All Over The Map: ‘Old and bold’ climber and author Fred Beckey
Mount Despair. Forbidden Peak. Liberty Bell.
Those evocative names are just a tiny sampling of the peaks in the Pacific Northwest credited to the late Fred Beckey as “first ascents” – where he was the first person or in the first party to make it to the top, and to assemble a little cairn of stones (and sometimes even put his name and the names of his climbing partners on a piece of paper and seal in a jar).
Amazon.com even says that Beckey “is unofficially recognized as the all-time world-record holder for the number of first ascents credited to one man.”
Fred Beckey passed away five years ago at age 94 and he was climbing right to the end. He was much celebrated while he was alive – there’s a loving documentary about him called “Dirtbag” – which is a term of affection for a devoted climber, and he received a number of awards and honors over the decades. By all accounts – and from watching the film – Fred Beckey was a real character, who belongs in the same virtual Hall of Fame as someone like Spirit Lake Lodge proprietor Harry Truman.
Beckey came with his parents from their native Germany to Seattle in 1925 when he was a child. In the 1930s he began climbing in the Olympics and Cascades, and learning techniques from the Boy Scouts and The Mountaineers, and practicing on what’s now called Schurman Rock, the artificial climbing structure at Camp Long in West Seattle. That climbing structure was designed by Clark Schurman and built by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s, and is believed to be the first of its kind anywhere in the world. A few years later, the young Whittaker brothers would also practice their mountain moves there.
Along with his prolific and ground-breaking approach to climbing, Fred Beckey also wrote many books about the Cascades and the Olympics that remain essential texts for anyone who wants to learn how to climb, and to know the history and geography, too.
Tor Bell is from Port Orchard. He’s in his early 50s and works for a local conservation organization. He got into climbing decades ago before the Internet was a thing. In those years, Tor Bell told KIRO Newsradio, Fred Beckey’s three-volume “Cascade Alpine Guide” was a Northwest climber’s bible.
“Those were the books you went to,” Bell said. “That three-volume set, you know, the one’s tan for the South Cascades, the green one, I think, is the Central Cascades, and the red one was the North Cascades. Those were the books, you know? All the resources we have online, on apps, and all the rest – those didn’t exist. You dove into those books.”
“The guy had done so much work,” Bell said. “This was everything there was.”
Bell says that like other local outdoors authors of the same era – including Harvey Manning and Ira Spring – Beckey’s books helped in immeasurable yet palpable ways to coalesce region-wide conservation movements in support of preserving public lands and making those lands accessible for recreation.
The Beckey guides are great sources of technical information about which routes to take and what kind of gear to use – and, even in the digital age, are still priceless for climbers, wannabe climbers, or even “armchair” climbers.
And speaking of those for whom “mountaineering” usually only applies to climbing out of a sleeping bag so as to not miss breakfast, a terrific Fred Beckey book is his collection of essays – exceedingly well-written literary accounts of climbs he took part in around here from the 1930s to the 1960s – called “Challenge of the North Cascades.” It was originally published in 1969 by Mountaineers Books and is no longer in print, but is generally easy to find at the public library or from used book outlets.
“Challenge of the North Cascades” has gripping stories about climbing particular peaks, vintage photos of Beckey and his climbing companions, and aerial images of specific mountains. The stories are rife with technical descriptions of climbs, and include mountain climbing nomenclature, such as “couloir” – which a trip to the dictionary reveals is “a steep, narrow gully on a mountainside.” The book also has illuminating anecdotes about Fred and his brother Helmy and what climbing required in earlier eras: the hitchhiking from Seattle to the foothills, the insanely long hikes just to get to the base of the mountains before the North Cascades Highway was built – such as a trek from Stehekin at the north end of Lake Chelan to Skagit Valley community of Marblemount.
For climbers or non-climbers, “Challenge of the North Cascades” is easily one of the best non-traditional books about local history and geography.
And though Fred Beckey was the first to climb many Cascade peaks and to bestow names on many, too – including in tribute to a girlfriend and to her favorite varieties of wine – the best-known geographic feature named for him is Mount Beckey, which is located in the Alaska Range in the 49th state, and which Fred Beckey climbed in 1996.
Tor Bell says that living – and writing and climbing – as much and for as long as Fred Beckey did, he really defied a big cliché in the mountaineering community.
“There’s that saying that there’s old climbers and there’s bold climbers, but there’s no old, bold climbers,” Bell said. “But he kind of turned that [on its head]. He was around, and he’d done it for just decades.”