All Over The Map: ‘Old and bold’ climber and author Fred Beckey

Aug 5, 2022, 9:17 AM

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.”

Feliks Banel

Fred McFalls (right) and Ben Bryson are considered the heart of the bluegrass community that once t...
Feliks Banel

All Over The Map: Bluegrass festival in Toledo echoes with Northwest history

In Toledo, Washington, it’s time once again for the Mount Saint Helens Bluegrass Festival. Toledo is in Lewis County on the way to Washington’s most famous volcano. The town is named for an old steamboat that once plied the Cowlitz River, and it’s near where the “Cowlitz Convention” was held 1851 – when settlers north […]
2 days ago
nettie asberry...
Feliks Banel

Restoring the home – and the legacy – of Nettie Asberry

A longtime figure in the civic and cultural history of Tacoma – and, really, the entire state – is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
4 days ago
Mount Baker is visible from Baker Lake Road, not far from Koma Kulshan Guard Station, on the way to...
Feliks Banel

Destination HISTORY: Centuries of stories along Baker Lake Trail

The Upper Baker Dam, located in Whatcom County and within the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, is from that earlier era.
6 days ago
Vicky Cayetano, known at the time as Vicky Tiu, starred alongside Elvis Presley in a movie filmed a...
Feliks Banel

Elvis Presley’s Seattle movie co-star running for governor of Hawaii

In other election news not related to Washington’s August 2 primary, in the summer of 1962, the World’s Fair was underway at what’s now Seattle Center.
11 days ago
Marines burning an "enemy" shed at what's now Magnuson Park on August 3, 1952 as part of a dramatic...
Feliks Banel

All Over The Map: Submarine, fighter planes and Marines attacked what’s now Magnuson Park

It was 70 years ago this week when a sleepy neighborhood along Lake Washington in Seattle became ground zero for a show-stopping Cold War military exercise.
16 days ago
A bartender at The Rumor Mill brewpub in Friday Harbor in 2015, mixing up an "Elwha On The Rocks" -...
Feliks Banel

Elwha On The Rocks: Washington Ferry Crash Inspired Song and Drink

One of the most infamous episodes in Washington State Ferry System history began with a typical run out of Anacortes, late one Sunday afternoon in October 1983.
17 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]
All Over The Map: ‘Old and bold’ climber and author Fred Beckey