legend
The New York Times noted that Beckey "has been called a vagabond, a recluse and a schemer, a cantankerous mountain man ... . In seven decades, he had claimed more virgin ascents than any mountaineer alive. Some ascribed his feats to vengeance of a long-ago slight, others to the murder of his own fears. He was said to howl at tourists. His past was the stuff of lore, his plans the stuff of mystery."
As his remarkable life story as an explorer, writer, historian, and lecturer gained luster -- a documentary film was in the works in 2010, and he was honored with the naming of Mt. Beckey in the Alaskan Range – the crux of the old mountain man's growing fame became clearer. Author Timothy Egan -- who once described him as "a quintessential dirtbag climber" -- nailed it: "Fred Beckey is the rarest form of legend: one who's still alive."
Beckey remained a living legend until October 30, 2017, when he died at the age of 94.