All Over The Map: Fred Beckey, “old and bold” climber and author

Mount Despair. Peak prohibited. Liberty Bell.

These evocative names are just a small sampling of the peaks in the Pacific Northwest credited to the late Fred Beckey as “first ascents” – where he was the first person or group to summit and put together 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). even says that Beckey “is unofficially recognized as the all-time world record holder for the number of first ascents attributed to a man”.

Fred Beckey died five years ago at the age of 94 and he was climbing all the way. He was much celebrated in his lifetime – there’s an affectionate documentary about him called ‘Dirtbag’ – which is a term of endearment for a dedicated climber, and he’s received a number of awards and honors over the years. decades. By all accounts — and watching the movie — Fred Beckey was a real character, who belongs in the same virtual Hall of Fame as someone like Harry Truman, owner of Spirit Lake Lodge.

Beckey came with his parents from their native Germany to Seattle in 1925 when he was a child. In the 1930s, he began climbing at the Olympics and Cascades, learning techniques from the Boy Scouts and Mountaineers, and training on what is now called Schurman Rock, Camp’s artificial climbing structure. Long in West Seattle. This 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 in the world. A few years later, the young Whittaker brothers would also practice their mountain movements there.

Alongside his prolific and innovative approach to rock climbing, Fred Beckey also wrote numerous books on Cascades and the Olympic Games which remain essential texts for anyone wanting to learn how to climb, but also learn about history and geography.

Tor Bell is from Port Orchard. He is in his early 50s and works for a local conservation organization. He got into rock climbing decades ago before the internet was a thing. During those years, Tor Bell told KIRO Newsradio that Fred Beckey’s three-volume “Cascade Alpine Guide” was a North West mountaineer’s bible.

“These are the books you looked at,” Bell said. “This three-volume set, you know, the one is tan for the South Cascades, the green, I think, is the Central Cascades, and the red was the North Cascades. It was the books, you know? All the resources we have online, about apps and everything else – those didn’t exist. You dove into those books.

“The guy had done so much work,” Bell said. “That was all there was.”

Bell says that, like other local outdoor authors of the same era – including Harvey Manning and Ira Spring – Beckey’s books helped in immeasurable but palpable ways to coalesce region-wide conservation movements. to support the preservation of public lands and make these lands accessible for recreation.

Beckey guides are excellent sources of technical information on which routes to take and what kind of equipment to use – and, even in the digital age, they are still invaluable for climbers, budding climbers or even wheelchair climbers.

And speaking of those for whom “mountaineering” usually only applies to getting out of a sleeping bag so as not to miss breakfast, a terrific book by Fred Beckey is his collection of essays – extremely well-written literary accounts of ascents in which he participated. 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 usually easily found at the public library or second-hand bookstores.

“Challenge of the North Cascades” contains gripping stories about climbing particular peaks, vintage photos of Beckey and his fellow climbers, and aerial footage of specific mountains. The stories are replete with technical descriptions of the climbs and include mountaineering nomenclature, such as “corridor” – which a trip to the dictionary reveals is “a steep, narrow ravine in the side of a mountain”. The book also contains illuminating anecdotes about Fred and his brother Helmy and what climbing required in earlier eras: the hitchhiking from Seattle to the foothills, the impossibly long treks just to get to the base of the mountains before construction of the North Cascades Freeway. like a hike from Stehekin at the north end of Lake Chelan to the Skagit Valley community of Marblemount.

For climbers or non-climbers, “Challenge of the North Cascades” is easily one of the best non-mainstream books on local history and geography.

And although Fred Beckey was the first to climb many of the Cascade peaks and to name many of them, including as a tribute to a girlfriend and his favorite wine varieties, the best-known geographical feature that bears his name is Mount Beckey, which is located in the Alaska Range in the 49th state, and which Fred Beckey climbed in 1996.

Tor Bell says living – and writing and climbing – as much and for as long as Fred Beckey did, he truly challenged a big cliché in the mountaineering community.

“There’s what says there are old climbers and there are daring climbers, but there are no old daring climbers,” Bell said. “But he kind of turned it around [on its head]. He was there, and he had been there for decades alone.

Lola R. McClure